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”

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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1919 Pulitzer Prize Review: The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington

A stately American novel if there ever was one, The Magnificent Ambersons (1918) won the second “Pulitzer Prize for the Novel” in 1919. Its author, Booth Tarkington, is one of the few writers to ever win the Pulitzer twice (amazingly, he won it again for Alice Adams in 1922). With two Pulitzer Prizes, Tarkington became the founding member of an exclusive club which, in later years, also included William Faulkner and John Updike, who both won two Pulitzer Prizes (and as of 2020 Colson Whitehead has also achieved this rare distinction). In his day, Tarkington was considered among the best novelists of his generation, an erudite midwestern gentleman who dined with business magnates and politicians alike, but today he has fallen among the crowded ranks of mostly forgotten Pulitzer Prize-winners. Originally hailing from Indianapolis (where his novels were mostly set), Newton Booth Tarkington was a degree-less Princeton man whose upper-crust patrician Midwestern family tragically lost most of its wealth during the Panic of 1893, not unlike the fictional Amberson family. Tarkington married twice and had one daughter who sadly died at a young age. In his later years, he became a sailor, and as a result of his literary successes, he was often celebrated as the toast of East Coast elite circles, rubbing shoulders with high society everywhere he went.

Mirroring Booth Tarkington’s own life, The Magnificent Ambersons is the tragic story of a once-prominent Midwestern family. The beginning of the novel offers readers a taste of yesteryear –we are treated to a beautiful panorama of life in a small midland town at the turn of the century. We see children playing in the streets, women gossiping on warm summer nights, and teenagers wooing their neighbor’s daughters while courtly carriages gently trot by. At the center of this blissful epoch is the Amberson family, whose Gilded Age fortune had built this little town. Streets and buildings all bear the Amberson name, and the fabulous Amberson mansion sits at the far end of town. All seems well in this ante-hurried-mobilian Eden. However, with the passing of an older generation comes a new sense of urgency and growth. This little Midwestern town quietly grows into an industrial city (much like Indianapolis once did) and new technologies, like the automobile, begin to accelerate the pace of life. Suddenly, the prestige of the Amberson family begins to wane. The old ways become dusty, frail, and complacent in their own hubris, thus beckoning a new age of progress.

In the midst of the Amberson’s decline is a spoiled and arrogant child named George or “Georgie” Amberson Minafer. He is a “pampered youth” (a silent film was released in 1925 loosely based on the novel entitled Pampered Youth). As George grows, he inherits the position of de facto head of the Amberson family, but, in his own fatal obstinance, he refuses to change with the times. He despises the newfangled automobile, and pridefully rejects an opportunity to invest in this strange new technology. He feels unthreatened and calloused to the whims of the world around him. George’s judgment is clouded by his own hubris. In his defiant rejectionism of all things new, he also prevents his mother from finding new love with a local automobile magnate named Mr. Eugene Morgan. At the same time, George also quietly loses track of his own long-time love interest, Lucy Morgan (Mr. Morgan’s daughter). In an effort to escape his mounting troubles, George travels abroad with his mother, in part, to keep her apart from Mr. Morgan, but while traveling, George’s mother suddenly becomes gravely ill. They return home and she dies shortly thereafter. We are left to mourn the life she might have lived with Mr. Morgan had it not bbeen for George’s childishness. Suddenly, upon the passing of his mother, George sees the world anew — his town has truly changed and his family has become an anachronism.

The Amberson family wealth now lies in ruins. Their investments have sunk and they are forced to sell their fabulous mansion at the far end of town. In time, the old house becomes little more than a dilapidated edifice for old memories and it is soon forgotten. In time, it is boarded up and torn down to make way for new storehouses and manufacturing. George and his Aunt Fanny move into a small apartment together where George is forced to seek employment (he is no longer a “pampered youth”). He works a dangerous job handling and transporting chemicals in order to pay the monthly rent. By now, the Amberson name is entirely wiped away throughout the city (streets are re-named, and old buildings are torn down). One day, George is struck by an automobile –the very machine he once refused to invest in. The injury breaks both his legs, and it costs him his job. His accident is briefly highlighted in the newspapers, but George and the Ambersons have largely been forgotten by now. He lies injured and anonymous in an ordinary hospital bed. At the beginning of the novel, young Georgie was a hell-raiser whom many hoped would one day receive his comeuppance. Now, in the end, George’s curse has finally come to fruition –only now, no one is around to witness it, save for Lucy and her father who decide to visit George in the hospital in order to make amends.

The Amberson Mansion from Orson Welles’s 1942 film

Throughout the novel, George Amberson Minafer is a frustratingly predictable and one-dimensional. He is both prideful, and sensitive –incapable of behaving like a gentleman. At the beginning, he is scorned by many people in town for his reckless behavior. As he grows up, his arrogance prevents him from investing in the automobile. Aristocratic values are no match for the march of Progress. Tarkington’s novel reflects a conservative tone, yet it is also cautionary, warning us of the inevitability of technological progress.

In all, The Magnificent Ambersons is not a particularly outstanding novel in my view. The opening pages are pure joy as we enter into the nostalgic gaiety of a turn-of-the-century Midwestern town. However, we are soon burdened by the sheer gravitas of George Amberson and his collapsing lifestyle. The Magnificent Ambersons employs a heavy dose of tragic pity (as well as a dash of schadenfreude) coupled with an Aesopian moral, as if to remind us that “pride goeth before a fall.” Perhaps the theme of a small town transforming into a big city, and losing its old charm, along with the downfall of a once prominent family, has now become a tired cliché. Booth Tarkington bathes himself in old world tragedy and misfortune while avoiding any coup d’œil of good old American optimism. For this reason, The Magnificent Ambersons seems ill-suited to rank among the best of our literary endeavors, though Orson Welles’s truly “magnificent” interpretation of the novel is not to be missed.

The 1919 Pulitzer Prize Decision
Apparently, the same Novel Jury convened in 1919 as in 1918 (I am unsure of who those Jury members were). The initial consensus was not to select a novel for the year 1919 but at the last moment one of the Jury members wrote to the Pulitzer Advisory Board asking if it was too late to grant the award to The Magnificent Ambersons. They decided it was better to give the prize to Tarkington than to not issue an award at all.

Booth Tarkington, 1922

Today, The Magnificent Ambersons is a largely forgotten novel. The book is more or less eclipsed by Orson Welles’s far more memorable film of the same name released in 1942 (feel free to read my review of the film here). Although Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons was heavily edited by the film studio, which then led to a nasty battle between director and studio (Welles vs RKO), the film is nevertheless a seminal achievement.

I will close this review with an early paragraph from the novel, which also serves as the opening monologue of the Orson Welles film:

“The magnificence of the Ambersons began in 1873. Their splendor lasted throughout all the years that saw their Midland town spread and darken into a city. In that town in those days, all the women who wore silk or velvet knew all the other women who wore silk or velvet and everybody knew everybody else’s family horse and carriage. The only public conveyance was the streetcar. A lady could whistle to it from an upstairs window, and the car would halt at once, and wait for her, while she shut the window, put on her hat and coat, went downstairs, found an umbrella, told the “girl” what to have for dinner and came forth from the house. Too slow for us nowadays, because the faster we’re carried, the less time we have to spare.”

Tarkington, Booth. The Magnificent Ambersons. Barnes & Noble Classics Series, July 1, 2005.

Click here to return to my survey of the Pulitzer Prize Winners.

Click here to read my review of Booth Tarkington’s other Pulitzer Prize winner: Alice Adams.