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O. A L A N W E L T Z I E N Western Montana College TheTwoLives ofNormanMaclean andThe TextofFire in YoungMen andFire i Midway through Part II of the posthumously published YoungMen and Fire Norman Maclean, thinking of the Westminster Catechism’s influence upon his father’s literary style and perhaps his own, com­ ments, in filial echo, “One of the chief privileges of man is to speak up for the universe” (216). This “fire report”—Maclean’s final term for his book—testifies to the toil and toll a man’s “privilege”exacts. Of course its autobiographical gravity and complicated literary design—its ex­ tended metaphors and Christian symbolism, for example—make it the most unusual and elaborate “fire report” ever turned in. Maclean’s labor certainly transcends a eulogistic, obituary impulse, that “small memorial of knowledge I was hoping to erect to the dead in Mann Gulch” (189). Critics of A RiverRuns Through It have commented about the Logos beneath water; when Maclean turned in 1976 to the Promethean element and began Young Men and Fire, however, the dis­ covery of Logos became far more challenging and elusive. By the time Maclean first met Laird Robinson inJuly 1976, he knew he wanted to write a book about the notorious Mann Gulch Fire of 5 August 1949—a red letter day in smokejumper history. Just over two years after his death (3 August 1990), in September 1992, the University of Chicago Press published this book that Maclean worked on, with Laird Robinson, for over ten years (Robinson, personal communica­ tion) . It chronicles the story of those smokejumpers who jumped into Mann Gulch, twenty-five miles or so northeast of Helena, Montana, about 4 p.m., confronted a blowup fire an hour and a half later, and raced ahead ofroaring flames that engulfed them before 6 p.m. In Part I of YoungMen andFireMaclean replays their fatal race against the fire; in Part II he tells the story of his own labor, again with Robinson, in 4 WesternAmerican Literature determining the whole truth aboutwhat happened; and in the briefPart III he spiritually answers, as best he can, the overall question ofwhy fire consumed these young men. That interpreting the cosmos proves as much or more a burden than a privilege, there can be little doubt. Maclean’s occasional speeches and essays published in the late 1970s and 1980s suggest him confidendy at work on his fire book, and they also explain the Mann Gulch Fire’s grip on him. A review of these enables us to understand more acutely the challenge Maclean set for himself as well as the auto­ biographical traditions and interpretations of nature out of which he writes. These documents everywhere show his obsession with under­ standing disaster and discovering a form sufficient to expressing this understanding; they form the best context for assessing the book. We know from Pete Dexter’sJune 1981 Esquire profile that Maclean “is in the last chapter of that story now” (American Authors Series: Norman Maclean, hereafter AA, 141), yet six years later, when Maclean grows too ill to continue work, he still is not “finished.” Presumably his children and the University of Chicago Press felt more confident and less uncer­ tain about the manuscript than he. I believe Maclean fairly successful in interpreting the cosmos and that, in the evolution of “story” from “catastrophe,”we witness the genesis of text, as if it talks itselfinto being with gradually greater assurance (e.g. Fire, 36-7, 102, 143). This creation of story constitutes a complex act of autobiography to the extent that Maclean sees himself in these dead smokejumpers who, in turn, repre­ sent kindred spirits to Paul Maclean, the murdered younger brother who inspired A River Runs Through It and always centered Maclean’s thinking about tragedy. Yet Fire, like a disaster movie, continually flick­ ers before the narrator-protagonist’seyes even aswe watch him wrestle a text from fire. We all remain haunted by fire. The book, aswe shall see, sometimes pauses in doubt, and its mood swings between conviction and doubt explain, in large measure, its eloquence and appeal. YoungMen andFire's subtitle—A True Story oftheMann GulchFire...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 3-24
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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