“Norman Maclean: Of Scholars, Fishing, and the River” is adapted by John G. Cawelti from a talk he gave at the 2005 conference of the Popular Culture Association and American Culture Association.
I mention this episode because its curious mix of the academic and the Montana woods was Norman Maclean’s life for more than half a century and it indelibly shaped the remarkable writing that he did after he retired from teaching. Norman was my colleague and friend at the University of Chicago for most of the twenty-three years I taught there and he was a special kind of academic. It’s one indication of his character that everyone knew and referred to him as Norman rather than Professor Maclean, or even Maclean. (Of course, students in class always called him Professor Maclean).
I’ve never forgotten our first real meeting. In the second year of my time at the University I had heard of Norman—he was already a legendary teacher—and had seen him at department meetings. But I had not yet had any sort of conversation with him and imagined that he didn’t know me from Adam. In fact, I was awed by him and saw him as part of the forbidding phalanx of renowned professors who had made the department famous as a center of neo-Aristotelian criticism as well as great traditional scholarship: scholars and critics like Ronald Crane, Elder Olson, Morton Zabel, Donald Bond, Arthur Friedman, George Williamson, Napier Wilt, and Walter Blair. We younger instructors viewed this remarkable pantheon of elders with considerable trepidation from below.
I had been asked by the School of Social Service Administration to give a lecture on American literature and social reform. It was my first real public performance and I was very excited when many of my senior colleagues came to hear me. The lecture appeared to be quite successful and I was basking in this apparent glow when, as I was walking across the quadrangle, I ran into Norman.
Norman stopped me and said that he had enjoyed the lecture. However, he thought there were a few points needing clarification, and launched into a careful, searing and absolutely correct analysis of the flaws in my presentation. I later learned that such criticism was something of a Chicago tradition, made famous or perhaps notorious by the devastating critiques of papers at scholarly meetings delivered by such as Ronald Crane or Richard McKeon. And I’ve come to miss this kind of criticism as my life has led me into gentler and less intellectually stringent places. At the time, however, I was quite destroyed and went home to bed for three days. Actually, I think I was coming down with the flu, but I’ve always attributed it to Norman’s commentary on my paper.
Eventually I understood that Norman’s critique was really a considerable compliment. A year or so after this, he invited me to become a member of the highly successful interdisciplinary program he had created at Chicago, the Committee on General Studies in the Humanities. And in the course of time, we became very good friends, and I frequently accompanied him on long walks in Chicago parks and forest preserves. Things went so far that once, when I was visiting him with my family at his Montana cabin on Seeley Lake, he even tried to teach me to fish with flies. This was perhaps Norman’s one total failure in his lifelong career as a great teacher.
These events, like much of Norman’s own life, illustrate the remarkable combination of characteristics and interests that eventually made him into a special kind of writer. He could be as critically sharp and probing as any of the Chicago Neo-Aristotelians. Though Norman’s scholarly output was small, R. S. Crane, the guru of Neo-Arisotelianism, considered his work important enough to include two essays that became his chief scholarly publications in Critics and Criticism, the basic anthology of Neo-Aristotelian criticism. One of these essays came out of Norman’s 1940 doctoral dissertation on “The Theory of Lyric Poetry in England from the Renaissance to Coleridge.” It traced shifts in the conception of lyric poetry in the eighteenth century. This is immaculate scholarship replete with footnotes, but it shows not only that Norman knew well how to play that game, but also addresses what became one of Norman’s preoccupations in his teaching and later in his non-scholarly writing—the nature of beauty and the craft of expressing it in words.
Norman’s other great teaching subject was Shakespeare, and the second essay, which carries the rather forbidding title, “Episode, Scene, Speech and Word: The Madness of Lear” depends on the Aristotelian critical strategy of comparing part to whole, but it infuses this analysis with a passionate sense of the human drama and Shakespeare’s unique genius in presenting it. The essay is one of the most suspenseful critical analyses I have ever read. One follows Norman’s analysis discussion with mounting excitement and anticipation until he finally reveals his understanding of why Shakespeare’s choice of the humble word “this” is so overwhelmingly powerful when Lear says, in Act III sc. 4, “and art though come to this.” As I reread this essay, I can almost hear Norman reading this line in his rough but powerfully expressive way, and I can imagine what sort of impression he must have made on the students who were blessed to read Shakespeare with the help of his deep commitment to learning, his intellect, and his passion. We are fortunate that one of his students, a gifted young photographer named Leslie Strauss, persuaded Norman to let her take pictures of him teaching. One of these pictures is reproduced in The Norman Maclean Reader (four others appear on the cover of an earlier anthology of works by and about Norman edited by Ron McFarland and Hugh Nichols, and now out of print). These photographs capture some sense of Norman’s marvelously mobile face, which seemed to express the extraordinary range of feeling and thought that he could cover in the course of talking about a favorite poem or scene from Shakespeare.
Norman often observed of himself that he lived a sort of double life moving between the academic cloisters of the University and the forests, lakes and mountains of Montana. Every summer he headed for the Seeley Lake log cabin that he had built with his father in the 1920s. Many summers, after the death of his wife, he lived there alone and continued to make this pilgrimage, first in his VW Beetle and then in his little Volvo, up until the last few years of his life. But to me the striking thing about this double life is that there was nothing ambiguous or divided about it. He could tell stories like a Montana lumberjack or fisherman, but these stories also reflected deep literary and philosophical meaning. It was at the university that he encountered the ideas that enabled him to make sense of his own life. When he came to write about some of his experiences, these implicit meanings came to the surface like great trout caught by a skillful fisherman. Rippling like rising fish, his deeper intellectual feelings move outward from the center and give his tales of life in Montana the structural power and shape of significant literature.
