Norman Maclean on Fishing, Fire, and How ‘A River Runs Through It’ Got Published
The classic story collection ‘A River Runs Through It’ turns 40 this year, and shows no signs of age, as befits a book by a man who didn’t start writing fiction until he was 70.
This year, Norman Maclean’s indelible story collection, A River Runs Through It celebrates its 40th anniversary. Published by the University of Chicago Press after being rejected by the publishing community as unsellable, it remains a masterwork of Strunk & White restraint, economy, and vitality. It’s about more than style, of course. It is about fathers, brothers, and the past, about nature, and, yes, fly fishing. I figure this book has got to be the best Father’s Day present you could get any man—whether they have kids or not. I don’t even like fly fishing. It’s just that much of a pleasure to read.
Maclean was 74 when the book was published, which just goes to show it’s never too late to make a debut. In the following series of letters to editor and publisher Nick Lyons, Maclean is warm, interested, and generous, and reveals the man behind his terse, clear prose. Reprinted with permission from The Norman Maclean Reader. Please enjoy.
Letters to Nick Lyons, 1976—1981
by Norman Maclean
Nick Lyons taught English for 28 years, first at the University of Michigan and then at Hunter College in New York City. In New York he also became a book editor and publisher, founding in 1982 what has become the Lyons Press, which has published an impressive list of fly-fishing books as well as works by writers such as Tom McGuane, Edward Hoagland, Verlyn Klinkenborg, and Jon Krakauer. Lyons has himself authored 22 books and hundreds of magazine articles during his long career. He earned a special place in Maclean’s heart because of his enthusiastic review, in Fly Fisherman magazine (Spring 1976), of A River Runs through It and Other Stories. Lyons’s proved to be the first published review of River, and he called it a “classic” of American literature. In his letters to Lyons after May 1976, Maclean discusses the writing and reception of River, his work on the Mann Gulch fire book, and their common love of fishing. For Lyons, he became a generous friend and trusted sounding board, inquiring about Lyons’s teaching and then new publishing career, and always affirming the quality of his fishing essays.
May 26, 1976
Dear Mr. Lyons:
I am deeply touched by your review of my stories in the Fly Fisherman’s Bookshelf. I should like to think that the story, “A River Runs Through It,” is somewhere near as good as you say it is, not so much for my sake as for the memory of my brother whom I loved and still do not understand, and could not help.
Since you wrote so beautifully about the story, I feel that I must speak personally of it to you. After my father’s death, there was no one—not even my wife—to whom I could talk about my brother and his death. After my retirement from teaching, I felt that it was imperative I come to some kind of terms with his death as part of trying to do the same with my own. This was the major impulse that started me to write stories at 70, and the first one naturally that I wrote was about him. It was both a moral and artistic failure. It was really not about my brother—it was only about how I and my father and our duck dogs felt about his death [Maclean is referring to “Retrievers Good and Bad,” published finally in Esquire in 1977]. So I put it aside (and have carefully never tried to publish it). I wrote the other stories to get more confidence in myself as a story-teller and to talk out loud to myself about him. The story, which now stands as the first one in the book, is actually the last one I wrote.
I hope it will be the best one (although not the last one) I ever write, and I thank you again for writing beautifully about it.
Very sincerely yours,
July 11, 1976
Dear Mr. Lyons:
Your warm-hearted and encouraging letter was waiting for me when I finally arrived here [Seeley Lake, Montana] a week or so ago. As an ex-English teacher, I always have to admire your prose, too. Being an English teacher always leaves its mark. When I’m fishing and look upstream and see somebody fishing downstream, I pause and watch for a cast or two, and then say to myself, “C minus.” […]
Your prose should go well with rivers, even with the Madison which at least used to be one hell of a river. The last time I fished it, though, it was covered with bastards from Texas in rubber rafts. I believe, now, however, it can’t be fished by raft. The bastards from Texas in rubber rafts have all moved over to the Big Blackfoot—they are in danger of capsizing from collision.
I am enclosing a colored photograph of my home. My log cabin, which my father and I built over half a century ago, is right on the Lake at the extreme left side of the postcard—the Big Blackfoot is 17 miles from here. Drop by some time and I’ll take you down, but there are so damn many fishermen on it now you have to bring your own rock with you.
Yes, I hope to write another book, if I can ever get out from under the effects of writing the first. If you write one book, is it ever possible to write two?
May you live to write many and may a river run through them all.
Nov. 10, 1976
Your letter of 28 October has reached me by what we used to call in bridge, “the approach system”—anything that reaches me in Chicago by way of Seeley Lake through the United States Postal Service can be thought of as approaching gradually.
Nevertheless, I was delighted finally to receive it. I am grateful to you for nominating my story (I am sure it was you) for the Gingrich Award [The Arnold Gingrich Literary Award of the Federation of Fly Fishers. Maclean did not win the award until 1989; Lyons himself won it in 1986], and I hope only that your committee thinks as much of the story as the chairman does. I suppose by now that she has received most all of the reviews it will have—and it has received a good many of them, but yours is still my all-time favorite. In part, that could be because our lives and interests and professions have overlapped each other a good deal, but I still like to think that primarily it is because as a thing apart it is such a fine review. In respect to your committee, I hope you’re as good a rhetorician as a critic.
