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 person 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 his novella, 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 Prize twice (amazingly, he won it again for Alice Adams in 1922). With two Pulitzer Prizes under his hat, Tarkington became the first member of an exclusive club of writers which, in later years, also included William Faulkner and John Updike, both of whom also 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 into the crowded ranks of the mostly forgotten Pulitzer Prize-winners. Originally hailing from Indianapolis (where many of his novels were 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 elite East Coast 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 a taste of yesteryear –we are treated to a sentimental 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-mobilian Arcadia. However, with the passing of an older generation comes a new sense of urgency and growth. This little Midwestern town quietly expands into an industrial hub (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, beckoning a new age of progress.

In the midst of the Amberson family’s steady decline is a spoiled and arrogant child named George or “Georgie” Amberson Minafer. He is a “pampered youth” (in fact, a silent film was later released in 1925 loosely based on The Magnificent Ambersons 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 humble himself and change with the times. He despises the newfangled automobile, and pridefully rejects an opportunity to invest his family’s wealth in this strange new technology. He feels unthreatened and calloused toward 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, despite her obvious infatuation with a local automobile magnate named Mr. Eugene Morgan. At the same time, George also quietly loses track of his own love interest, Lucy Morgan (Eugene Morgan’s daughter). In an effort to escape his mounting troubles, George travels abroad with his mother, in part, to keep her separated from Eugene Morgan, but while traveling, George’s mother suddenly becomes gravely ill. Together, they return home and she dies shortly thereafter. We are left to mourn the life she might have lived with Eugene had George not selfishly ruined her prospects. Suddenly, upon the passing of his mother, George sees the world anew — his town has truly changed and his family has become anachronistic.

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 of 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 has been entirely wiped away from the city streets and buildings. 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. The accident is briefly highlighted in the newspapers, but George and the Amberson family have all largely been forgotten by now. He lies injured and anonymous in an ordinary hospital bed. At the beginning of the novel, young Georgie was known as a hell-raiser, a child many hoped would one day receive his comeuppance. Now, in the end, George’s curse has finally come to fruition –only 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 character. 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 wild and reckless behavior. As he grows, his arrogance prevents him from embracing and investing in the automobile –old aristocratic pride is trampled by the march of progress. Tarkington’s novel reflects a conservative tone –it is cautionary, warning us of the inevitable progress of technology. According to W.J. Stuckey in his book entitled The Pulitzer Prize Novels, the consistent theme in The Magnificent Ambersons is that “honest work will be rewarded by success.”

In all, The Magnificent Ambersons is not a particularly outstanding novel in my view. The opening pages are a 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 frustratingly poor decisions and 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 image of a disappearing small town as it is swallowed up by a big city, along with the downfall of a once prominent family, has now become a tired cliché. Tarkington bathes himself in austere old world tragedy 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 American literary endeavors in my view, though Orson Welles’s truly “magnificent” cinematic interpretation of the novel is not to be missed.

Today, The Magnificent Ambersons is a largely forgotten novel. The book has been 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 in production, which then led to a nasty battle between director and studio (Welles vs RKO), the film is nevertheless a seminal achievement.

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, although The New York Times noted that many of these early Jury members were appointed by the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the National Institute of Arts and Letters). 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 collectively decided it was better to give the prize to Tarkington than not to issue an award at all –perhaps not exactly a resounding endorsement of The Magnificent Ambersons. I am led to believe the Jury member who suggested Tarkington may have been Stuart Pratt Sherman who also later helped select Booth Tarkington’s second Pulitzer Prize win, Alice Adams, a few years later.

I will close this review with an early paragraph from the novel, which also serves as the opening soliloquy 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.”

Booth Tarkington, 1922

Who Is Booth Tarkington?

Newton Booth Tarkington (1869-1946) was born in Indianapolis to a well-connected family (his uncle was the governor of California, Newton Booth, and other familial relations also extended to the Mayor of Chicago). Tarkington attended Phillip Exeter Academy and rubbed shoulders with the likes of President Benjamin Harrison. He began his career contributing numerous anonymously submitted stories to various publications. While attending Princeton, he drew comics for the Princeton Tiger and served as a leader at several student organizations. After being rejected numerous times for his literary endeavors, he finally found success with the publication of “The Gentleman from Indiana” (1889), thanks to a family connection with S.S. McClure, and from here Tarkington embarked on a busy writing career which included the publishing of a new novel each year. He was elected to the Indiana House of Representatives in 1902-1903 but soon returned to writing, penning some forty novels and plays between 1899-1946. Both The Magnificent Ambersons and Alice Adams won the Pulitzer Prize (Tarkington is one of only four writers to date who have written two novels that have both won a Pulitzer Prize), however he was most fondly remembered in his day for his tales of Midwestern boyhood as found in his Penrod tales.

Politically, Tarkington was an ardent internationalist, a passionate supporter of the United Nations and Roosevelt’s lend-lease policy, however he later staunchly detested FDR’s New Deal. His political conservatism can be found starkly expressed throughout his writings as well as his taste in art. He was a defender of the old guard Midwestern aristocracy, an elite class he believed was ever under threat of destruction by the march of progress.

Tarkington wrote only in longhand, never having learned to use a typewriter. He was a frequent world traveler, residing at homes along the coast of Maine as well as Indiana. He was twice married. His first wife, Laurel Louisa Fletcher (later Connely), was a poet who helped arrange many of his early works (they were married from 1902-1911). She was the daughter of a Midwest banking family and a graduate of Smith College. They had one daughter together, Laurel, born in Rome during one of the Tarkington’s extended trips aboard. Laurel lived from 1906-1923. Tragically, she suffered from schizophrenia and attempted suicide by casting herself out a second story window, She survived the fall but passed away due to pneumonia at age 17 with her doting father seated at her bedside.

After divorcing his first wife, Tarkington was remarried to Susanah Keifer Robinson in 1912 (they met at a house party in Dayton, Ohio in 1912). They had no children. Tarkington died at the age of 76 in 1946, and despite being nearly blind, he was three-quarters of the way through a new novel at the time. During his lifetime, Tarkington was regarded as among the greatest of American novelists, hailed as the great Hoosier writer, the bard of the Midwest, however his reputation has since declined precipitously. In 1983, Tarkington’s grandniece Susanah Mayberry published an affectionate memoir of her grand-uncle entitled “My Amiable Uncle” which fondly reflected upon his life, but more recent reflections on Tarkington’s life have been less friendly. Occasionally, Tarkington appears in contemporary articles –for example, Thomas Mallon penned a scathing article in The Atlantic in 2004 entitled “Hoosiers: The Lost World of Booth Tarkington” and an even more blistering critique of Tarkington was written by Robert Gottlieb in a 2013 The New Yorker article entitled “The Rise and Fall of Booth Tarkington” in which he claimed “the candidate for the Great American Novelist had dwindled into America’s most distinguished hack.”

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

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