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.

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

1922 Pulitzer Prize Review: Alice Adams by Booth Tarkington

Image result for alice adams booth tarkington

In the pantheon of great American literature, Booth Tarkington stands alone as perhaps the most forgettable writer to ever win the Pulitzer on two separate occasions. Tarkington is one of three writers to accomplish the feat, the others being William Faulkner and John Updike (as of 2020 Colson Whitehead has also joined the exclusive club of two-time Pulitzer Prize winners). However in his day, Tarkington was one of America’s most celebrated writers, a patrician of the highest order whose novels were praised by academics and critics alike. Today, he is wholly forgotten, except for the few lone readers who venture through the Pulitzer Prize winners. In both of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novels, Tarkington attempts to portray the decline of the old Midwestern gentry. His books hearken back to the railroad and mining industries of the 1870s, and he laments the rise of new industries, namely the growth of factories and automobiles. Tarkington has a particular nostalgia for America’s Gilded Age past. Additionally, both of Tarkington’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novels were made into memorable Hollywood films. Indeed, in a rare turn of events, both film adaptations greatly overshadow their original novels (most notably, Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons but also Alice Adams starring Katherine Hepburn. Feel free to read my reviews of both films at the attached links).

Part of the problem is that Tarkington simply believes in his own grandiosity above all else. He sees himself as a heavy, tragic/epic laureate of the declining Midwest. However, his novels are dull and endless. The characters are one-dimensional with premonitions of greatness but they inevitably fall short. In contrast to Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence, Booth Tarkington’s aristocracy is difficult to find believable. To be fair, scattered throughout Alice Adams and The Magnificent Ambersons, there are some amusing scenes and pleasant passages of summer days in old Midwestern towns, but, in all, Tarkington’s novels are hardly remarkable (read my reflections on reading Booth Tarkington’s other Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Magnificent Ambersons).

In Alice Adams, Tarkington introduces us to a struggling lower-class family, presumably in Indianapolis, whose daughter, Alice Adams, dreams of becoming a wealthy “well-to-do” lady. She attends a ball in town with her embarrassingly blue-collar brother, and she catches the eye of an older, wealthier man. He is new to town. His name is Arthur Russell. He courts her gradually throughout the novel until a crescendo of chaos throws their future into question. He is invited to the humble Adams family home for dinner. Unfortunately for Alice, pretty much everything goes wrong from the start –unbearably warm weather, working-class foibles, and her family’s mortifying lack of social graces. Midway through dinner, the meal is interrupted by financial troubles haunting the family. Alice’s father, Virgil, is confronted by his old business partner, old Mr. Lamb (“probably the last great merchant in America to wear the chin beard”) who confronts Virgil regarding unpaid debts. Mr. Lamb once employed Virgil out of pity, but Virgil stole the company glue-making recipe and opened a factory which has since been acquired by Mr. Lamb. Unbeknownst to Alice’s father, their son, Walter, has robbed the business and skipped town, leaving the family with a huge lingering debt.

The novel ends tragically. Alice Adams and a somber Arthur Russell sit together for a moment on the veranda of her family home. They exchange pleasantries but Arthur is clearly perturbed. He solemnly departs never to return. The story ends in their chosen place of courtship. Arthur Russell now sees their class differences for what they are: simply too great to overcome. Alice and Arthur depart one last time from the porch steps, knowing it will be the last. Meanwhile, Mr. Adams’s company takes pity on him and they settle his large debt. The company purchases Mr. Adams’s “glue factory” which prevents him from going to prison for his son’s crime. The book ends with an epilogue of sorts: Alice Adams is en route to a local college to learn employable skills. She has learned to accept her lower class status. Ironically, on the way to school she bumps into Arthur Russell for one brief and awkward moment. Surprised, he stammers when he sees Alice, but she simply says “hello” and moves along. She is pleased by her own confidence, even though she is forced to confront her own “doom” in the labor market to keep her family afloat.

In the end, Alice Adams is a more beautiful novel than The Magnificent Ambersons because it is a simpler storythough both novels ultimately fall short of their lofty ambitions in my view.

About The 1922 Pulitzer Prize Decision
The decision to grant the Pulitzer Prize to Booth Tarkington again in 1922 was unanimous and uncontroversial (unanimity was not always the case with respect to the Pulitzer Prizes), in spite of the fact that Tarkington had won the Pulitzer only a few years prior with The Magnificent Ambersons. Stuart P. Sherman was apparently the only member of the three person Novel Jury in 1922 to return from the previous year. Thus he was made Chairman of the Jury. He was something of a noisemaker having been part of the controversies in prior years. In response to why the Jury selected Booth Tarkington’s Alice Adams rather than John Dos Passos’s Three Soldiers, Sherman apparently said Three Soldiers “has no great power in characterization or structure but has considerable interest as a commentary.” The 1922 Novel Jury was the last time Stuart P. Sherman served on a Jury.

  • Stuart Pratt Sherman (1881-1926) was a prominent literary critic. Distantly related to William Tecumseh Sherman, he was born in Anita, Iowa, studied at Williams College and received his PhD from Harvard University. He taught at Northwestern University and the University of Illinois before becoming a literary critic –he was known for a public feud with H.L. Mencken. He became literary editor of the New York-Herald Tribe (a pro-Republican paper that ran from 1924-1966). He was initially a defender of Nativism and a critic of Theodore Dreiser, but later refined his opinions. Tragically, Sherman died at the age of 44 in 1926 –while on vacation at Lake Michigan his canoe suddenly flipped over and he suffered a heart attack. He was survived by his wife, Ruth Bartlett Mears, and only daughter. Upon Sherman’s death, Nicholas Murray Butler, President of Columbia, praised the legacy of Stuart P. Sherman.

    Thus far, I have been unable to locate the other two Novel Jury members for 1922.

Below is my favorite passage from Alice Adams:

Something like this always happened, it seemed; she was continually making these illuminations, all gay with gildings and colourings; and then as soon as anybody else so much as glanced at them—even her father, who loved her—the pretty designs were stricken with a desolating pallor. “Is this LIFE?” Alice wondered, not doubting that the question was original and all her own. “Is it life to spend your time imagining things that aren’t so, and never will be? Beautiful things happen to other people; why should I be the only one they never CAN happen to?” (Chapter IX)

For this reading I used an online edition of Alice Adams. Click the link below to Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons for a brief biography of the writer.

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: The Magnificent Ambersons.