Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Wednesday's Western: Walter Van Tilburg Clark's THE TRACK OF THE CAT


The Track Of The Cat (Western Literature Series) is highly recommended as a western of magnificent beauty.  Clark's lyrical style and descriptive iconic images take the breath away.  The plot concerns the repressed sexuality of a western family mirrored and expressed outwardly in a seige of natural elements, snow and wind and a mythic panther stalking in the night.

The dustjacket of the first edition had the right idea, with with the cat, a symbol of the wild and of the primitive side of human nature, in outline.  For Walter Van Tilburg Clark did not want the cat shown because he wanted it to remain the primitive conceptualized. He disapproved of the scene in the movie version of The Track of the Cat, where a small and yellow mountain lion is indeed shown, dead, killed by the third brother at the end of the movie.

Clark wanted it to remain a parable. The trinity of brothers representing archetypes: the idealized spiritual brother, the materialistic brother, and the younger brother living the middle way, resisting both extremes.  Spiritual man, mental man, animal man.  Spirit, mind, and body.

As in The Ox-bow Incident, Clark wanted to show that, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."  I recommend the University of Nevada Press edition, which has Clark's comments on this in the afterword.

The spiritual brother is best, yet his idealism makes him weak and he is the first to give up his life. The materialist brother is more powerful yet his own ego consumes him. The youngest brother learns from both and goes on being.


The cat represents the primitive that is out there and yet is within us too and it must be recognized and dealt with. Sexual desire, fear of death and nothingness, and our spiritual nature denied by materialism--these too are well represented in the stifling atmosphere of the book and the movie.

Clark wanted the cat to be referred to as a black "painter," not as a yellow mountain lion as it is shown in the movie.

Several critics assumed that the author meant the black painter to be the same as the white Moby Dick, but that wasn't the case, although the materialist brother could be likened to Capt. Ahab, both fundamentalists seeking to kill and finding self-destruction, killers who kill unaware that they are killing themselves.

But Clark's sympathies, as he wrote, are very much with the cat. Asked his religion, Clark said several times that he believed in a spiritual naturalism. He was spiritual without organized religion, without being denominationally religious.

I recommend Jackson J. Benson's biography of Clark, The Ox-Bow Man: A Biography Of Walter Van Tilburg Clark (Western Literature Series), as well as Max Westbrook's Walter Van Tilburg Clark, which contains Clark's philosophy of sacred naturalism.  Westbrook has a lot to say about the literature of sacred naturalism and the other authors who fit in this same engaging category.

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