The Achievement of Norman Maclean

Marie Borroff
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram
Courtesy Pentagram

“The tender act that should initiate all historyan understanding of what someone, usually beyond summons, thought of himself, and his reasons, if discernible, for thinking so.”
Norman Maclean

In the fall of 1941, as a freshman at the University of Chicago, I enrolled in a course in lyric poetry taught by Norman Maclean. That stroke of sheer blind luck—an older student had said to me in passing, “You must take Maclean”—was fraught with lifelong consequences, most recently, the writing of this essay.

When I first encountered him, Norman Maclean was thirty-eight years old. He had taught at the university since he was in his mid-twenties, and he had already won two of the three Quantrell Awards for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching that were to mark his career there with a unique distinction. I assume he was tenured by the time I studied with him, but in those my salad days I knew nothing of “publish or perish,” and it never occurred to me to wonder what his publications were or were to be. I am amazed now to think that by the time he retired as William Rainey Harper Professor of English, his scholarly bibliography consisted in toto of two essays. Both of these appeared in 1952 in Critics and Criticism, Ancient and Modern, an anthology whose editor in chief was the “Chicago critic” Ronald Crane; one was entitled “Episode, Scene, Speech, and Word: The Madness of Lear”; the other “From Action to Image: Theories of the Lyric in the Eighteenth Century.” (My epigraph is taken from the latter.)

I remember Maclean as a powerfully built man of medium height, with a large head and small feet. His face, in particular, was unforgettable. It had what in the privacy of my thoughts I called a ravaged look, as of one who had witnessed life at the extremes of pity and terror. Toughness, pride, and reserve gave it in repose its characteristic cast, but it also had a changing expressiveness belying the macho exterior. Depending on what was said in a conversation – or a class discussion – it could melt into a smile of breathtaking radiance that pulled taut its every line, or take on a look of sublime and ineffable scorn, presaging, more often than not, a rude snigger.

My recollections of the classes over which Maclean presided are fragmentary but vivid. Though I did not then know that he was a minister’s son, I well remember the wicked leer he shot at us during our discussion of the final couplet of Fulke Greville’s “O wearisome condition of humanity”:

But when each of us in his own heart looks,

He finds the world there far unlike his books.

And I can still hear his voice when, after illuminating the metrical felicitousness of a five-syllable word in a Wordsworth sonnet, he read the line in question aloud:

A sound like thunder – everlastingly.

The shock of this encounter, with its attendant, ever-deepening revelations about what was meant by poetic artistry and what could be said about it, at first silenced the callow voice of my adolescent verse. But as time went on, I cautiously began writing poems again. Maclean became dean of students in my sophomore year, and, innocent of the time-consuming responsibilities of such a position, I would wait until I had written two or three new poems and make an appointment to see him in the dean’s office. He would read each poem slowly and attentively, holding a partially smoked cigarette to one side, and then make an appreciative comment, perhaps singling out a line for praise or criticism. Every so often, when he took a pull on the cigarette, a length of soft gray ash would fall from it onto one of the typewritten pages, and he would lean over and delicately blow it off. Watching in silence, I longed to gather up that ash and take it home with me to keep.

For Maclean, all beauty worthy of the name, whether we find it in art, in human action, or in nature, is conferred on the thing that exemplifies it by some sort of evident power.

Shortly after I received a master’s degree in comparative literature at Chicago (Maclean was the chairman of my supervisory committee), I moved east for good. Maclean continued to divide the year between winters at the university and summers in his beloved cabin at Seeley Lake, Montana, which he and his father had built together. Fortunately for me, he continued to take an interest in the course of my life, and, in particular, to encourage me in the writing of poetry. As a result of that generosity (I was one of its many lucky beneficiaries), I remained in touch with him until a few years before his death. I hope I knew enough to save all his letters. Of those I have found and put in order, the earliest is dated March 22, 1949. The last, dated October 30, 1986, was written when he was eighty-four years old. In March 1988, I saw him for the last time, having arranged with his daughter, Jean Snyder, to stop off in Chicago on my way back from giving a lecture at the University of Michigan. He died a little over two years later.

