February 13, 2016


Norman Maclean's Christian Tragedies (Timothy P. Schilling, January 13, 2016, Commonweal)

While Maclean, who died in 1990, first made a name for himself in 1976 with A River Runs Through It, my immersion in his writing would not begin until two years after his death with the posthumously published Young Men and Fire. The story traces back to 1949, when thirteen young men--skilled and daring, as Maclean's brother  had been--had died fighting a Montana forest fire known as the Mann Gulch Fire. Maclean, then in his late forties, had been home visiting from Chicago, and had gone out to inspect the still-burning site. Like his brother's death, this "bitter turn of the universe" would haunt him, and over time became a story he had to tell.

My appreciation for Young Men and Fire, and subsequent delight in Robert Redford's film version of A River Runs Through It, brought me belatedly to the book that had made Maclean famous. I was drawn to the sober mountainscape of its cover, and to its compelling opening lines with their combination of religion, sly humor, and the luminous Northwestern out-of-doors:

In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ's disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.

As the superb Redford adaptation made clear, A River Runs Through It was not so much about fishing as about the pain of loving and losing. Also clear was that while Maclean understood this experience in the light of Christian faith, he couldn't quite trust Christianity's promise of redemption. Tragedy--and whether we have an answer for it--was his abiding theme. It preoccupied him not only in River and Fire, but also in an earlier, abandoned work on Custer's defeat at Little Big Horn, and in his academic writing as well. To Maclean tragedy was the most moving of literary forms because it recognizes, as he noted in the Custer manuscript, that "much of...life is spent marching and counter-marching over the scenes of previous defeats and in fortifying ourselves against those to come." He put his interest in tragedy succinctly in an essay on King Lear: "The question of whether the universe is something like what Lear hoped it was or very close to what he feared it was, is still, tragically, the current question." In his pursuit of this matter, Maclean has much in common with Herman Melville and Graham Greene. All three query a God--whose presence they aren't entirely convinced of--about His way of doing business.

In A River Runs Through It and Young Men and Fire Maclean takes the same problem and approaches it from different angles. While River concludes with Paul's death, Fire takes the death of the firefighters as its point of departure. Maclean pursues three questions left open by A River Runs Through It: How exactly did the death(s) occur? What do we, the living, owe to the dead? And what conclusions for our own lives are we to draw from these tragic facts? It is as if he uses the second book to test and refine perspectives advanced in the first.

Posted by at February 13, 2016 9:52 AM