Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Western Tragedy

In 1961, Ox-Bow Incident author Walter Van Tilburg Clark left a teaching position in San Francisco and returned to his boyhood home Nevada to take on the job of editing The Journals of Alfred Doten.

These 79 leather-bound notebooks were written by one of the original 49ers, Alfred Doten. Spanning half a century, they are one of the best primary sources of the American West.

On Sunday March 18, 1849, the 19-year-old Alf starts his first diary on board the ship to California, where gold has just been discovered at Sutter's Mill. After a six-month voyage 'round the horn' he steps off the ship in San Francisco as an innocent, observant young man who disapproves of heavy drinking, violence, womanizing and greed. Over the next dozen years he roves across much of Northern California, trying his luck in mining camps and 'diggins' with names like places like Hangtown, Fort Grizzly and Spanish Gulch, and then moving on as he fails to strike it rich. He begins writing letters about the Wild West to his home-town newspaper in Plymouth, Mass.

In 1855 Alf suffers a mining accident when he is caught in a cave-in. For a while he is paralyzed from the waist down but gradually recovers. This incident knocks the stuffing out of him. He limps back to San Francisco, where his sister lives, and he tries to settle down at farming and ranching.

With his physical recovery comes copper fever, and then silver fever. In 1863, he crosses the Sierra Nevadas into the Washoe Valley for the great Comstock Silver Boom. He settles in Como, a new mining camp south of Mount Davidson, makes a final stab at prospecting, and fails again. Alf tries to set up a newspaper in Como, which also fails, but as a result of this journalistic foray, he is asked to join the Daily Union newspaper in Virginia City. Here he overlaps with another prospector-turned-Virginia-City-reporter, Mark Twain, by a few months.

In May of 1864, 29-year-old Mark Twain leaves for San Francisco. 43-year-old Alf settles down in Virginia City and is soon drawn into the amoral lifestyle of a rough mining town which inspired TV's Deadwood. By his mid 40's Alf has become a debauched, adulterous, greedy alcoholic who relishes lynchings, bear-baiting and cock-fights. He marries and has four children, puts on weight through heavy drinking, makes some bad business decisions and finally ends his life in Carson City as a 'bitter and lonely old bar-fly, the town drunk and figure of fun.'

As he copied out the Alf Doten journals by hand - and collated the numerous articles, certificates and photographs in the Records of Alfred Doten - Clark became caught up in the life of the aging 49er. He writes that the diaries presented in graphic and often moving detail the tragic course of single representative life through the violent transformations enforced by the... amoral life of the California Gold Rush and the Nevada Silver Rush. know of no other account of the kind, or fiction either, for that matter, which even begins to to this as fully and memorably as Alf's Journals.

For a time, Clark entertained the idea of writing a novel based on the life of Alf Doten, but he suffered terribly from writer's block in his later years. This was partly caused by his perfectionist streak, but may also have been partly due to the depressing nature of the Doten Diaries, in which he was immersed. In the forward to the massive three volume diaries, Clark's son writes that after a long day transcribing the diaries his father often wondered whose life he was living, and whether he would outlast Doten.

It must have been hard for Clark not to be affected by the decline and fall of Alf Doten. Clark himself said: '... I am so much the walking dust of Alf Doten now that I fear even high breezes will dispel me.'

On the few occasions when Walter Van Tilburg Clark surfaced from the diaries to give public lectures, he held audiences enthralled for hours. One contemporary wrote: 'He lectured for three hours. Nobody left. Nobody left and it is a crime that we did not tape that...'

Clark died of cancer in 1971, just as he finished editing Doten's journals.

It had taken him ten years.

It is a tragedy that Clark never wrote his novel about Alf Doten. But at least he has left three fat volumes of one of the most fascinating accounts of what life in the wild West was really like.

The Ox-Bow Man - a biography of Walter Clark by Jackson J. Benson
The Journals of Alfred Doten edited by Walter Van Tilburg Clark
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