The story of Maclean’s second career has become well known. His wife died after a long illness in 1968, and one of his letters to me refers, without further comment, to a long period of hospitalization he had undergone in 1970. Retirement loomed in 1973. Faced with this further bereavement (and, I would guess, having confronted in hospital the prospect of his own mortality), Maclean embarked on the courageous and strenuous journey of self-discovery that was to alter both his life and the American literary canon. Encouraged by his daughter and his son, he set about to give definitive written form to some of the stories he had told them about his boyhood and youth in Montana. In 1976, the book that resulted became the first, and only, collection of autobiographical narratives to be published by the University of Chicago Press; rave reviews and phenomenal sales followed. The story Maclean wrote last, “A River Runs Through It,” gave the book its title, and is now recognized as an American classic. He brought into its compass his immediate family: the minister father who had tutored him as a boy, the mother who asserted herself in a tough man’s world, and the glamourous, hard-living journalist brother who was inexplicably murdered in Chicago in 1938. It was, as he later described it in an interview taped for public radio, “a family with serious problems, but a family that loves itself infinitely, and that love spreads over everything.” Yet their story was a “tragic” one, since “ultimately we couldn’t understand each other.”

Norman Maclean told me that he had realized only when it was too late that after A River Runs Through It was published he should have taken at least six months off to celebrate. Instead, amid the pressures generated by an avalanche of correspondence and a series of lecture dates, he began researching and writing the book that would be called Young Men and Fire. Its subject was a disaster that had fascinated him ever since he had first heard of it, and whose site he had visited a few days after its occurrence. On August 5, 1949, twelve out of fifteen members of a crew of “Smokejumpers” – the United States Forest Service’s elite corps of airborne firefighters – were burned to death in Mann Gulch, Montana. (The thirteenth victim, a fire prevention guard stationed at the mouth of the next canyon, had joined the crew at the Mann Gulch fire after trying unsuccessfully to report it.) Maclean himself had been on a crew fighting a big fire near Missoula when he worked for the Forest Service as a boy in his teens. Pursued by roaring flames, he had barely made it uphill to safety on the slippery soles of the cheap boots which were all he could then afford to buy. (Maclean recounted this experience in “Black Ghost,” a story that serves as a preface to the book.) And there was a further affinity between Maclean and the men who died: early in life, he had almost decided on a career in the Forest Service when, as he put it, he “changed directions – all the way from the woods to the classroom.”

From the start, this second undertaking proved far more difficult for Maclean than the first, and in the end it defeated him, at least in his own eyes. I see many reasons for this. For one thing, his efforts to find out exactly what had happened, and why, were for some time thwarted by the Forest Service itself: that organization, beset by eight lawsuits charging it with negligence, had done its best to cover its tracks, withholding and even retouching some of the official documents concerning the disaster. In addition, there was what must have been, for so sensitive a man, the all but unbearable pain of the attempt to imagine, in order to re-create in words, the last moments of those who died. And then there was the inevitable waning of his energies as he moved from his late seventies into his eighties (he turned eighty in 1982). In a Christmas letter he sent out in 1983, he spoke of being constantly asked when he was going to finish “that story on the forest fire:’ and said that “in its present form parts of my story of the Mann Gulch fire are as well written as I can write them and other parts wander around and are not.” His last letter to me was in part an outpouring of frustration and despair. Though he worked “all the time,” he said, “from 6:30 in the morning to 12 at night,” he was making almost no progress on his “long obstructed story.”

Yet he managed to leave behind enough written materials to be edited into a book whose voice and vision are his own. His preparations for writing certain sections of it included the making, in his late seventies, of two exploratory visits to the scene of the fire. Each of these tested to the limit the strength, endurance, and know-how he had built up during a lifetime of activity in the wild.

