Tuesday, January 26, 2016
On Norman Maclean
In spent the better part the 2000s in Western Montana, first working at a summer camp in the Seeley-Swan Valley, and then at graduate school in Missoula. I wasn't long in the area before people started urging me to read Norman Maclean. I had never heard of him before, but soon realized that he was a laureate of sorts for Montanans in general, and thanks to A River Runs Through It, for Montana fly fishermen in particular.
It was not long before I, too, fell in love with Maclean's work. In his writing, Western Montana becomes a land of myth, where the shadows its forests and mountains cast seem to stretch into deepest recesses of the human heart. This is as true in his autobiographical novella (and the two short stories published along with it) as it is in his much acclaimed Young Men and Fire, a work of non-fiction about a smoke-jumping disaster along the Missouri River north of Helena in the late 1940s.
Most of Maclean's life was spent not as a writer (he didn't publish A River Runs Through It until he was in his seventies) but as a professor of literature at the University of Chicago, where his students included novelist Philip Roth and Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. Shakespeare, and Shakespearean tragedy, were Maclean's specialties. His excellent scholarly essay on of King Lear displays his mastery of Shakespeare and the tragic form, largely defined by Aristotle.
I was reminded of all of this when I came across Timothy Schilling's essay on Maclean in the latest edition of Commonweal. Schilling considers perhaps the two strongest motifs in Maclean's writing: tragedy and the Christian faith. You might remember, if you've ever seen the film version of A River Runs Through It, that Maclean was a preacher's son, and though "there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing" in his family, nothing could compete with religion when it came to matters of importance. As Schilling points out, Maclean's work is steeped in the Bible, especially the Psalms and the logos of John's Gospel--think of the penultimate line of A River Runs Through It: "Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs."
Schilling does a marvelous job of weighing Maclean's emphasis on the tragic nature of human existence against his inability, though he stopped practicing organized religion, to shake the hope for eternal life found in the Christian faith. The essay is well worth reading.
I wrote an article, several years ago, on Maclean's sense of craftsmanship, found, I argued, not just in his fiction but in his Lear essay as well. The essay was published at Front Porch Republic.
Note: The picture above is of Maclean's family cabin on Seeley Lake in Western Montana. On a whim in graduate school I decided to drive out to find it (the picture, though, is not mine). I drove the long dirt road that loops through the Larch forest around the western side of the lake, where Maclean's father built the cabin in the early 1920s. The cabin was not remarkable. The only identifying mark was a simple wood sigh by the road that read "Maclean." It looked similar to others built along the lake's shore, though perhaps a few decades older.
Back in the 1920s there must have been few (if any) other houses in the vicinity. An hour's drive (at today's highway speeds) from Missoula, Seeley is the second large lake you pass as you head into the deep woods of the Seeley-Swan valley. The elder Maclean hoped it would remain less developed than the southernmost lake in the chain. That lake is Salmon Lake, where I worked, for three summers during college, at a camp run by the Diocese of Helena. Ironically, Seeley is now the most lived-on lake, by far, in the valley. We're talking Montana standards here, so the summer population swells to perhaps a few thousand residents. The Macleans' cabin, I believe, is still in the family, and frequently occupied by John, Norman's son, who is an author in his own right.
Norman visited the cabin each summer during his tenure at Chicago, and it was there, in his later years, that he wrote A River Runs Through It and Young Men and Fire.