Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Norman Maclean Didn’t Publish Much. What He Did Contains Everything

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Aside from these two wildly different literary eminences, Maclean cared little for Dartmouth and escaped it as often as he could to go back to the Montana woods. By then, he had been not just playing but working in those woods for many years, beginning at fourteen, when he took a job in the logging industry. Soon, he switched to the United States Forest Service, which he liked so much that he returned for summers during college and again after graduation, building trails and fighting fires and helping to pack horse-and-mule trains with enough supplies to sustain those activities. It took him a decade to give up on the idea of a career with the U.S.F.S., and all his life he wondered what kind of life that would have been. “I wanted to be a head packer,” he wrote, at the age of eighty-four, “and still do.”

It was while Maclean was back in Montana after college that he met Jessie Burns, a young woman from the two-street town of Wolf Creek. Maclean was captivated by her self-assurance and high spirits, and in 1929, after he had begun working as a graduate assistant at the University of Chicago, she joined him there. Two years later, they got married. But, while Norman was turning into an upstanding adult, the same could not be said of his younger brother. Even in early childhood, Paul had driven his parents to distraction; smart, charming, and sublimely indifferent to authority, he was, as McCarthy writes, “fond of flipping cards in the back pew while his father preached.” As an adult, he was handsome, secretive, and pugnacious, with a drinking problem, a gambling problem, and an ever-increasing debt in a not at all friendly local poker game. By 1937, McCarthy writes, the Reverend Maclean felt that Paul was “headed straight to hell if he stayed in Montana.” At their father’s urging, Norman persuaded his younger brother to join him in Chicago.

Scarcely more than a year later, on May 1, 1938, Paul took the woman he was dating to a White Sox game, followed by an evening on the town. Afterward, Paul escorted her home, then headed out alone into the night. He was found at sunrise, in an alley on the city’s South Side, with his head bashed in. He died later that day.

Maclean accompanied his brother’s body on the long train ride back to Montana. He was awash in grief and guilt; not only had he encouraged his baby brother to move to Chicago—he had failed all his life to find a way to help him. He was also tormented by not knowing what had happened: whether Paul had been murdered for old gambling debts or new ones, or for some other reason that would never be known, or for no reason at all, a victim of random violence. No one was ever charged, let alone convicted, in the killing. Maclean and his mother learned to live with the uncertainty and the grief. But the Reverend, McCarthy suggests, died of it, felled by a stroke three years after his son was murdered.

It took four decades for the death of Paul Maclean to reveal itself as the catalyzing event of one of the more remarkable careers in American letters. In its immediate aftermath, Norman simply returned to Chicago and earned his Ph.D. He and Jessie had two children in quick succession—a daughter, Jean, and a son, John—and Maclean became a fixture at the university. He stayed through the Second World War (when he taught marksmanship and orienteering alongside English literature), through the upheaval of the nineteen-sixties, through five decades and four university presidents and countless trends in college education. Throughout it all, he himself had an unchanging understanding of his job: “A great teacher is a tough guy who cares very deeply about something that is hard to understand.”

Giant Damacles sword hanging over desk and talking to person sitting at it.

“You’ll be working directly under me.”

Cartoon by Sam Hurt

The “tough guy” part came naturally to Maclean. Like his father before him, he was a formidable and unsparing critic, and anyone who fell short of his high standards—a student who turned in subpar work, a colleague whose career foundered, a friend whose marriage fell apart—could expect to face his undisguised disgust. “Sometimes the split was irreparable and he cast them out of the tribe forever,” McCarthy writes. “The Calvinist in him hated failure.” As a result, many people who knew Maclean feared him. Yet he was also widely beloved—especially by his female students, whose intellects he took seriously—and those who got his praise knew they had earned it.

But, if Maclean poured energy into teaching, he withheld it from scholarship: in his entire career, he published just two academic articles. “He ended the ‘publish or perish’ debate for himself with a rhetorical question,” his son wrote in a memoir. “ ‘Does the world need another article on lyric poetry?’ ” Deciding that it did not—and recognizing some very different need in himself—Maclean left campus every summer for a cabin on Seeley Lake, an hour northeast of Missoula. It was his Innisfree: “The only place in the world,” he once wrote to his wife, “where my troubled soul feels at peace.”

For a long, hard spell in Maclean’s later years, the troubles grew greater and the peace more elusive. Jessie, a lifelong smoker, was diagnosed at the age of forty-five with emphysema, which would eventually be compounded by esophageal cancer. Two years later, Maclean’s mother died. By the early nineteen-sixties, Maclean was suffering from his own health problems, which routinely landed him in the hospital. That’s where he was when, in 1968, friends came to his room to tell him that, elsewhere on the premises, Jessie had succumbed to cancer. After that, Maclean’s emotional health collapsed as well. Then one day, during a third stint in a psychiatric ward, he turned to his son-in-law, who was visiting, and said, “I’m sick of this shit.” He went home, returned to teaching, and began dating. In 1973, he retired from the university amid a shower of accolades. Then he settled down to finally do the work he had been training to do, knowingly or otherwise, since the age of six.