Aside from their being clearly the products of a single imagination, no two books could present a more vivid contrast than A River Runs Through It and Young Men and Fire. They differ as the two elements that dominate them differ; as the continuity of a family across generations differs from the abrupt termination of the lives of a group of unrelated young men brought together on a certain day to do a certain job; as the Big Blackfoot River, with its waterfalls and its deep pools, differs from the dry scrub and sunbaked jagged rocks and ridges of Mann Gulch; as a magnificent rainbow trout, seeming to generate electrical sparks in the energy of its losing fight against the fisherman who has hooked it, differs from the apparition, near Willow Creek north of Mann Gulch, of a dying deer, burned hairless and purple, with red bulbs for eyes. More generally, the two books differ in the kind of power they bring to bear on their readers, and it is this difference that I want now to explore. A major topic of “From Action to Image;’ Norman Maclean’s essay on eighteenth-century poetic theory, is the opposition, central in the thought of the time, between two qualities producing two different effects, namely, the beautiful and the sublime. Between them, these were held to define the range of aesthetic experience. Whether or not Maclean himself was aware of it, A River Runs Through It and Young Men and Fire strikingly embody these two qualities and effects as he found them in that century’s theoretical writings.

The distinction between the two, developed, for example, by Edmund Burke in his Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), corresponded, Maclean saw, to the Aristotelian distinction between pity and terror, the two cathartic emotions evoked by tragedy. Our responses to the sublime and the beautiful are characterized, according to Burke, by terror (associated with the human instinct for self-preservation) and love (associated with the human social instincts), respectively. Love includes sexual love, but widens out, in its highest form, to compassion for one’s fellow human beings. Eighteenth-century aesthetics distinguished further between “sublime” and “beautiful” natural objects, the former tending to induce emotional states of turbulence and transport, the latter, states of pleasure and relaxation. Beauty, as manifested in love and nature, is everywhere a presiding presence in A River Runs Through It.

Those who have read the book will remember how the word beautiful appears and reappears in it at crucial moments. In an essay in the American Authors Series volume Norman Maclean, Glen A. Love observes that “the word … rings like a ballad’s refrain throughout the book.” Love quotes Maclean’s observation about his father in the title story, that “He was about the only man I ever knew who used the word ‘beautiful’ as a natural form of speech, and I guess I picked up the habit from hanging around him when I was little.”

Almost at the end of the story, we see Norman Maclean returning to Montana to tell his father and mother that Paul, his younger brother, has been found “beaten to death by the butt of a revolver and his body dumped in an alley.” In the course of a few brief questions and answers, father and son try together to sound the depths of the mystery of Paul’s nature, of his life in its inevitable descent toward disaster, and of his death. Each asks the other the same unanswered, unanswerable question: “Do you think I could have helped him?” Then Norman, in answer to another of his father’s questions, says:

“I’ve said I’ve told you all I know. If you push me far enough, all I really know is that he was a fine fisherman.”

“You know more than that,” my father said. “He was beautiful.”

“Yes,” I said, “he was beautiful. He should have been – you taught him.”

One of the earliest of Norman’s letters to me contains, apropos of the somewhat immature poems I was then writing, a definition of beauty which now helps me to understand why the concept, as he names and uses it in A River, is devoid of sentimentality. “Beauty,” he told me, “is a matter of pressure; within it, you have to feel thrusts and strains, and yet be at rest.” Maclean’s own beauty - I mean the beauty of what I hope I may be allowed to call his soul - was, as I have indicated, of that order. No one, even a college freshman, could see much of him without being struck by his amazing combination of toughness and delicacy. Here was a man who looked as though he could more than hold his own in the meanest and dirtiest of fistfights. Yet he could convey to his students the finest nuances of expression in the words, sounds, and rhythms of a line of poetry. He himself seems to have been well aware of the contending thrusts and strains in his own temperament. Speaking of his mother, he said, in an interview printed in the American Authors Series volume and entitled “The Two Worlds of Norman Maclean,”

She and my father fought for my soul when I was young, my father wanting me to be a tough guy and my mother wanting me to be a flower girl. So I ended by being a tough flower girl.

