Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Ox-Bow Incidents

Violet Hill - The Kooks (mp3)

So I’ve already expressed my still-strong fascination with Westerns. This summer, I conquered another Western, considered by many critics to be one of the Top Ten in the genre: The Ox-Bow Incident.

The 1940 novel, acclaimed almost instantly, was made into a Henry Ford movie three years later. Although not that lengthy at under 300 pages, Ox-Bow can be a bit challenging to read for a modern audience.

For the uninitiated and those uninterested in reading a “classic” and slow-paced Western, here’s the basic premise: cattle stolen by unknown parties in a small rancher town. During the theft, a rancher is shot. The men in town hear of it and round themselves up a lynch mob that they justify as a posse and chase down the suspects. They catch up to the suspects at a place in the mountains called “The Ox-Bow.” They debate justice and hang the suspects. Upon returning to the town, they discover the men they hung were innocent. Different men handle this news and their part in the events differently.

Although reading it took a bit of persistence, as I fell deeper and deeper under the spell of The Ox-Bow Incident, it came to me that endless numbers of our civilization’s tragedies are explored by this book.

The reason Ox-Bow can plod at times is because the entire plot is devised as an excuse for the author to host mano-e-mano Lincoln Douglas-like debates on the nature of man, justice, judgment, rage, evil, friendship, groupthink, and other cobwebbed corners of human psychology.

No decent book should be enjoyed without the reader seeking connections between the fictional world in which they immerse themselves and the real world in which they breathe. I constantly found myself enraptured at how a tale set in 1885, and written in 1940, could so perfectly describe men (yes, mostly men) and mentalities that plague us everywhere in this Brand New Super-Duper Century.

Can a lynch mob be stopped by a lone scrawny annoying dissenter? Can the mealy-mouthed voices of uncertainty ever overcome the confident and stentorious alpha male? Who is more haunted by acts of injustice, those who rushed to judgment, those who mindlessly capitulated, or those who knew it was wrong but failed to stop it? Are The Deciders amongst us just bullies in clothing our society deems acceptable or even preferable?

A novel about an 1885 lynch mob becomes a powerful jumping-off point for any number of our modern problems. Penn State. George W. Bush and “WMD.” A husband accused of pouring Barium into his wife’s coffee. Every day, in ways big and small, we’re surrounded by accusations that invite us to rush our judgments, and every day we hear of obvious wrongs that unknown numbers knew and allowed to occur without having the courage to stand against it.

Sometimes -- and this is where reading the novel gets difficult -- we’re forced to recall times we were stuck in the middle of these matters. Did we stand aside? Did we go along? Did we object, but not enough, or not successfully? It’s so easy for us to sit back and confidently proclaim how others should act in a crisis because we can so quickly dismiss our own experiences. We’ll give others an inch of error, but we’ll happily take a mile for ourselves.

It’s about action and inaction, crimes of omission and comission. The Ox-Bow Incident is one moment in time that has and will continue to repeat itself so long as civilization thrives. I’d love to say there’s a way to take this novel to heart and learn from it, adapt to its lesson... but my voice for change would be mealy-mouthed, scrawny, annoying, and ignored.

Or such is my fear.

1 comment:

Bob said...

A terrific meditation on the connection between literature and society; however, it makes me realize that I'd rather read your analysis than the book itself.