I believe Norman Maclean is the finest writer I know of. This book helped me to recall & develop that idea. It is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and highly recommended, but with one qualification: I advice any reader to start with Maclean’s masterpieces, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories and Young Men and Fire. This collection makes sense with those works as background, and most appeals to readers whose appreciation has been developed by enjoying them.
Norman Maclean includes 10 short pieces by Maclean himself (essays, and texts of talks given), two “interviews” (one really a profile piece), and 7 critical essays about his work. Maclean is as good as ever. As I said when I read The Norman Maclean Reader, “Retrievers Good and Bad” is still a delight. I liked his discussions of his own work, which a person might find slightly self-congratulatory if we weren’t talking about A River Runs Through It, a story entirely deserving of all praise. His comments about college students – how they seem to want to be coddled, but really need their professors to be tough with them – sound absolutely contemporary today. His favorite phrases begin to echo in refrain as I read (& sometimes reread) his collected works; but they do not lessen by repetition. As driven home in some of the writings about his writing, Maclean’s art was meticulous on every level, including (as he points out himself) in the rhythms of his language. “Teaching and Storytelling” is a real gem; I loved the extended metaphor coming from his youth, “playing games with garbage cans, although in the morning they have to be fished out of the creek.”
And then I got to the section of “essays in appreciation and criticism,” and confess I sighed a moment, because Maclean’s voice would now be silent and others would speak; but the first essay was by Wallace Stegner, and if someone has to follow Maclean it should be Stegner. Actually, that is to skip over Pete Dexter’s preceding essay, “The Old Man and the River,” which is the one I mentioned, listed under interviews but really more of a personal profile piece, and is lovely: it captures the feeling of admiration that I feel in a tone of some humor, and evokes Maclean perhaps more even than his own voice does. This is Maclean the man, which is often a little less visible when Maclean the writer is present, even though so much of his writing is autobiographical.
Some of the critical essays approach from the decidedly academic side, and these were sometimes a little dry and effortful reading, but they also enlightened me and expanded my appreciation. Both of these points are true, for example, of Harold P. Simonson’s essay “Norman Maclean’s Big Two-Hearted River”, which examines A River Runs Through It in theological terms – a very rational lens, and one invited by Maclean, but not one I was well-prepared for, so I had a lot to learn.
It occurred to me on this reading of Maclean that one thing that distinguishes him from other extraordinary writers like Hemingway is that he refuses to be cynical. He can be humorous, but not cynical; he retains a sense of wonder and awe that Hemingway, for example, did not always manage to retain. (Contrast the narrator of A River Runs Through It with Jake’s answer to Lady Brett Ashley, “Isn’t it pretty to think so.”) I have thought before, in other contexts, that we often confuse an absence of cynicism with a lack of sophistication, but that this is sometimes a mistake. There is much made throughout this lovely collection of the beautiful, the sublime, and of grace. Maclean writes of a “slowness of movement that turned out not to be slowness but the shortest distance between two points, which is one definition of grace.” For me, another definition will be his continuing sense of wonder.
Norman Maclean is a new favorite, and will certainly be one of the best of this year. Again, please take my recommendation with the understanding that you should read his two masterpieces first, before continuing to appreciate him here.