For Maclean, all beauty worthy of the name, whether we find it in art, in human action, or in nature, is conferred on the thing that exemplifies it by some sort of evident power, such that, to alter slightly the words of a poem by Marianne Moore, “it acknowledges the forces that have made it.” He once wrote me that “you can’t write a tender poem unless it is clean and tough.” And part of power, as he said on another occasion, is “knowing where to put it” – knowing, that is, how to use power with the kind of exactitude that the best poets, the best woodsmen, and the best fly fishermen bring to their respective crafts. The vision of beauty at the heart of A River Runs Through It, experienced by Norman Maclean and his father as together they watch Paul Maclean flycasting in the Big Blackfoot River, would not be what it is if the actions of the fisherman were not founded on power, properly and precisely deployed. And these actions reflect the temporally and geometrically precise definition of the art of a good cast presented by Maclean’s father at the beginning of the story: “It is an art that is performed on a four-count rhythm between ten and two o’clock.”

The Chicago critics have sometimes, rather reductively, been called “neo-Aristotelians.” Though I doubt if he had it consciously in mind, I think Norman Maclean would have liked the idea that in the writing of his second book, Young Men and Fire, he was trying to arrive at a full understanding of the Mann Gulch disaster in terms of the Aristotelian set of four causes: material, formal, efficient, and final. That is, he was concerned with the people involved in the events, and the physical setting and conditions in which they took place; with their shape and sequence as making up a narrative; with their causes in the narrower, modern sense; and with whatever meaning or purpose his long look at them might reveal. The book as we have it is not, of course, laid out systematically in terms of these different kinds of explanation, and one kind overlaps with another as it unfolds. Still, I think it is fair to say that part 1 is almost entirely concerned with material and formal causes, and that in parts 2 and 3 (part 3 being in fact a nine-page coda to the book as a whole), efficient and final causes come more and more into the foreground.

Part 1, after giving us some historical background about smokejumping, takes us through the whole story, from the circling of the plane over the newly discovered fire, as its crew waited in their jumpsuits, to the final count of bodies and the marking of the places where the dead had fallen. The narrative is leisurely, enriched by description; we learn about the geology, topography, and vegetation of Mann Gulch and its environs, the exact sequence of physical actions involved in making a jump, the perils of landing in wilderness terrain, and the hand tools used in 1949 to fight fires. Even amid these relatively unemotional passages, images of nature at its darkest, most violent, and most threatening terrify us and arouse our anxieties in ways characteristic of the Burkean sublime. We read that “when the crew landed on the Mann Gulch fire, it was a C [a fire of ten to ninety-nine acres]. Then suddenly it blew, and probably no one there had ever been on a ‘blowup’ before …. When 450 men finally got the Mann Gulch fire under control, it had burned forty-five hundred acres, between seven and eight square miles.” At the end, as the crew of smokejumpers fled before the fire, “the world roared at them – there was no safe place inside and there was almost no outside …. A world was coming where no organ of the body had consciousness but the lungs.”

By the end of part 1, Maclean has entered his own story as a character. Or rather, the story has enlarged to include not only the disaster but his investigations into it and his discoveries about it. We see him intent, first of all, on learning exactly how it happened that thirteen young men lost their lives in a forest fire, and, more specifically, to what extent misguided human agency may have been responsible for their deaths. Beyond that we see his more profound search for a final cause, his hope that he may be able to find some meaning or purpose in the disaster and its aftermath that will mitigate the stark dreadfulness of the facts. This hope, in the end, widens into his hope for what the book itself, if he succeeded in completing it to his satisfaction, might accomplish by way of a memorial tribute.

In the first chapter of part 1, Maclean quotes a description of the body of a squirrel found in Glacier National Park after a big fire there, “the burned-off stubs of his little hands … reaching out as far as possible, the back legs … extended to the full in one final, hopeless push.” He goes on to say that

although young men died like squirrels in Mann Gulch, the Mann Gulch fire should not end there, smoke drifting away and leaving terror without consolation of explanation, and controversy without lasting settlement …. This is a catastrophe that … might go on and become a story.

