Northwest Schools of Literature: Commentary

15. Norman Maclean 1902–1990

The venerables Wallace Stegner and Norman Maclean grew up in the roughneck West—Maclean as a tough and bright son of a Montana minister, Stegner as the son of wanderers who endowed him with a broad geography of home. Both men became academic fixtures—Stegner at Stanford University where he directed a powerful writing program, and Maclean at the University of Chicago where he distinguished himself by his rigorous teaching of literature. Wallace Stegner's list of respected literary publications is long. Norman Maclean is best known for one book, A River Runs Through It (1976), although Young Men and Fire (1992), his second book, written and rewritten until his death, is also prose of the highest order. Readers of this site's essay should turn as well to the University of Chicago Press's site to read from the first pages of A River Runs Through It.

Commentary on Maclean abounds. He was retired from teaching when his first book, A River Runs Through It, appeared in 1976, and magazines like Esquire ran essays from former students hoping to make sense of the man whose first book was so developed and profound that Maclean's prior absence from the publishing world seemed almost unexplainable. But Maclean had been a teacher solely. Part of the reason for this was his life-long decision to live in two worlds—summers in the Montana cabin he and his father had built and the rest of the year in Chicago. In a TriQuarterly interview with William Kittredge and Annick Smith, Maclean explained his split self.

Very early I got the sense that this was a complete life—terrific intellectual discipline half the day, and freedom, nature, doing what I wanted to do . . . the other half. I didn't realize it was a schizophrenia coming.

When I saw that's what was coming, I said, that's what's coming, but it is not going to be schizophrenia for me. I'm going to see that I live two lives as one life—clear to the end. So all the years when I was teaching at the University of Chicago, come summer when all the big scholars were going over to the British Museum, standing outside talking to each other and letting the pigeons shit on them from the roof, I was out here in Montana. I knew one thing—in the summer get back to Montana" (MacFarland and Nichols 1988: 118).

Before A River Runs Through It was published, Maclean's writings were limited to a few serious academic articles and some in-house writing for University of Chicago functions. His speeches on those occasions were plainspoken explanations of how a Montana woodsman became a high-toned academic or of how teaching couldn't really be taught. In the essay "On Changing Neckties: A Few Remarks on the Art of Teaching," given by Maclean in 1973 at his third University of Chicago award for undergraduate teaching excellence, he told of his first formal class inspection, done by a senior member of the Dartmouth faculty where Maclean began his career. The inspector was a typical Maclean hero, tough, expert, and above believing that talent could be taught. When Maclean asked for advice on how to become a good teacher the man said, "Wear a different suit every day of the week." Maclean said, "I can't afford that." "Well then . . . wear a different necktie." "So," Maclean goes on to say, "as we all know, teaching is something like physics or music. It is mostly biological" (MacFarland and Nichols 1988: 58, 59). This demonstration of the biology of talent displays itself again through Maclean's gifted brother Paul in A River Runs Through It.

But Maclean also wrote about learned expertise. He was taught by his father to do what came almost naturally to his fly-fishing brother. For the elder Maclean, teaching had a point; expertise could be imparted. As an illustration of how the art of teaching and the art of good storytelling coincide, Maclean's tale provides an inspired, sustained lecture where readers will find, through Maclean's precise instructions on the art of fly-fishing, deeper instructions on how to think through tangled problems, instructions on the nature of heavenly and earthly grace, instructions on what should and shouldn't be said, or can and can't be said between men and between men and women. The book considers the nature of families and the possibility of salvation for a beautiful but flawed human. The book makes reference to the classic texts. As William Bevis shows in Ten Tough Trips (1990: 171-83), it helps if the Maclean reader knows some Bible and some Greek. Style too can be taught. Recall how Maclean describes his father's lessons. "My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy" (Maclean 1976: 4). Maclean's novella bears up under the pressure of this early advice. Its style was achieved only through repeated revisions and solitary days of work and thought, and the book repays in kind the blessed effort of reading and re-reading it.

Follow these links to read selections from A River Runs Through It:

Reading the Region Home NW Schools of Literature Main NW Schools of Literature: Commentary NW Schools of Literature: Texts
Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest