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O. A L A N W E L T Z I E N Western Montana College Norman Maclean andTragedy Norman Maclean’s 1952 King Lear essay, one of his two contribu­ tions to Critics and Criticism (co-edited with five colleagues) deserves close attention: it tells as much about Maclean the critic and writer as it does about Lear and Shakespeare. The essay reveals the central signifi­ cance of tragedy for Maclean, and can be seen as an aesthetic blueprint for his career as awriter. In a long-attempted but finally unfinished book about George Armstrong Custer, in A River Runs Through It, and in YoungMen andFire, Maclean challenged himselfto enter what he consid­ ered the most significant literary territory: tragedy. For Maclean, tragedy emanates from experiences of acute defeat. The formal difficulties of writing about “the problem of defeat,” as he termed it—whether the defeat be the madness of breakdown or death itself—pose this writer’s lifelong challenge. In Lear, “the problem of defeat”is the reign of disorder in the King’s broken spirit. For Maclean this is the play’s “most tragic region.” According to Maclean, Shakespeare faced something tremendously important here: it waswhat confronted both the writer . . . and Lear, who stood outside when a storm arose and a daughter ordered a door shut. Mind you, before this particular moment Lear had been a successful king and Shakespeare had written great tragedies, but neither had ventured far into madness. (“Lear,”598-99) The conceit of “reducing”Shakespeare to Lear sharpens our atten­ tion upon the heath scenes as terra incognita, the conception and presen­ tation of madness. Maclean takes pains to demonstrate that Lear’s crisis is universal, belonging to you and me as much as to Shakespeare. Lear’s crisis potentially becomes our own. Though “an old man of over eighty 140 WesternAmerican Literature years,”he “becomes worthy ofbeing a tragic hero,”because he “takes on . . . the power of thought” as his world comes unglued (601). The anatomy of self-destruction Maclean plots from Act II to Act IV Scene vi—the playwithin the play—is ageless; psychologically, it could belong to young adulthood as well as any of man’s other “stages.” That inner play presents the human nadir, when things continue to go remorse­ lesslywrong with seemingly no end—no change in fortunes, or redemp­ tive grace—in sight. The old man’s breakdown, marked by his “bare forked” nakedness in the storm, defines defeat. It is a defeat that Maclean later discovered, and attempted to write about, in the 7th Cavalry’s doom at the hands of Sioux and Cheyenne, Paul Maclean’s slow self-destruction and violent end, and the Mann Gulch smokejumpers’death by fire. Maclean positions himself, at least three times, in ‘The moment we imagine Shakespeare’s pen in our hand and Act III unwritten” (“Lear,”600). For Maclean, only “the most composed”writing best reveals “the disorderly,”whether that is a mad old king or young men facing destruc­ tion. This inherent difficulty to overcome could explain his slender output, because balancing Dionysian forces of chaos with Apollonian structures of artistic order simply tasked the writer too severely most of the time. When he writes, “the question of whether the universe is something like what Lear hoped it was or very close to what he feared it was, is still, tragically, the current question” (601), he admits a dark prospect informing his subsequent writing. II Probably the most telling passage from the 1952 “Lear” essay conflates, to some extent, Maclean’sdiscovery of theme and calling. For here Maclean announces not only his prospectus regarding Shakespeare’s darkest tragedy, but also, in a sense, his literary future: We propose to follow Lear and Shakespeare across the heath to the fields of Dover on what for both was a unique experience, and then to be even more particular, considering the individual scenes lead­ ing to this meeting of Lear and Gloucester when in opposite senses neither could see. And, for smaller particulars, we shall consider an incident from one of these scenes, a speech from this incident, and, finally, a single word. In this declension of particulars our...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 139-149
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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