He then elaborates on this statement in a way I find important for the account of his narrative art I am trying to develop here. The story he hopes to arrive at, he says, “is a test of its own belief—that in this cockeyed world there are shapes and designs, if only we have some curiosity, training, and compassion and take care not to lie or be sentimental.” The mindless terror caused by the catastrophe simply as a spectacle will be made more human if such shapes and designs can be found, “altered somewhat by the addition of something like wonder – wonder, for example, because now we can say that the fire whirl which destroyed was caused by three winds on a river. If we could say something like this and be speaking both accurately and somewhat like Shelley when he spoke of clouds and winds, then what we would be talking about would start to change from catastrophe without a filled-in story to what could be called the story of a tragedy, but tragedy would be only a part of it, as it is of life.” Let me add that when Maclean spoke of Shelley’s poems “The Cloud” and “Ode to the West Wind” in an earlier version of one part of the Mann Gulch fire story, he said that they were “mixtures of the poetic and scientific imaginations.”

In the “training” needed, above and beyond “curiosity” and “compassion,” for making a story out of a catastrophe; in the care that must be taken to tell the exact truth; in the avoidance of sentimentality: in all these, I find significant correspondences with the “toughness” – including, you will recall, precision and accuracy – that was for Maclean a necessary part of the creation of beauty. In part 2, as he arrives, phase by phase, at a fuller and more intelligible account of the fire, the scientific imagination plays a more and more prominent part. It takes the form of the tape measure he used to measure distances on the terrain when he himself revisited it; of a diagram showing how “slant distance” is related to horizontal distance on an ascending slope as the hypotenuse of a right triangle is related to its two legs; of mathematical models predicting a fire’s rate of spread on the basis of fuel, wind, and ground topography. Its final form is a graph. On vertical and horizontal scales of space and time, two converging dotted lines form an all too literally “graphic,” and horrifying, representation of the overtaking of the thirteen men by the fire, as, in an accelerating rate of progress up the gulch which it is now possible to calculate almost exactly, it attained a speed no human body, however desperate for survival, could have matched.

Maclean realized that if he was to make “the story of a tragedy” out of the events of the Mann Gulch fire, he must, in investigating them, engage in an unsparing search for the truth. But the authorial presence we sense in the book is anything but dispassionate. You will recall his hope that the “settlement of controversy” would bring about the “consolation of explanation.” The desire to console, as well as to explain, takes Young Men and Fire beyond the realm of sublimity into that of beauty, the quality associated with the social instincts of love and compassion. To fulfill it, he would have to summon up the resources of the poetic imagination as well as the scientific, writing not merely as a historian but as a storyteller:

If a storyteller thinks enough of storytelling to regard it as a calling, unlike a historian he cannot turn from the sufferings of his characters. A storyteller, unlike a historian, must follow compassion wherever it leads him. He must be able to accompany his characters, even into smoke and fire, and bear witness to what they thought and felt even when they themselves no longer knew. This story of the Mann Gulch fire will not end until he feels able to walk the final distance to the crosses with those who for the time being are blotted out by smoke. They were young and did not leave much behind them and need someone to remember them.

To go that distance might well have overtaxed the powers of a younger man than he.

Late in the book, Maclean refers again in similar terms to his self-appointed task:

I have long expected to catch glimpses of them as far as they went. Could you expect less from a boy who grew up in the woods and grew old as a schoolteacher and so spent most of his life staying close to the young who are elite and select and, by definition, often in trouble? I came to Mann Gulch expecting to catch glimpses of them as far as they could go. That’s why I came.

The “consolation of explanation” provided by Maclean’s book extended beyond the victims to one of the survivors. His researches enabled him to show that the young men had not died by the equivalent of what, in war, is called “friendly fire.” To make this clear, I must recapitulate an episode that had raised painful and seemingly insoluble questions. The foreman of the crew of Smokejumpers, a man named Wag Dodge, after ordering his men to retreat up the gulch before the all-too-quickly advancing flames, took the unbelievably courageous step of lighting a counterfire in front of it. (As Maclean drily puts it, “the one cool spot” on the hillside “was inside Dodge.”) When a large enough area of grass had burned clear, he lay down on the hot ashes and breathed into a wet handkerchief. He called to the others, trying to get them to follow suit, but they disregarded him and ran on. The main fire passed over him and he survived, only to be accused, by the father of one of the victims, of having caused the death of his son and the others by creating another fire even nearer to them than the one from which they were trying to escape.

