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  • Variations of TimeThe Crafting of Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs through It”
  • George H. Jensen (bio) and Heidi Skurat Harris (bio)

Far back in the impulses to find this story is a storyteller’s belief that at times life takes on the shape of art and that the remembered remnants of these moments are largely what we come to mean by life. The short semihumorous comedies we live, our long certain tragedies, and our springtime lyrics and limericks make up most of what we are. They become almost all of what we remember of ourselves.

—Norman Maclean, Young Men and Fire

Maclean gives us no reason to make a distinction between real and fictional people. The stories are so frankly autobiographical that one suspects he hasn’t even bothered to alter names. The only thing that has happened to young Maclean’s experience is that it has been recollected in tranquility, seen in perspective, understood, and fully felt. The stories are a distillation, almost an exorcism.

— Wallace Stegner, “Haunted by Waters”

When explaining the origin of A River Runs through It and Other Stories, Norman Maclean wrote that he became an author at the age of seventy because his children asked him to write down the tales he had once told them. He soon found the process was not as simple as he had expected: “As is known to any teller of stories who eventually tries to put a few of them down in writing, the act of writing changes them greatly, so none of these stories closely resembles any story I ever told my children” (A River ix). One of the ways Maclean shaped his stories was by condensing spans of time. In a 1986 interview Nicholas O’Connell asked Norman Maclean: “So in what sense are your stories true? Do you tell them exactly the way they happened?” Maclean answered, “No, I always allow myself [End Page 33] a literary latitude. Often things don’t happen fast enough in life. Literature can condense them. I wrote the story on the Forest Service as if it happened all in one summer. But it happened in two or three summers. I didn’t consider that a violation at all” (O’Connell 286–87). When explaining how he shaped a collection labeled as fiction, it is interesting that Maclean focuses on shaping time, which he does not consider a “violation.” While in interviews Maclean often reminded his readers that these stories are fiction, he speaks almost simultaneously as if he were a writer of nonfiction, seemingly feeling a need to justify and minimize his changes. Even, however, if we only focus on Maclean’s crafting of time, his “literary latitude” extended well beyond condensing time, especially in “A River Runs through It.” There, he works with different forms of time to enrich the narrative and build to the story’s climax. By the time he reaches the moment of Paul’s death, he has built an ontology, a catalog of ways to exist in time, that fuse, in the final scene, into a moment of transcendence.

Over the past three years we have been tracing Maclean’s revision of “A River Runs through It” through four holograph drafts (which we label MS1, MS2, MS3, and MS4), three typescripts (TS1, TS2, and TS3), and the first edition (1st Ed); even within each of these drafts or broad divisions, we have found evidence of extensive revision.1 In TS1 alone we have found evidence of at least thirteen passes with revisions during each trip through the typescript. The polish— the poetry— of the published version of “A River Runs through It” might lead readers to think that writing came easy for Maclean. Far from it. His early drafts are generally messy, one might even say tortured, with brief segments of brilliance, and the story we know emerged slowly through draft after draft. By examining these drafts one notes that many of Maclean’s revisions relate to working with variations of time.

The most extensive shaping of time is found in the story’s over-arching narrative. In the text of the first edition Maclean clearly shifts narrative speed at key points...


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pp. 33-63
Launched on MUSE
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