I was also delighted to hear that you fished the Big Hole in September, but was surprised to hear you say that practically no one besides yourself was [there]. The Big Hole used to be home, sweet home for every son-of-a-bitch from Butte, but I am sure there is still fishing there and I am glad you ran into at least a day of it. At about the same time, I was having some pretty good luck with big ones on a fly I suspect was very much like your “hopper”—with a big dark wing and an absorbent yellow wool body, meant, I am sure, to be fished wet and allowed to sink a few inches. But this September I fished it dry, and had some unusual luck. I’m really a wet-fly fisherman and when I go to a dry it is to something little in the quiet water of the evening, but in recent years I have been fishing a dry a lot—often in the middle of the day—and big, big as a mattress. When they are on the bottom and won’t come up, they will come up and at least take a look. We call the fly “Joe’s Hopper,” but I think that is a local name.
It must be wonderful to have a year off. I envy you (in retrospect). I never had a year off. The University of Chicago does not grant sabbaticals and I must have been young even before the Guggenheims developed the flotation process which led to the smelter which led to the fellowships in the humanities. But I never got closer to one than working in a Guggenheim smelter in East Helena and getting my skin all pitted.
As for you, take the General’s advice and count your blessings.
Yes, my book is in its second printing. I don’t know what it means for a book of stories to do well, but I at least think it [has] done well and has been well received. Paramount is negotiating with the Press for an option to make a film of the fishing story, and People magazine supposedly is going to run a story on me (provided, I suppose, if they can find some sex to go with the fishing—something I wish I could find, too).
Try fishing that hopper (and a big hair Royal Coachman) fly some time. Thanks again,
Dec. 2, 1976
It was great, as always, to hear from you, but I haven’t received as yet “the two little fishing books” that were written “during several long city winters.” That’s a hell of a good time to catch fish. I’ve caught more then often than in the summers. I’ll be waiting with interest to see what you use to fish through the ice.
Personally, I used to use that brand of booze I talk about in my first story—named after the sign of the Vigilantes—3-7-77. You get in one of those little houses over a hole in the ice and start the kerosene burner and you are already drugged from the fumes before you start on the 3-7-77.
I am glad that you gave our sales department a booster shot. And me, too. I sure can’t kick about the number or kindness of the reviews that the little blue book has received, but I’ll be God damned if Fly Fishing [Fly Fisherman] isn’t the only one of what might be called “an outdoor journal” which has reviewed it. I don’t even start with “pig-fucker” in referring to Field and Stream.
I’m sure, though, that part of the fault lies in the inexperience of the press in dealing with the kind of thing I write, and I know both the Director, Mr. [Morris] Philipson, and the Sales Manager, Mr. [Stanley] Plona, were grateful for the list you sent them of [illegible] points for fly fishermen. I’m grateful too.
In case this turns out to be the letter-before-Christmas, I should like to thank you for the lift you have given me this year and to wish you health and happiness for the coming season and the coming year. May they always rise in the evening.
Jan. 1, 1977
A good way of starting the year off is to tell you how much I have enjoyed your books (which did not arrive until the day before Christmas!). Although they are about fishing, they are almost escape literature for me. Never in my life did I get up at 2:30 a.m. to catch the milk train to try for trout. About the only thing it resembles in my background is duck hunting, and then the only resemblance is the starting hours. I remember I always had a bottle of whiskey under the bed, and took a couple of shots before I got into my long underwear. But by continuing to drink steadily while I was in the blind I kept even, but when I got back to the warm cabin I would almost pass out just from opening the door.
Nick, you’re not only a fine writer but you are also a poet, so I wasn’t surprised to see that your first publication was a book of poems. Of course, I doubt if one can really write about fishing unless he’s at least a half-ass poet, and you’re really a poet. I like some of the human ones best—fishing with your boy or taking your wife (who sounds like quite a gal) along. I can remember being like your boy—at the age where I thought I was pretty damn good and so couldn’t understand how my father could catch them and I couldn’t. I just couldn’t see what he had that I didn’t have, but it had to be something.
So I like not only your writing but the fragrance of your situations.
[P.S.] Speaking of poems, I wrote one the other day—the first in 50 years. What if I end as you began—with a book of them?
Loneliness is not always lonely.It can go on to ecstasy.When I am alone in the woodsI am the universe.What is thereI do not knowOr cannot do?Do not tell me I cannot live forever.I already have.
Sept. 10, 1978
It was sure good to hear from you again, even though I was saddened to learn that you had returned to publishing. I was glad, though, to find out you were going to continue teaching—you must be a fine teacher—and I hope you will find time (and the energy—God damn it, it is a kind of energy more than time that passes away—) to go on with your brilliant writing and editing. And how about a little fishing now and then?