Some good had indeed come out of the Mann Gulch disaster, Maclean learned, in the form of a greatly increased understanding of the cooperating causes that determine the behavior – the intensity and rate of progress – of fire in the various kinds of wild terrain watched over by the Forest Service. Bringing to bear an enhanced understanding of the complex behavior of wind in the differing intensities of heat generated by two different fires, and having laboriously ascertained the exact location of Dodge’s counterfire, he was able to argue convincingly that that smaller fire would have spread across the line of flight – “upslope” in his terminology – and would not have preceded the main fire “upgulch,” overtaking the doomed young men as they struggled on ahead of it. Dodge is thus exonerated. Beyond that, the Mann Gulch disaster is shown to have been responsible for a number of technical improvements in the method of fighting fires, and in improved training of the crews who fight them. Only one of the ten new “Standard Fire Fighting Orders” issued eleven years afterward was illustrated specifically from the events at Mann Gulch, but, as Maclean puts it, “actually all the orders could have grown out of [them] … except the one or two relevant only to commanding very large crews.” He goes on to say, speaking of the crosses that mark the places where each of the young men fell, that they “are quiet and a long way off, and from this remove their influence is quiet and seemingly distant. But quietly they are present on every fireline, even though those whose lives they are helping to protect know only the order and not the fatality it represents. For those who crave immortality by name, clearly this is not enough, but for many of us it would mean a great deal to know that, by our dying, we were often to be present in times of catastrophe helping to save the living from our deaths.”

The graph showing in mathematical terms the moment-by-moment convergence of the fire and its victims appears in the last chapter of part 2; only the single chapter of part 3 remains. By this time, the scientific imagination has done its work. It has achieved a full account of the final actions of the young men who died and the conditions under which these actions were performed, including the “blowup” that suddenly turned the gulch into a single all-encompassing flame. It now remained for the poetic imagination to complete the task Maclean had set for himself, that of “walking the final distance to the crosses.” The passage in which I think he came the closest to putting it all together does indeed enlarge our terror and compassion with an admixture of “something like wonder.”

The fire that had jumped to the north side of the gulch had also been sneaking upgulch in the dense timber on the south side where it began, rolling burning cones downhill and setting spot fires, until in the semidarkness something invisible touched something else invisible and suddenly there was a fire front surrounding the head of the gulch. In a few minutes the head of the gulch descended into the lower circles of its own Inferno and the blowup became complete in Mann Gulch.

It was about this time that ranger Jansson, looking up Mann Gulch from the river, saw that the upper end of the gulch had disappeared into one vast flame …. Converging geometries had created something invisible like suction to [take things beyond] a natural explanation of the attraction of geometries to each other. In between these geometries for something like four minutes was a painfully moving line with pieces of it dropping out until there came an end to biology. Then it was pure geometry, and later still the solid geometry of concrete crosses.

This, for me, is where the book as Maclean left it comes to an end. I have to say – and I say it hesitantly and with pain – that what we are presented with in the last twenty pages as his further attempts to bring the poetic imagination to bear on his subject strike me as just that: as attempts. Neither the analogy of the atomic bomb, nor the analogy of Christ on the cross, nor the final analogy, much as I am moved by it, of the lonely suffering of his wife in terminal cancer, really works. If his creative energies had lasted, he would surely have been able to contrive an ending equal in power to the memorable final paragraphs of ”A River Runs Through It.”

I hope Norman Maclean would agree with me if he were here to read this essay. And I most earnestly hope that I have paid due tribute, not only to the achievement of his first book, but to the far more difficult and painful achievement of the second, the book which was, unfortunately, to be his last.

A River Runs Through It, and Other Stories by Norman Maclean (University of Chicago Press, 232 pp., $15.00)

Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean (University of Chicago Press, 320 pp., $19.95)

Marie Borroff was a scholar, poet, translator, and a Sterling Professor of English at Yale University.
Originally published:
April 1, 1994


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