A Tough Flower Girl: On Norman Maclean
LESLIE STRAUSS TRAVIS
I know it's uncool to admit an enthusiasm based in part on biography--it seems so louche--but I feel as if I've been following in Norman Maclean's footsteps much of my life. Like him, I was born in Iowa and left at a young age; like him, I lived a portion of my early life in Missoula, Montana. I have, like him, worked as a fire lookout in the West, with a view of "more mountains in all directions than I was ever to see again--oceans of mountains," as Maclean wrote in "USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky"; and I have fished rivers and creeks sparkling with the movement of cutthroat trout, per his instructions. Maclean spent his life attempting to reconcile his love of Chicago with his love of Montana, as I have mine for New York and New Mexico.
About once a year I still reach for my dog-eared copy of A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, and it never loses its power or its mystery. No other book I know has more evangelists, as it would have to, being a collection of two novellas and a story published by a university press, and now with beyond a million copies in print. My deep connection with the book--with the leisurely rhythms of the sentences, which matched the rhythms of my childhood spent fishing with my brother--had already blurred the distinction between life and literature, although of course I never suspected the book would one day prove prophetic. But it did twelve years ago, when, just as Norman loses his brother Paul to a violent death, a brother he loved but did not understand and could not help, I lost my own brother, at the age of 22, to a suicide with a semiautomatic rifle.
I'm not sure any sense can be made of his action, and anyway the details are not my concern here. But I do often find myself in the same position as Norman and his father, asking unanswerable questions, searching for something, some bit of redeeming truth to reckon with. There is a scene near the end of the title novella, in which the two of them talk about their son and brother.
"Do you think I could have helped him?" Norman's father asks.
"Do you think I could have helped him?" Norman answers.
They stand silently, each of them waiting for an answer they know will never come. "How can a question be answered that asks a lifetime of questions?" Norman wonders.
Maclean would report receiving letters from people like me during the fourteen years he had left after the book was published in 1976. And he would go to his grave secure in the knowledge that anyone who'd fished with a fly in the Rockies and read his novella on the how and why of it believed it to be the best such manual on the art ever written--a remarkable feat for a piece of prose that also stands as a masterwork in the art of tragic writing.
Maclean, who was born in 1902, learned to write from his father, a Presbyterian minister who taught his son at home until he was 10. The morning was divided into three hourlong periods, during each of which Norman gave a fifteen-minute recitation. His father's highest ideals were economy and precision with the English language; he wanted his son to grow up as an authentic American, with a mastery of the American written word. In the afternoons Maclean fished and played in the woods and learned how to be tough, toughness being one of the chief preoccupations of his late-life writing.
As a teenager he worked summers with the US Forest Service, then less than two decades old, an opportunity he was afforded because able-bodied woodsmen had gone to fight in World War I. In 1920 he went east to college at Dartmouth, to study English. When he finished, he returned home to Montana and worked again briefly in the mountains of his youth. It was a moment that divided his past and his future forever. He often looked back at a career that might have been--a career in the woods, in logging camps, fighting fires and packing mules and playing cribbage in the bunkhouse. Instead he went to the University of Chicago, where he earned his doctorate and later held the post of William Rainey Harper Professor of English. He taught there more than forty years, mostly Shakespeare and the Romantic poets, and decamped from Hyde Park for Montana each summer, where he spent three months at his family's cabin on Seeley Lake.
His career is one of the strangest in American letters. Maclean began to write fiction only upon retirement, when he had "reached his biblical allotment of three score years and ten," as he liked to put it. He claimed he picked up his pen at the urging of his two children, Jean and John, who wished to know what he and the world were like when he was young. The initial result, two years in the making, was A River Runs Through It, which came out of nowhere, the first and for a long time the only book of fiction to be published by the University of Chicago Press. The book's two novellas and short story ("Logging and Pimping and 'Your Pal, Jim'") are set in Montana in the early twentieth century, all heavily auto- biographical--tales he playfully called "Western stories with trees in them for children, experts, scholars, wives of scholars, and scholars who are poets."
The book was short listed for a Pulitzer in 1977, although the judges that year deemed no book worthy of the award and abstained from offering a prize in fiction. In later years Maclean had cause to wonder if the judges maybe didn't like trees. That's the excuse one New York publisher offered in rejecting the book--"these stories have trees in them"--a fact that gave Maclean great satisfaction in his final years. After the smash success of the book, an editor at Knopf, which had rejected the manuscript, wrote to inquire whether the house might have a look at Maclean's second novel, on which he was rumored to be at work.
"I don't know how this ever happened, but this fell right into my hands," Maclean says in an interview reprinted in The Norman Maclean Reader, the capstone to his peculiar career, which contains an unfinished book manuscript, several essays and interviews and a selection of unpublished letters. "So I wrote a letter.... I can remember the last paragraph: 'If it should ever happen that the world comes to a place when Alfred A. Knopf is the only publishing company left and I am the only author, then that will be the end of the world of books.'" It seems in some way appropriate that he did not live to see his final book, Young Men and Fire, win the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction, in 1992, although his acceptance speech no doubt would have been one to remember, if he'd chosen to give it. Having begun to write so late in life, he was not angling for prizes.