“A River Runs Through It” contains three stories: the title novella plus two shorter tales, “USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky” and “Logging and Pimping and ‘Your Pal, Jim.’ ” When Maclean finished a draft, he shared it with Allen Fitchen, an editor at the University of Chicago Press, who immediately recognized it as “a work of genius.” Fitchen wanted to publish it, but the mission of the press did not include fiction, and so, playing the role of an obliging colleague, he helped steer it to an editor at Knopf. That man reacted as Fitchen had hoped, dismissing the manuscript as “not a saleable book.” (Maclean, an epic holder of grudges, relished the occasion when, years later, Knopf came knocking. If it were the only publishing house left on the planet and he were the only author, he informed the unfortunate emissary, that would “be the end of the world of books.”)

While Maclean fumed, Fitchen persuaded his colleagues at Chicago to publish the book. The initial print run was five thousand copies. To date, it has sold well over a million in English alone. “The usual channels of publicity and criticism had virtually nothing to do with it,” Wallace Stegner, a great admirer of the book, wrote. “Neither did literary fashion, for that, along with the orthodoxies of contemporary short story form, is simply ignored in these stories.” Maclean wrote entirely according to his own instincts, which, like so much of his life, had been shaped by the unlikely merger of two sources: the Western canon and that other Western tradition, in which men sat around campfires or on barstools swapping tall tales. Maclean spoke with equal admiration of Wordsworth and Rabelais and a master storyteller he once encountered in the woods, “the only one I ever heard who could tell a whole story with only two grammatical subjects”: “them sons-of-bitches” and “the rest of us bastards.” When the time came for him to commit his own fiction to print, he said, “I went back to my memory of Montana for my energy and to my years of teaching literature for the power lines to conduct it.”

Again and again, I myself return to his stories for energy. One reason is that they are very funny: in keeping with the tall-tale tradition, which favors brevity, action, and humor, Maclean was an excellent comic writer. “USFS 1919” contains a rare and perfect instance of what I can only call textual physical comedy—an entire fight scene viewed low down and prone, from the sawdust beneath a saloon table where the narrator has been knocked flat, leaving him to distinguish between the battling parties solely by their footwear. It also contains a different kind of battle, this one over the name of a tributary of the Clearwater River known to locals as Wet Ass Creek. The narrator takes delight in helping persuade a team of federal surveyors to submit the rightful name to the map-drafting office, but in the end the joke is on him. When the map is published, the name is rendered as a single word with a final “e”: “Wě-tä’-sē Creek, just as if its headwaters were on Beacon Hill.”

Yet, for all the humor in these tales, sorrow courses underneath them. Maclean is mourning, in part, a whole lost way of being. His setting is the Rocky Mountain West in the early twentieth century, a time and place when manual labor predominated (not by accident is the main character in each story a master of some physical task: logging, packing, fishing) and most people lived cheek by jowl with nature. He clearly loves that world, and yet—this is another reason I admire him—his writing is elegiac without ever being nostalgic. He understands, as Frost did, the human toll of living in constant proximity to axes and saws, livestock and wildlife, fires and floods, and he refuses to let the passage of time soften the experience. You will encounter, in his book, a shepherd who has worn his underwear for so long that his hair has grown through the fabric, such that when it must finally be removed swaths of his skin come off, too; you will encounter injured ranchers riding into two-bit towns in search of help, “holding their intestines in their hands.” “It was a world that was infinitely beautiful and very tough,” Maclean told Studs Terkel after the book came out, “and it’s hard at times to tell the toughness from the beauty.”

Still, the most evident object of mourning in “A River Runs Through It” is not the world at large but Paul, whose death, lightly fictionalized, solemnizes the title story. That story, in turn, anchors the collection, partly because of its gravitas and partly because of its beauty. It is one of American literature’s truly great accounts of family breakdown, and one of its most unusual: the Gospel of Luke by way of Izaak Walton and Paul Bunyan.

The entire novella is structured, subtly, as a series of fishing lessons, though they are far more than that, as its famous opening sentence establishes: “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.” The fictional Reverend Maclean, like the real one, is a dedicated fly fisher, and he wants to pass the art on to his sons. Paul is a quick study—he soon becomes a better angler than his father, maybe a better angler than anyone—but the early days are rough going. The boys, being boys, just want to go out and start trying to catch fish, “omitting entirely anything difficult or technical in the way of preparation.” But the Reverend believes that people who don’t know how to fish should not be allowed to catch anything, “so my brother and I learned to cast Presbyterian-style, on a metronome.”

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