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University of Washington H A R O L D P. S IM O N S O N Norman Maclean’s Two-Hearted River “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.”1 With this arresting opener, Norman Maclean begins his novella, “A River Runs Through It” (1976), the first work of original fiction ever published by the University of Chicago Press in its long history. It is also Maclean’s own first work of fiction, written after his return to Montana following retirement as William Rainey Harper Pro­ fessor of English at the University of Chicago. Remarkable in many ways, his novella deserves recognition as (I believe) a classic in western American literature. As for the analogy between religion and fly fishing, Maclean hooks it, plays and fights it, and finally lands it with masterful form. In short, the analogy works artistically. Moreover, the river (Mon­ tana’s Big Blackfoot River) takes on intriguing dimensions, which I will argue include both symbolic and typological significance. For the author, his closing sentence says it all: “I am haunted by waters” (104). Christ’s disciples were fishermen, those on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen, and Maclean’s favorite, John, had to be a dry-fly fisher­ man. This was the logic Maclean as a boy learned from his father’s Presbyterian sermons. Yet for all the sermons preached and heard, and all the hours the boy and his brother Paul studied The Westminster Shorter Catechism, what really restored their souls, including that of their clergyman father, was to be in the western Montana hills where trout rivers run deep and fast. Ernest Hemingway had said in “Big Two1Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976). The volume contains two other stories: “Logging and Pimping and ‘Your Pal, Jim’” and “USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky.” 150 Western American Literature Hearted River” that swamp fishing was a “tragic adventure”; for Maclean, fishing the Big Blackfoot River was a redemptive one, thanks not only to divine grace but to self-discipline. The theology is sound Calvinism: God does all, man does all. As for human nature, theologically speaking, just try to use a fly rod for the first time and, says the author, “you will soon find it factually and theologically true that man by nature is a damned mess” (3). Again, Calvin couldn’t have said it better. Only the “redeemed” know how to use it. Until such time, a person “will always take a fly rod too far back, just as natural man always overswings with an ax or golf club and loses all his power somewhere in the air” (3). Natural man does everything wrong; he has fallen from an original state of harmony. And he will con­ tinue to be a mess until through grace and discipline he learns to cast “Presbyterian-style” (3). The great lesson the father taught his two sons was that “all good things — trout as well as eternal salvation — come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy” (4). All this theological business isn’t as heavy-handed as it sounds. Indeed, Maclean transforms it into characterization, metaphor, humor, and fine detail. He also transforms memories of his father and brother into Rembrandt portraiture edged in darkness and tragedy but also per­ vaded by a haunting presence, a prelapsarian truth associated with sacred origins, the divine logos. Maclean would have us see fishing as a rite, an entry into “oceanic” meanings and eternities compressed into mo­ ments, epiphanous “spots of time,” the mysterium tremendum. Entering the river to fish its dangerous waters is to fish eternity, and to unite in love with those few persons who also obey the exacting code. No one obeyed the code more religiously than brother Paul who, when entering the river, made fishing into a world perfect and apart, a place where joy comes first in a perfect cast, then in a strike that makes the magic “wand” jump convulsively, and finally in a big rainbow trout in the basket — in all, a performance of mastery and...


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pp. 149-155
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