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Cowboy’s Quill: Norman Maclean

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By Doug Hare EBS Staff

At the age of 70, Norman Maclean was a well-regarded professor of literature at the University of Chicago who had published only two works of nonfiction. Then, in 1976, fresh into retirement, he penned a collection of semi-autobiographical tales based on his childhood called “A River Runs Through It and Other Stories.” Maclean could not find a book publisher or even a magazine to print his first attempts at writing fiction.

Eventually, with the help of some colleagues, the University of Chicago Press decided to take a gamble and print their very first work of fiction. Upon publication, word quickly spread, among both fly fishers and book lovers, about a sublime tale of rivers, manhood and religion in WWI-era western Montana. But how did a story about brothers reconciling the frontier code of the West with the Calvinist ideas of grace and salvation imparted on them by their minister father become a classic of Western literature?

Few, if any, writers have ever been able to capture the artistry of dry fly fishing with such clarity. “He called this ‘shadow casting,’” Maclean wrote. “It is more or less the ‘working up an appetite’ theory, almost too fancy to be true, but then every fine fisherman has a few fancy stunts that work for him and for almost no one else.”
As Wallace Stegner pointed out, the very style of the novella’s composition is similar to Paul’s method of shadow casting. Stegner wrote: “He fills the air with flies that never really settle, he dazzles us with loops of glittering line … then on page 102 of a 104-page story, the fly settles, and we strike at what we have been alerted to but have not been allowed to anticipate.”

I assume most Montanans have seen the Robert Redford-directed film, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary, so I don’t feel that I will spoil the book by revealing the ending. Most southwest Montanans also probably know that it was set on the Blackfoot River near Missoula, but filmed in and around Livingston and Bozeman. Few people know that the author’s brother Paul was killed by the butt of a gun in real life.

Stegner concludes his assessment, “The ending is brought off with such economy only because it was earlier obscured by all the shadow casting. A real artist has been fishing our stream, and the art of fishing has been not only his message, but his form and his solace.”

Indeed, “A River Runs Through It” is in many ways written in an opposite style than the typical American short story. Still, the seemingly rambling yarn with extraneous details, caveats, a host of minor characters and intentional distractions is written with more skill and forethought than most readers pick up on during their first reading.
One of the finest compliments that one can give a work of fiction is to say that it continues to impress upon future re-readings. “A River Runs Through It” is undoubtedly a story which can be read over and over again. The sentences and paragraphs continue to illuminate the sublime, hint at finding transcendence in nature, and ask the deep metaphysical questions that are important whether we are skillful fishermen or not. A well-written story about loved-ones lost and the healing power of time never gets old.

Doug Hare is the Distribution Director for Outlaw Partners. He studied philosophy and American literature at Princeton and Harvard universities.

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