Authors: Norman Maclean

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist

Author Works

Short Fiction:

A River Runs Through It, and Other Stories, 1976 (includes 2 novellas and a short story)


Manual for Instructions in Military Maps and Aerial Photographs, 1943 (with Everett C. Olson)

Young Men and Fire, 1992


Norman Fitzroy Maclean (muh-KLAYN) is best remembered today as the author of a single novella, A River Runs Through It, whose lyrical prose, nostalgic evocation of Western life early in the last century, and celebration of the grace of fly fishing have made it a minor classic in American letters.{$I[A]Maclean, Norman}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Maclean, Norman}{$I[tim]1902;Maclean, Norman}

Although Maclean was born in Iowa, his family moved to Missoula, Montana, in 1909. He and his younger brother, Paul, were taught at home until 1913 by their father, who was a Presbyterian minister. Under his rigorous tutelage Norman learned the rudiments of an economical prose style. His father also taught his son how to fly fish, and an appreciation of the skill it demands later provided the heart of his most famous work. His mother taught him iambic meter, which profoundly influenced his prose style.

Maclean attended Dartmouth College, during the summers working for the U.S. Forest Service, experience that would later provide another source for his fiction. He began graduate work at the University of Chicago in 1928 and was hired as an instructor in 1931. He married Jessie Burns, a Scotch-Irish redhead from Helena, Montana, and they had two children, Jean in 1942 and John in 1943. In 1938 his brother was murdered in Chicago, a case that remained unsolved. Maclean received his Ph.D. in 1940 and stayed at the University of Chicago, three times receiving the Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. His wife died in 1968, and he retired in 1973, dying in 1990 at the age of eighty-seven.

Aside from a couple of academic essays and several occasional pieces, Maclean wrote little during his academic career. A River Runs Through It, and Other Stories was published by the University of Chicago Press in 1976, four years after his retirement. The book was short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1977 and has gone on to become a minor classic, admired by devotees both of quality fiction and fly fishing.

Maclean wrote semiautobiographical fiction in a lyrical style that drew on his experiences growing up in a Scottish-Presbyterian home amid the mountains and trout streams of Montana and working for the Forest Service during the summers while he was in college. His only published works of fiction, the two novellas and a short story, A River Runs Through It, USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Wall, and “Logging and Pimping and ‘Your Pal, Jim’” (all included in A River Runs Through It, and Other Stories), draw heavily on his youth in the West. His final book, Young Men and Fire, published posthumously, was a work of nonfiction, part history, part story, part science, that explores the deaths of a handful of smokejumpers who died mysteriously fighting a forest fire at Mann Gulch in the Gates of the Mountain wilderness area in Montana in 1949.

A River Runs Through It remains Maclean’s best-loved and most significant work. Although the book’s popularity undoubtedly received a boost from Robert Redford’s excellent film based on it, it is the rhythms of the prose, the allure of the compelling narrative, and the hauntingly elegiac ending that primarily account for its continuing reputation in American literature.

BibliographyBooth, Wayne. “The Struggle to Tell the Story of the Struggle to Get the Story Told: The Genre of Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire.” Hypotheses: Neo-Aristotelian Analysis 20 (Winter, 1997): 13-14. Genre analysis of Young Men and Fire.Boroff, Marie. “The Achievement of Norman Maclean.” Hypotheses: Neo-Aristotelian Analysis 20 (Winter, 1997): 2-7. Overview of Maclean’s writing.Grenander, M. E. “Soul Clap Hands and Sing: The Career of Norman Maclean.” Hypotheses: Neo-Aristotelian Analysis 20 (Winter, 1997): 8-13. An overview of Maclean’s career.Johnson, Don. “The Words Beneath the Stones: Salvation in A River Runs Through It.” Aethlon: The Journal of Sports Literature 14, no. 1 (Fall, 1996): 301-307. Study of the religious significance of the novella.McFarland, Ronald E. Norman Maclean. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University, 1993. A short study of Maclean as a Western writer.McFarland, Ron, and Hugh Nichols, eds. Norman Maclean. Lewiston, Pa.: Confluence Press, 1988. Collection of essays on Maclean’s writing.Simonson, Harold P. “Norman Maclean’s Two-Hearted River.” Western American Literature 17, no. 2 (August, 1982): 149-155. Study of the place of A River Runs Through It in American literature.Toole, David. “Wonder, Grief, and Tragedy: A Nietzschean Defense of Young Men and Fire.” Soundings: A Interdisciplinary Journal 81, nos.1/2 (Spring/Summer, 1998): 195-211. A Nietzschean reading of the book.Weinberger, Theodore. “Religion and Fly Fishing: Taking Norman Maclean Seriously.” Renascence: Essays on Value in Literature 49, no. 4 (Summer, 1997): 281-289. Essay that discusses the novel in relation to its religious themes.
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