The Aristotelian conceptions so influential on the Chicago Neo-Aristotelians strongly influenced A River Runs Through It and Other Stories. For one thing, the three stories in the book represent the major Aristotelian genres of tragedy, comic, and epic and thus span the basic range of human actions. But even more important, each of these stories is built upon the Aristotelian conception of an action which Maclean makes explicit in “USFS 1919.” Here, the young Norman observes that “by the middle of that summer when I was seventeen I had yet to see myself become part of a story. I had as yet no notion that life every now and then becomes literature—not for long, of course, but long enough to be what we best remember, and often enough so that what we eventually come to mean by life are those moments when life, instead of going sideways, backwards, forward, or nowhere at all, lines out straight, tense and inevitable, with a complication, climax, and, given some luck, a purgation, as if life had been made and not happened” (127).
This passage might come right out of Aristotle’s Poetics, yet it also sounds like the kind of down-to-earth wisdom that anyone with enough experience of life might grasp, even a Montana fisherman. This was Norman’s remarkable ability—to imagine how highly sophisticated philosophical and critical ideas continually relate to our everyday life. This remarkable synthesis of the intellectual and the practical pervades his writing, transforming the experiences he had in the midst of western mountains and rivers into paradigms of human life and thus accomplishing the ultimate goal of fiction. Norman himself expresses this beautifully in a key passage from “A River Runs Through It.” “As the heat mirages on the river in front of me danced with and through each other, I could feel patterns from my own life joining with them. It was here, while waiting for my brother, that I started this story, although, of course, at the time I did not know that stories of life are often more like rivers than books. But I knew a story had begun, perhaps long ago near the sound of water, and I sensed that ahead I would meet something that would never erode so there would be a sharp turn, deep circles, a deposit, and quietness” (63).
This passage neatly summarizes the structure of “A River Runs Through It” and the way it sets up complex relationships between the many different layers of action and theme running through the story. As everyone who has read it knows, the story is told by an old man who thinks back to his younger days and his relationship with his father an his brother who eventually got into terrible trouble and was mysteriously murdered. Most of this story is told through his memories of various fly-fishing episodes beginning with his father teaching him and his brother how to fish and culminating in the last time he, his father and his brother fished together.
Two key symbols articulate the story from beginning to end. The river flows continuously from the second sentence “We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana” to the unforgettable conclusion “I am haunted by waters.” The second symbol, “the words” also appears in the same sentence when Norman refers to his father as a minister. It becomes even more explicit in the third sentence where we read that his father “told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen.” Of course, words are the medium through which the river is conveyed to us and so they also return in the last paragraph of the story as the foundation of everything: “Eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs” (104).
The great power and beauty of Norman’s story comes in part from the way in which these two symbols and their various meanings are juxtaposed, conflict with each other and eventually come to a sort of resolution, but never completely. The river is the background of the story and is associated with the flow of experience, with nature, and also with our memories of the past that continually flow into the present and sometimes threaten to drown us. Words are our attempts to understand, to deal with, and to control insofar as we are able, the flow of life. It is the words the enable us to perceive meanings and to create the forms that articulate our lives, such as that powerful shape Norman refers to in “USFS” of life lining out “straight, tense and inevitable, with a complication, climax, and, given some luck, a purgation”—the shape of tragedy.
But there is always some question about which is more powerful and more fundamental, the inchoate flow of life or the meanings we try to discern within it. Words, in time, become forms of culture that can become rigid and no longer able to encompass the power of life. Sometimes the flow of experience and our harrowing memories of the past become like that overwhelming flood Norman tells us happened when “the great glacial lake covering northwestern Montana and northern Idaho broke its ice dam and spread the remains of Montana and Idaho mountains over hundreds of miles of the plains of eastern Washington” (12). Yet even such incredible powers are, in a certain sense shaped by men‘s words, for he also reminds us that this “biggest flood in the world for which there is geological evidence … was so vast a geological event that the mind of man could only conceive of it but could not prove it until photographs could be taken from earth satellites.”
This passage exemplifies how the interplay of river and words—the dialectic of the flow of life and of our attempts to understand and shape it—are present at every level of this remarkable story. When Norman begins his story with the famous observation, “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing” he is highlighting the two most important forms of words with which he has been equipped to understand and control the river of life. For him, of course, religion became the world of ideas which he entered when he became a scholar and teacher. But fly fishing always remained fly fishing for him, though I think it also served him as the model of his literary art. In his old age, this enabled him to become a fisher for the meaning of the tragic loss of his brother that haunted his life, and in his unfinished study of Young Men and Fire to stuggle toward a larger understanding of the meaning of tragedy in human life.
John G. Cawelti is professor emeritus of English at the University of Kentucky and also taught for many years at the University of Chicago. A pioneer in the study of popular American culture, Cawelti is the author of many books, including Apostles of the Self-Made Man (1968); Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture (1976), The Six-Gun Mystique (1984), The Spy Story (with Bruce A. Rosenberg, 1987); and Mystery, Violence, and Popular Culture (2004).