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H E L E N L O J E K Boise State University Casting Flies and Recasting Myths with Norman Maclean To read Norman M aclean’s 1976 story “A River Runs Through It” is to enter a world in which tight, rhythmic prose (sentences flowing together like molecules of the Big Blackfoot River they describe) yields much comprehension of the joys and difficulties of family love. It is also, however, to enter a world shaped by an unexamined and probably uncon­ scious masculinity. In large part, that masculinity is linked to elements of western American myth, and Maclean seems too much of a western insider to be fully aware of the limitations of that myth. To recognize the joys and beauties of “A River Runs Through It” without recognizing the restric­ tions of its masculine myth is to miss the complex, often ambiguous, ways in which the work continues patterns commonly found in writings about the American West. There are, of course, several mythic American Wests: the frontier, the cattle range, the mining fields, to mention a few of the broadest categories. But heroes in fictional portrayals of all of these Wests have generally shared a cluster of personal characteristics. Tight-lipped, powerful, independent loners governed by a “code” of fair but assertive behavior, they are uncom­ fortable with the strictures and conventions of encroaching civilization. It is that category of western hero into which Maclean’s brother Paul fits, and recognizing Maclean’s recasting of elements of the western myth into a tale of fly fishing in M ontana in the 1930s reveals continuities and connec­ tions between his story and a long literary tradition. Maclean himself envisioned his tales as western. “I started reading western stories kind of to refresh myself on them before going very far with [my own stories],” he has said (Interview ). And he has twitted publishers for their hesitancy about accepting his works. “Then, to add further to their literary handicaps, these stories turned out to be Western stories—■ as one publisher said in returning them, ‘These stories have trees in them’” (River ix). 146 Western American Literature Critics too have pointed to the work’s regional nature. Harold Sim­ onson calls it “a classic in western American literature” (149). Wallace Stegner contrasts the popularity of Maclean’s stories with the fact “they are about the West . . . they are about a historical West . . . and they contain some of the mythic feeling and machinery . . . made all too familiar by horse opera” (154). And Kenneth Pierce fulminates about the “pigfuckers in the East” who refuse to render Maclean’s “dazzling achievement” its due (53). There are, of course, westerns and westerns. Or, as John Milton puts it, there are westerns and Westerns. The small w western “deals in stereo­ typed characters and stock patterns of action; it exploits the myths of the frontier, it depends upon a two-sided morality of good and evil. . . .” The upper case Western, on the other hand, “is of high literary quality . . . is sensitive to human behavior as well as to meaningful qualities of the land, is conscious of the relationship between the historical past and the present, is engaged in defining western man (in both senses of the term western) . . .” (xv). As a whole, I think, Maclean’s tale is in fact a Western. But it is not as unambiguously in that category as readers often assume, and a primary reason for its tenuous categorization is Maclean’s perpetuation of aspects of western myth which allow him to slip into stereotyped charac­ ters and prevent him from fully exploring the relationship between past and present. It is in his casting of Paul as a mythic western hero that Maclean’s indebtedness to western myth is most clearly visible. At thirty-five and the “height of his power” (21), Paul is noticeably superior to other Montanans (who are, of course, generally superior to the rest of us). Standing on the top of a cliff, putting “all his body and soul into a four-and-a-half-ounce magic totem pole,” Paul casts his line rhythmically out over the water, making loops and circles designed to convince the fish that a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 145-156
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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