A Ghost Runs through It: A Review of The Norman Maclean Reader
The Norman Maclean Reader. Essays, Letters, and Other Writing by the Author of A River Runs through It. Edited by O. Alan Weltzien. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008. Cloth: $27.50, 260 Pages.
As he proved with two books both written in his old age, A River Runs through It (1976) and Young Men and Fire (1992), Norman Maclean is one of the masters of the American language. National Book Award winner Pete Dexter spoke for a generation when he said of Maclean’s first and only book of fiction that the title story “filled holes inside” him “that had been so long in the making that I’d stopped noticing they were there.”
And Dexter doesn’t even fish.
Few other first lines in all of American literature are as famous as the words that introduced Maclean to the literary world: “In our family there was no clear line between fishing and religion.”
And, of course, there wasn’t, either.
The only other first line of American fiction that might actually compete with Maclean’s for easy recognition in the collective mind of the general public came from another American writer, who opened his fishing story by writing, “Call me Ishmael.” That writer was a guy named Herman Melville, and the book was Moby Dick. The question that haunts Maclean’s readers is basically the one this new book tries to answer: Why did such a fine writer write so little and so late—as his son, John, a bestselling author, once put the matter.
It should surprise nobody, then, that when he died in August of 1990, Maclean left behind parts of another masterpiece-in-the-making: an unfinished book on the most famous battle in American military history: Custer’s defeat in the valley of the Little Big Horn. Maclean’s treatment of the battle, especially of the northern Cheyennes, calls to mind Evan S. Connell’s brilliant prose documentary, Son of the Morning Star, as well as September 11, 2001.
Had Maclean finished the book, who knows what might have happened? Instead, Norman Maclean did what his father, the Rev Maclean, had taught him to do as a boy whenever he wrote anything: now throw it away. And he threw it away. Even as an amanuensis taking orders from beyond the grave, I’m unsure what Maclean would think about seeing parts of his unfinished manuscript in print. Not much, probably.
Regardless, Maclean was generally reported by his students at the University of Chicago to have known more than anyone else about two historic figures: Aristotle and General George Armstrong Custer. He also taught Shakespeare once a year just to remind himself “what great writing is like.” Of these three figures in Maclean’s personal pantheon, The Norman Maclean Reader deals only with Custer.
Among dozens to whom he regularly wrote, Maclean’s correspondents are limited to four people: (1) historian Robert Utley, whom Maclean mentored by mail; (2) Marie Boroff, his former student and now professor emeritus at Yale; (3) Nick Lyons, probably the single most important writer about flyfishing in the United States next to Maclean; and (4) Lois Jansson, the widow of Forest Service Ranger Bob Jansson, whose district included Mann Gulch and the fire that Maclean immortalized in his second book. As beautiful and haunting as parts of the unfinished Custer manuscript are, because the book is incomplete these excerpts tease, entertain, and educate but never wholly satisfy. Still, these chapters alone, along with the letters, are worth the cost of the book.
Because fly fishers are generally more curious about the world, and have written more about their art than the practitioners of all other “sports,” they should find plenty to like and even to love here in this collection of the Old Man’s ephemera. However, it’s still a shame that more sides of Maclean’s character—fly fisherman, logger, firefighter, scholar, teacher, husband, father, son—are not more fully represented. He was a master, for instance, of personal invective, and his great 1981 letter to Charles Elliott at Alfred A. Knopf Publishers ranks right up there with the best f–k-you prose of all time.
Having included that letter or Maclean’s essay on the madness of King Lear may or may not have fit the editorial scheme for the volume, but it would have been the kind of symbolic gesture best in keeping with Maclean’s complex personality, the kind of daring stylistic move that he often made on his own without any help from an editor. When his old friend, Bud Moore, asked him once why he always included a whore in his fictional stories, Maclean answered that he wanted his stories to sell.
Certainly, including Maclean’s essay on the madness of King Lear or his masterpiece written on behalf of all rejected authors might have put off or offended some readers, but it also might have sold a lot more books. As it is, only a ghost runs through this one.