It’s been 40 years since A River Runs Through It debuted, but Norman Maclean’s renowned book continues to captivate readers.
[by Will Ryan]
Forty years ago, a book appeared that landed fly fishing in the center of American society. On its face, the work was only one more fictional memoir by a fly fisherman about fly fishing. At the time, fly fishing books were not places where people played for keeps, where family promises were forgotten, where young heroes died, where relationships that were problematic in life became more so in death. Fly fishing books instead offered an idealized patch of life. Isn’t that why fishermen fished? A River Runs Through It and Other Stories certainly stood that one on its head.
“I slowly came to feel that it would never end for me unless I wrote it,” Maclean said. And so he did
Its author, Norman Maclean, a 73-year old retired professor of English from the University of Chicago, worked on the book “secretly and almost shamefacedly,” as novelist Wallace Stegner put it. His wife had died a few years earlier, and his children had urged him to write down some of the stories of his youth in Montana. He was a perfectionist in a time of typewriters. It was slow going. But he finished.
The eastern publishing houses (Knopf, for example) rejected the manuscript. One complained, famously, that “these stories have trees in them.” The stories were western, which Stegner later noted, was largely dismissed as that place of “broad hats and low foreheads, a place traditionally short of thought and with only rudimentary feelings.” Worse yet, the time period was the historical West, but post-cowboy. Who would care? The narrative sprawled across the land and years, came off as alternately poetic, bawdy, and opinionated, with the best fisherman in the book dismissing the venerable Izaak Walton as a bait fisherman who couldn’t spell.
As Stegner explained, the author “talks to his readers, guesses at the motivations of characters, drops one-liners of concentrated observation and wisdom . . . the puppeteer shows his hands and feet. No wonder he couldn’t find a publisher.” But, thanks to some of Maclean’s connections, the University of Chicago Press published the manuscript—a slim volume of three stories, of which the first and title story stole people’s hearts. Maclean sneaked up on the country, like it was a riffle in June.
It was the inestimable Nick Lyons, always the first to understand the why of these matters, who alerted the fly fishing community to the book with a review in the Spring 1976 issue of Fly Fisherman. Lyons called attention, to “the uncanny blending of fly fishing with the affections of the heart . . . It is earthy, whimsical, authoritative, wise; it touches the heart without blushing and traces lasting images for the eye.”
The book, moreover, showed how beautiful (one of the favorite words of Maclean’s father, who plays a central role in the story) fly fishing was, so artfully drawn that it seemed inseparable from the world around it. As one reviewer wrote, Maclean had a gift for “the arts that work in nature, in personality, in social intercourse, in fly fishing.”
The book held concentrations of worth, so the more you read it, the more you liked it. Like a trout river—each time you visited, it only seemed richer. And so the fame of A River Runs Through It grew, leading to false starts on a movie during Maclean’s life, and he worried about the changes.
“They’re always saying, ‘You make it too tragic,’” he observed. They say “‘A movie audience, unlike a literary audience, won’t accept that much tragedy’ . . . It’s just too bad if they won’t.”
The book finally became a movie in 1992, two years after Maclean’s death. Backlit with golden sun, filled with gauzy images, narrated in a voiceover by Robert Redford, the movie channeled the country’s inner angler.
By the mid-’90s, hordes were beating wadered feet for the nearest trout river. Fly fishing magazines and books popped up like Hendricksons on a May afternoon. Vests became urban fashion. Drift boats dotted rivers. This was not all due to “the Movie,” as it came to be spit out in fly fishing circles, but some of it was.
As O. Alan Weltzien, professor of English, has observed, the book “introduced a broad public to the hitherto cultish, hidden sport of fly fishing.” It did so, moreover, “in ways that would have both horrified and pleased Maclean.” In the case of the movie and its fallout, one suspects the former.
Now, four decades later, it is worth looking back at the original words and writer. Given the swath of such beauty, we probably owe the creator that.
The book traces the early part of Maclean’s life in Montana, where he grew up the eldest son of a Presbyterian minister, who taught Norman and his brother discipline, religion, and fly fishing. In time, Norman went East to Dartmouth College, and later moved on to Chicago, where he took his Ph.D. and taught for 40 years. His brother, Paul, meanwhile, the better angler, ever rebellious, followed a riskier path, perhaps because the solid ground was occupied. Paul slipped beneath his father’s dictums, charmed his mother. He gambled, provoked, got in and out of trouble.
Norman never forgave himself for not doing more for his younger brother, for not penetrating his emotional parries. “We all loved him and stood by him, but we couldn’t help him,” Maclean later said, as if still wrestling with the past. “We tried but we couldn’t.” Paul followed Norman first to Dartmouth, and then to Chicago, where he tried to hook on with a big-city paper. Then Paul returned to Montana and then he was murdered, beaten to death in an alley, probably over a gambling debt.
Maclean found true excitement in the greatness of others. And that was how he wanted to remember his brother, much as he saw the great lights of literature. At the University of Chicago, Maclean taught Shakespeare and explained, “He [Shakespeare] must have known more about writing than anybody else ever did. Every year I said to myself, ‘You better teach this bastard so you don’t forget what great writing is like.’” Now he would tell the story of fly fishing with Paul when they were young. Maybe he could tell the world—before he himself died— how much fun they had had fly fishing together, and how very, very good Paul had been. “I slowly came to feel that it would never end for me unless I wrote it,” Maclean said. And so he did.
The Truth Teller as Storyteller
While Paul could dismiss and laugh off responsibilities, Norman could not. An example: Norman stayed at Dartmouth for two years after he received his B.A., and built a reputation as a fine teacher. But he was relying on his personality and spent most of his time playing poker. When he came home his second summer, his father rather casually mentioned, “I don’t think you’ve learned much this year.” Maclean knew he was right. So he wrote the chair of the English department that he didn’t think he should return, and told him why.
This same compulsion to do things to the best of his ability infused all aspects of writing the book. As he later told novelist Pete Dexter, “When I tell you how to pack a mule, goddamn it, that is how.” More than anything else, it mattered to him that he got the fishing right, and he took pride in that accomplishment. “I got five hundred letters about the book,” he said to Dexter. “A lot of them from fishermen. There’s no bastards in the world who like to argue more than fishermen, and not one of them corrected me on anything. That is my idea of a good review.”
He’d spent 40 years in his head thinking about Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Browning. Now he had turned the same acuity to his brother. Every afternoon he sat in the bath until the water chilled, planning the next day’s writing. And the story is as carefully written as it is exactly felt—whether it is the rhythm of the cast, or choreography of the characters. In our last image of Paul fishing, for example, he has already begun to fade—a figure fishing a river. As Wallace Stegner observes, the shadow casting and “farcical stories” draw our attention away from the darkness, from what really matters, namely Paul, his life, our lives, our youth, and how we can’t see what really matters until after it is gone.
Readers connected—on a deeper level than they bargained for when opening the book, and on a deeper level than Maclean had anticipated when writing it. Maclean, the professor in retirement, seemed to surprise himself by connecting even with readers who didn’t fish. As he recalled, he “received over a hundred letters saying, ‘I have a brother just like that, and I can’t find anything to do that will help him.’”
Fishing had been transformed from a hobby to the inside language of his family’s tragedy. As Nick Lyons realized early on, it has touched our hearts. You don’t have to fly fish to want to join the Macleans on the Big Blackfoot. And if you do fly fish, I imagine you only appreciate more fully the family and friends that wade the water with you.
Will Ryan teaches expository writing at Hampshire College. He is also a writer for our sister publication, Gray’s Sporting Journal.