Both Robert Caples and Walter Van Tilburg Clark were born in the East and came to Reno from New York City, Clark at age 8 when his father, an economist, was appointed President of the University of Nevada, Caples at age 15 when he first visited his father, a doctor, who had settled in Reno after a divorce.
The impetus to write about Robert Caples and Walter Clark is rooted in their enduring influence on my life, as The Nevada They Knew recounts. Clark’s influence came from reading The City of Trembling Leaves in my early twenties and from a single afternoon and evening we spent together at Pyramid Lake. I’d sent him a heartfelt fan letter for City—the only one I’ve ever written—and he’d invited me to visit him if I ever passed through Reno, which in 1963 I did, on my way to enroll in Wallace Stegner’s graduate creative writing program at Stanford. Among other things we talked about the character Lawrence Black in City. Clark affirmed that he himself was the model for protagonist Tim Hazard, while Tim’s friend Lawrence, whose exploits and ironical personality fascinated me, was based on Clark’s own best friend Robert Caples, an artist like Lawrence, Clark told me. Through Clark’s introduction I afterward met Caples, when I overnighted with the artist and his fifth (and last) wife Rosemary at their estate in rural Connecticut, where they’d moved upon leaving Nevada in 1958. That was the only time I met Robert in person, but for fifteen years until his death in 1979 we shared a friendship through letters, and I came to regard him as a mentor.
Fast forward to 2011, when for reasons of age and circumstance I found myself revisiting this past. Gradually I became immersed in a book project. On a journey of rediscovery to Reno I interviewed and fell in love with a woman with family connections to both Clark and Caples. I moved to Reno for the sake of love aw well as research, but which was which? The Nevada They Knew would not be the book it is were it not written in Clark’s city of trembling leaves. I strive to understand Robert Caples and Walter Clark, their lives and works, because they became part of my story and eventually of my work, this book.
The intertwined narratives of my subjects’ two lives progress more or less as a double spiral, now touching now diverging, within the frame of a memoir from which it emerges that, in contrasting ways, the two men have shaped how, as an old man, I face the end of life.
The Nevada They Knew provides the first comprehensive treatment of Caples’ life and works, as well as new information and an original perspective on the life and works of Clark. Told against the backdrop of an intriguing epoch in the cultural history of the West, their stories at the same time offer food for thought on universal themes: male friendship; the interplay of reputation, memory and fact; art’s meaning for its creators and consumers; the differing trajectories of lives; our place in the universe.
Stylistically The Nevada They Knew has kinship with the creative nonfiction of such contemporary authors as W. G. Sebald and Teju Cole, whose writings integrate personal into larger history. My book crosses genres, combining the properties of biography, memoir, literary studies and art studies with elements of regional history, Native American studies and nature writing. It is intended both for general readers and for scholars.