Yesterday I got all sidetracked trying to talk about The Norman Maclean Reader: Essays, Letters, and Other Writings by the Author of A River Runs through It. I can't help myself. Whenever A River Runs through It comes up, I have to think about it a little bit. But today I'm ready to move on.
Maclean was not a prolific writer, which is understandable, as he worked as an English professor at the University of Chicago until he was seventy, and only started writing after his retirement. So he only has two real published works: the novellaA River Runs through It, which included two shorter novellas/stories, and a nonfiction work of research about a disastrous forest fire and the men who died fighting it, titled Young Men and Fire (and which was published posthumously). In this volume, then, Maclean fans get a clearer look at Maclean himself: it includes chapters from an unfinished manuscript on George Armstrong Custer, a few short speeches, an unpublished essay on why he wrote Young Men and Fire, a few other essays, an interview he gave in the late 1980s, and a collection of his letters to colleagues and friends. It also includes a few pictures of him, his wife, his brother, and other writers he knew and corresponded with.
I appreciated the introduction, which was written with skill and helped me to better understand what was fictional or autobiographical about A River Runs through It. I'll admit it--I totally skipped the Custer chapters--not even Maclean can get me interested in Civil War history. But the interview, and the letters? Fantastic. Consider:
"In "A River Runs through It," you talked about God's rhythms. I wondered what you meant by that. One of my fascinations about my own life is that every now and then I see a thing that unravels as if an artist had made it. It has a beautiful design and shape and rhythm. I don't go so far as some of my friends, who think that their whole life has been one great design. When I look back on my life I don't see it as a design to an end. What I do see is that in my life there have been a fair number of moments which appear almost as if an artist had made them. Wordsworth, who affected me a great deal, had this theory about what he calls 'spots of time' that seem almost divinely shaped. When I look back on my own life, it is a series of very disconnected spots of time. My stories are those spots of time."
And, from this very telling bit, I understood why the movie version of A River Runs through It, was also spectacular:
"But you're still true to the spirit of the stories? I hope so. As I told you, I'm engaged now with several others in trying to make a script out of "A River Runs through It." They're always saying, 'You make it too tragic. A movie audience, unlike a literary audience, won't accept that much tragedy.' It's just too bad if they won't. I didn't ask to write this script. It wasn't my idea. I'm unbending about this, just totally unbending. I'm not going to compromise."
You tell 'em, Norman. Hot damn. What a guy. What a writer. Just for today, that it what I wish for you: a spot of time you feel is divinely shaped, and the courage and the opportunity to remain unbending about something.