Norman Maclean, 73, has always led two lives. He taught English at the University of Chicago for 45 years, skillfully enough to win the prize for excellence from undergraduate students three times. He is still an active professor emeritus.
Maclean has also been a lifelong outdoorsman, and it was only when he retired from full-time teaching that he had time to write an autobiographical “fictionalized history” about fishing, logging, draw poker and other backwoods pleasures. The book—consisting of two novellas and a short story—is called A River Runs Through It.
He had previously written The Theory of Lyric Poetry from the Renaissance to Coleridge and a World War II teaching guide entitled Manual of Instruction in Military Maps and Aerial Photographs. His new book is the first fiction the University of Chicago Press has published in its 85-year history, and the critical reaction has been nearly unanimous praise.
“When I was a teacher I never got anything written,” Maclean says. “Students can eat you up. I’ve spent a whole lifetime with them, but I can’t do without them.” Maclean often takes students seeking help with manuscripts out for an afternoon in the woods. Mary Ellis Gibson, a poet, was one of them. “I was expecting a discussion about books,” she recalls. “But we talked about trees and wild flowers.”
Maclean’s father, a stern Presbyterian minister, was so impressed with the education-at-home of philosopher John Stuart Mill that he taught his son reading and writing in the morning. (“Write with nouns and verbs, boy,” the Reverend Maclean used to say. “Don’t fool around with adjectives.”) Then, afternoons, the two of them went into the Montana woods to fly-fish and hunt.
The truant officer caught up with young Maclean when he was 10, and while he says he found school “cruel and uninteresting,” he eventually made his way to Dartmouth. After graduation he taught English there for two years until his father told him, “You haven’t improved much this year. You are about where I saw you last. I don’t think you are a bigger person.” Disturbed, Maclean returned to the Forest Service in Montana, where he had worked summers since he was 14. During this period he also met his wife at a Christmas party on a sheep ranch.
Two years later he accepted a job as a graduate assistant in English at the University of Chicago. Each summer he returned to Montana with his wife, their son John (a Chicago Tribune correspondent) and daughter Jean (a law student). They stayed in a cabin he and his father had built at Seeley Lake. A widower now, Maclean is working on another book based on a 1949 forest fire in which 13 smoke jumpers were killed. Whether in Chicago or Montana, Maclean writes in the morning, then fishes or walks in the woods, easing the nip of chilly days with a mixture of hot tea and bourbon. Maclean’s prose is still spare. “Now when I sit down to write, my father is on my shoulders. My life was stamped by those years I spent with him.” Maclean plots the next day’s writing every evening in the bath, remaining there until the water gets cold.
When his wife died in 1968, Maclean says, “I thought I died with her.” He began writing fiction three years later. “It’s a way of trying to find life again. I thought of getting remarried for a while, but art is a kind of substitute for sex.”