The Haunting Waters of A River Runs Through It

“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing” (opening lines).

Anyone who has ever gone fly fishing knows it to be a complex art -almost spiritual in nature. Fly fishing forces a man to slow down, find rhythm, and discover patience and harmony with nature. In Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, which was mysteriously denied the Pulitzer Prize in 1977, Maclean offers a short story that mines the depths of this delicate art. In the story, fly fishing serves as a kind of metaphor for the imperfect nature of human beings (a theological notion propounded by Maclean’s father).

The novella is less about the panoramic “big sky country” and more of a meditation on Maclean’s upbringing and his family, especially his relationship with his brother. Maclean works for a newspaper in Helena where he hones his writing craft. We meet his Presbyterian minister father who teaches his boys how to fly fish, and his brother Paul who is often-drunk and gambling while maintaining a strict fishing regimen. A significant portion of the story is an extended recollection of a fishing misadventure with Maclean’s frivolous brother-in-law who winds up laying drunk, sunburned, and naked with a prostitute beside the river. The story highlights both Norman’s and Paul’s sacred connection to the river and its fish, in contrast to an outsider who disgraces and disrespects it. The river serves as the one constant in Norman’s life -it continues flowing while he continues fishing.

The tearful book ends in sorrow. Maclean, his father, and his brother all go fishing one last time together, and they observe Paul’s superior skills as he catches his “limit” (his biggest fish) in the river. Maclean reflects on the enthusiasm of the trio in one glimmering moment of nostalgia. Little did the trio know it was the last time they would ever fish together. The final words of Paul echo in Maclean’s mind: “just give me three more years before I can learn to think like a fish… just give me three more years…” Shortly thereafter Paul is found dead, the result of an apparent bar room fight. Paul’s death leaves Maclean and his father burdened and fatigued. Norman’s father suggests writing fiction because “only then will you understand what happened and why. It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us” (104).

The concluding paragraphs are the most darkly beautiful in the whole novella:

“Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand when I was young are dead, but I still reach out to them.

Of course, now I am too old to be much of a fisherman, and now of course I usually fish the big waters alone, although some friends think I shouldn’t. Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and the memories of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

I am haunted by waters”
(104).


There are many other deep and penetrating passages in A River Runs Through It. Here are a few that have stuck with me:

“‘Remember,’ as my father kept saying, ‘it is an art that is performed on a four-count rhythm between ten and two o’clock'” (4).

“Fishing is a world created apart from all others, and inside it are special worlds of their own -one is fishing for big fish in small water where there is not enough world and water to accomadate a fish and a fisherman” (40).

“The cast is so soft and slow that it can be followed like an ash settling from a fireplace chimney. One of life’s quiet excitements is to stand somewhat apart from yourself and watch yourself softly becoming the author of something beautiful, even if it is only floating ash” (43).

“…part of the way to know a thing is through its death” (62).


The 1977 Pulitzer Prize Controversy
A River Runs Through It was widely praised it upon its release. According to several news publications at the time, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction jury’s primary recommendation was for A River Runs Through It. The second choice was October Light by John Gardner. However, the Pulitzer Advisory Board denied the jury’s recommendation and no official Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was awarded in 1977.

There was speculation that the prize was not awarded due to a health emergency. One of the three fiction jurists, Jean Stafford, a novelist who won the Pulitzer herself in 1970, suffered a stroke while the jury was studying entries.

Richard T. Baker, a long-time journalism professor at Columbia University who succeeded John Hohenberg as Secretary of the Pulitzer Advisory Board, administered the prizes on behalf of Columbia University and said that no prize was given in the Fiction category because no recommendation “was clearly leading the pack.” He described 1977 as a “thin year, not a banner year” for both fiction as well as international reporting (a second category for which no award was given in 1977).

However, a special Pulitzer Prize was awarded in 1977 to Alex Haley in recognition of his best-seller, Roots, which traces seven generations of a black family in America.


Who Is Norman Maclean?
While A River Runs Through It offers the best insight into the life of Norman Maclean, I offer a terse overview of the author’s life below. Norman Maclean (1902-1990) was considered by some to be the patron writer of the state of Montana. He was born in Iowa and grew up in Missoula. In his early years he worked for the U.S. Forest Department, an experience he later wrote about in two of the stories featured in the A River Runs Through It and Other Stories.

Maclean graduated from Dartmouth College in 1924 and married Jess Burns in 1931. He enrolled in graduate school to study English at The University of Chicago, earning a doctorate in 1940. He taught courses on the Romantic poets and Shakespeare, before earning to a full professorship and becoming Dean of Students in Chicago. Many prominent Americans took classes with ‘Stormin’ Norman’ and his classes were often highly sought-after (some have grouped him among the neo-Aristotelians of the 20th century at The University of Chicago). U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens once credited professor Maclean as “the teacher to whom I am most indebted.”

Upon his retirement in 1974, Maclean’s two children encouraged him to write down the stories he often told them. In 1976, he published A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, a collection of three short stories, but the most prominent of the three is his memoir novella, “A River Runs Through It.” The book was the first work of fiction published by the University of Chicago Press.

Maclean spent his later years attempting to complete a book about the 1949 Mann Gulch Forest Fire, a wildfire that destroyed thousands of acres in Helena National Forest along the upper Missouri River. The book was published posthumously as Young Men and Fire (1992). Norman Maclean died in Chicago in 1990. In 1992, following Maclean’s death, the film rights to A River Runs Through It were purchased by Robert Redford and it was made into a Hollywood film starring Brad Pitt. The film version is entertaining and nostalgic, but it takes significant departures from the novella in order to expand the narrative.


Maclean, Norman. A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition. University of Chicago Press, 2001.

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