USA — Thanks, if that’s the word, to Robert Redford and his 1992 film “A River Runs Through It,” Norman Maclean is regarded as our poet laureate of fishing, more particularly of the sublime fly-fishing arts. Certainly the movie did not exaggerate the devotion that Maclean (1902-90) brought to the pursuit of trout in the rivers of western Montana. “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing,” he wrote at the beginning of the first tale of “A River Runs Through It and Other Stories” (1976).
But Maclean’s veneration of the well-tied fly just betokened a wider reverence. Of what he called his “reminiscent stories,” about roughnecking in Montana in the first decades of the 20th century, he noted: “I meant to record not only how we did certain things well in that world now almost beyond recall, but how it felt to do those things well that are now slipping from our hands and our memory.” Thus he evokes the four-count rhythm of properly casting a dry fly — and describes the proper approach to logging, firefighting, drinking, trailcutting and other skills of his early manhood. The action in Maclean’s autobiography-infused fiction is outwardly simple, rich in suggestion. The prose derives its power from words and their sounds and cadences: Meaning is unstated but nonetheless intensely felt. Nothing much happens, in other words, except everything.
Janet HamlinGiven the assurance of Maclean’s work in “A River Runs Through It and Other Stories,” it is astonishing that the collection represents his only venture into fiction — then again, he didn’t start writing until he had reached his “biblical allotment of three score years and ten.” The life began in 1902 and the work not until 1973, after Maclean had retired from the University of Chicago, where he taught Shakespeare and the Romantic poets. His collection nearly went undiscovered, suffering serial rejections from the New York publishers, with one editor sneering: “These stories have trees in them.” File that under epic misjudgments. The title piece, a novella, is Maclean’s portrait of his doomed brother Paul, who drinks, gambles and fights too much, and of their father, a Scottish Presbyterian minister; it is a genuine American classic.
But how did this retired professor bring off such accomplished work on his first attempt? And how did he then manage, just as remarkably, to produce a haunting work of nonfiction, the posthumously published “Young Men and Fire,” Maclean’s exploration of a deadly Montana forest fire in 1949?
“The Norman Maclean Reader” points us toward an answer. Smartly edited by O. Alan Weltzien of the University of Montana, the book brings together manuscripts and letters found among Maclean’s papers after his death in 1990, as well as hard-to-find essays, lectures and interviews. Maclean did not draw a distinction between his life and his fiction, and the material in the “Reader,” much of it available for the first time, burnishes his achievement.
Maclean was deeply influenced by Wordsworth’s notion of “spots of time,” or the moments that give life shape and meaning, “as if an artist had made them,” in Maclean’s words. But he never went in for sentimentality or pointless nostalgia — he was trying, rather, to lend such epiphanies the permanence of literature. It is no wonder, then, that much of his work is saturated with a sense of beauty and loss. In the story “USFS 1919,” he writes: “I was young and I thought I was tough and I knew it was beautiful and I was a little bit crazy but hadn’t noticed it yet.” Or: “What a beautiful world it was once.” The narrative crest of “A River Runs Through It” arrives with Paul’s making “one big cast for one last big fish,” a huge trout, “the last fish we were ever to see Paul catch.” His father remarks: “He is beautiful.”
“Young Men and Fire” is similarly haunted: A crew of 15 U.S. Forest Service smokejumpers — the embodiment of all that is young and brave — parachutes into Montana wilderness near Mann Gulch, “the gate of the mountains,” which has been booby-trapped by nature. A 2,000- degree inferno will roar through the gulch and kill all but three of the men. Maclean, who worked for the Forest Service himself as a teenager, could not get the news of the disaster out of his head. In “Young Men and Fire,” he bears witness to the heroism of the dead — “They were young,” Maclean says, “and did not leave much behind them and need someone to remember them” — and he pursues the intensity of that day to the smallest particulars.
His subject, though, is larger than the fire, larger even than the doomed young men. Their story is enclosed in Maclean’s account of how he came to understand what happened to them and, by extension, to understand the essence of his own mortality. As an old man, he returned obsessively to Mann Gulch summer after summer for a dozen years — a quest, he called it — and pressed, once more, to the edges of a finally unknowable mystery. “There’s a lot of tragedy in the universe that has missing parts and comes to no conclusion,” he writes, “including probably the tragedy that awaits you and me.”
The revelations in “The Norman Maclean Reader” show him struggling to give form and coherence to these themes, in manuscripts and correspondence. He spent the mid-1950s and early 1960s working on a manuscript about George Custer and the Seventh Cavalry at Little Bighorn, which anticipates “Young Men and Fire.” It proved too daunting, though, to work a fool like Custer into Maclean’s tragic template, and he abandoned the project. But in a letter on the subject, Maclean described a quality that would typify the profound work that still lay ahead. His aim, he wrote, was to study the “topography of certain exposed portions of the surface of the soul.”