The Norman Maclean Reader

macleanAh, Norman Maclean. This is the last of his published work that I’ve found, following A River Runs Through It, and other stories and Young Men and Fire. I am very sorry to have reached this end. Maybe I’ll still find more. Also, I’m seeking a decent and well-regarded biography of him and have found none, so if you have it, speak up.

This is a collection of Maclean’s work, including excerpts from the longer books I’ve read already, a few previously published articles, and several previously unpublished pieces, including chapters from his book on Custer that Maclean worked on for years and finally gave up (prior to beginning either of his published works). Also included are letters he sent to a few friends and mentees; these might be my favorite part, although that’s a tough competition. The introduction, by editor O. Alan Weltzien, is a little on the academic side, referencing Maclean’s teaching career and his work with Aristotle, Shakespeare, Shelley and Wordsworth, and the concept of tragedy and its place in life and art; but if it required me to slow down and pay special attention, it was worth it.

Maclean too can be quite cerebral and academic – he was an academic by profession, after all – as in his discussion of Freudian philosophy (which “will not run with sex alone”) in the last chapter of the Custer book, called “Shrine to Defeat.” I enjoyed the Custer chapters very much, which are like Young Men and Fire in being contemplative, personal, philosophic studies of historical events. But I think my favorite sections are the more autobiographical, memoir-ish stories: if you can find a copy of the story called Retrievers Good and Bad (originally published in Esquire 88 in October 1977), you’re in for a treat. This is an early attempt to communicate some of Maclean’s feelings about his brother Paul’s death, and the abruptness of it – through dogs. What else could we ask for?

Following the Custer chapters and a selection of shorter works (and excerpts from his published books) come letters from Maclean to:

  • Robert Utley, much younger Custer scholar, to whom Maclean offers advice and mentorship while asking for tidbits on Custer; their relationship evolves until Maclean (still never having published a book), the teacher, poignantly requests help from the student who has now published several. a charming friendship.
  • Marie Borroff, former student of Maclean’s (formally, that is; Utley was correspondent and friend and only informally a “student”) who becomes a highly regarded scholar, poet, teacher herself. this relationship in letters is even more affectionate.
  • Nick Lyons, younger teacher, writer, fisherman, publisher whom Maclean befriends after Lyons wrote a favorable review of A River Runs Through It.
  • Lois Jansson, widow of Bob Jansson, USFS ranger whose work on and after the Mann Gulch fire Maclean highly regarded and treated with respect in Young Men and Fire.

As I said earlier, these letters might have been my favorite part of this book. Of course they reveal, far more than his published writings, an unedited, raw, personal Maclean. I enjoyed that man, who shares the humor, cleverness, playfulness, and philosophies of the edited and published one, but with the added charm of vulnerability, fears, and requests for help from his loved ones. He also shares his personal losses – chiefly that of his beloved wife – in these letters more than anywhere else. I deeply appreciated having access to this new side of an author I’ve come to love recently.

A few more thoughts – on Hemingway – you know I had to go there:

A blurb by Alfred Kazin on the back of this book calls A River Runs Through It “as beautiful as anything in Thoreau or Hemingway.” Now, I confess I am in danger of seeing Hemingway everywhere. I love him; I’ve read a lot of him, repeatedly, as well as several biographies. Maybe it’s a flaw of mine. But I saw Hemingway in these writings, too.

The joke has many variants, some of them dirty and all of them grim, but essentially it is one joke and underneath the many variants is a kindly undertone, as if some joke had been played upon the bluffs of the Little Bighorn for which there should be universal forbearance, on the chance that the joke played there is played some time on all of us. Clearly, our dead are delivered from oblivion when they become a joke on us.

Bear with me; I know that first one is a longish sentence and Hemingway is known for short ones, but you’d be surprised. He knew how to carry on, and in just this fashion: the repetition of that short, simple, but aurally striking word “joke”; the subject matter of death and war handled with a wry, cynical lightness. Likewise the cadence of this section-ending line:

They thought it over and after some of the weariness was gone, Little Wolf and all the young men enlisted and went back to their old job of fighting in the country that had been their home.

More great stuff from Maclean. Recommended, as usual.

Rating: 10 selected letters.

2 Responses

  1. […] The Norman Maclean Reader (nonfiction) […]

  2. […] 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, […]

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