- Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean
Chicago, 301 pp, £8.75, October 1993, ISBN 0 226 50062 4
Norman Maclean was born in western Montana in 1902. There landscapes are elemental: earth, air, water and sometimes fire are distinct and imposing presences. It’s mainly open country, with high mountains but also wide valleys, and the sky seems as immense as it does in deserts, although the valleys of western Montana are not desert but upland plain. Its great sweeps of space are made palpable by winds coming down off the highlands. The forms of earth are clear to see because the flanks of the hills and mountains are not so overgrown that their shapes and textures are concealed; their underlying geology shows in their contours and outcroppings of rock. In less open country, with less broad valleys and less immense skies, such rugged earth would be looming and claustrophobic. Cutting into the slopes of the mountains, pouring down gullies and gulches into the valleys, are creeks that become Montana’s great rivers: the Bitterroot, the Blackfoot, the Clark Fork, the Big Hole, the Beaverhead, the Gallatin, the Madison, the Missouri – the very essence of what running water should be. And sometimes, in summer, fire – occasionally started by human carelessness but more commonly by Montana’s ferocious lightning storms – devastates the slopes, and you can see smoke from blazes far back in the wilderness.
There Norman Maclean as a boy and young man learned from his father, a Presbyterian minister, about rectitude, pride, hard work, the doctrine of grace and the art of fly-fishing. He hiked, camped and hunted in the mountains, fished in the rivers. At 15 he began to work for the Forest Service during the summer; he cut trees and fought fires in the back-country and, minister’s son or not, with his brother Paul he fought with his fists in the streets and barrooms of Missoula. In his late teens, he went east to Dartmouth College, earned a degree, and taught for a few years after graduation. Then he briefly returned to Montana and the Forest Service before marrying and enrolling in the University of Chicago for graduate study. He remained in Chicago except for summers in Montana, for the 45 years of his career as a professor of English. He was a brilliant teacher, winning the Quantrell Prize for undergraduate teaching three times. No other faculty member at the university has won it more than once.
In spite of Chicago’s rigorous standards for publication by its faculty, however, Maclean published very little during his years there. He was well into his seventies before, in 1976, he published his first book, A River Runs Through It, and Other Stories, a collection of two novella-length stories and one short story, all openly autobiographical. The title story gradually became a cult classic of sorts, especially among fly-fishermen, before it gained general fame when Robert Redford released his film of it in 1992, two years after Maclean had died at the age of 87. At his death he had left an almost completed manuscript, Young Men and Fire, which the editors of the Chicago University Press prepared for publication.