I almost went out of the fishing business myself about a month ago. I was fishing on the Swan river. It is a beautiful river, one of the most beautiful in the world, running as it does between the Mission Glaciers and the Swan Mountains. It is perhaps more beautiful than if it ran by the Tetons, but, by the same token, it is in very rough country. It has no banks—the banks are all occupied by blue spruce, and as you well know, there is no way, least of all by climbing through the needles, of getting a fly out of a spruce once you have got careless about one back-cast. So, to fish the Swan, you have to ford it lengthwise. I still don’t know how I did it, but I never fell so hard. I pulverized a glass rod, and everything inside me that has turned to glass-fiber from old age. For 10 days I put ice packs on whatever I felt still circulated inside me.
I didn’t get much farther than the woodpile until yesterday, when I regained enough self-confidence and circulation to try fishing again. Still being plenty subdued, I tried a small stream, probably because of the word “small.” But it was a mistake. I had forgotten how much brush you have to crawl under and how many fallen logs you have to crawl over to fish a “small” mountain stream. It was odd. It was my foot that I had hurt most, but once I was back in business it was my knee that hurt worst, and next my shoulder. Today it’s my foot again that’s worst. I don’t quite understand, except maybe by the time you are 75 you have already learned to hurt all over, if given half a chance.
But I caught 5, not big of course but half-decent, and threw back about 25. I admired one especially. He was a cut-throat about 11 inches long, the sole occupant of an open quiet hole with nothing on the bottom of it but a water-soaked snag. He knew and I knew he had one chance, and that was to get under that snag and throw a half-hitch over it. It was kind of wonderful to watch all the tricks he had of making you think he was going some other way when he really was going for the snag. I admired him so much I threw him back when I landed him, even though he was as big as any of the five I kept.
Cautiously, I fished only an hour by prior agreement with myself, but it was real nice to re-establish social communication with fish, even small fish. They know a dead snag when they see one, which is a lot more than you can say about a lot of big men.
I hope you don’t have to give up fishing for publishing. […]
This Sabbath morning was the morning I wasn’t going to write this week, but here I have spent all of it writing you. Fortunately, there is enough space left on this sheet to wish you happiness and success in your venture of publishing and continued success and happiness in your writing, teaching, and fishing.
Nov. 22, 1978
I have been asked to speak before the Chairmen of the English Departments in the country on Dec. 28 at the MLA meetings in New York City. I am arriving there the evening of the day before (the 27th) and will leave the day after (the 29th). I suppose I will be very busy at the meetings and seeing old friends and besides I hope to find time to talk to several New York people who have written me about the publication of my next book. Even so, I would like to get a chance to get together with you, if only for 1/2 an hour or an hour before I head back to Chicago. Although I realize the dates over which I have no control fall in the post-Xmas holidays. You have been very good to me and my book and have known only my book.
I was troubled by your last letters, although I don’t know whether I can say anything that will be of help. I hate to see you being driven in so many directions—teaching, editing, writing and now publishing. What I have seen of your writing is often brilliant and yet moving (naturally I am especially touched by your stories of fishing with your boy and by the brilliance of your reviews), but in the dispersion of your gifts I am afraid that writing is what will suffer most.
The hell of it is that I don’t know what I can say to help. I let it happen to me. In the “Preface” to my stories I confess in the first paragraph that I was 70 years old before I tried something beyond scholarship and criticism—and I don’t know whether I was ever divided into as many pieces as you are. I don’t know what to tell you, but I’d like to talk to you for a few minutes if you are going to be in the city after Christmas.
You ask in one of your letters if I have made any commitments about the publication of my next big story. None. I have ducked them. A long story for me is a full-time job, especially when I am about 3/5 through it and can’t yet see the end and can’t quite remember the beginning. At that point in the traffic I feel I should spend my time trying to see a little more light. […] I have friends in the book business who keep advising me that I should look toward Seattle for my next publisher. I know there is a great boom going on there in the writing and publishing of books, and I know A River did better in Seattle than in any other city in the country, except my home town of Missoula, Montana. Have you ever been in Seattle—it is a wonderful and beautiful and powerful city. It’s an idea anyway. Although New York City is not one of my favorite watering-places, it would be a pleasure to see you there this Xmas.
Very sincerely yours,
March 8, 1979
Enclosed is one of the earliest copies of the paperback edition of my book of stories. I hope you like the cover—it is a reproduction of a photograph taken for me by a young Forest Service Ranger of the portion of Seeley Lake where my cabin is. My cabin is on the edge of the lake (Seeley Lake) near the left edge of the photograph.
To me, of course, it is beautiful, and I hope you like its looks, too. My cabin is only about 16 miles from the glaciers. It snows every month.
I hope also that you will note the first review quoted on the inside of the covers is yours. Thank you again for your kind words which certainly contributed to the book’s success.
By the way, have you ever heard from that friend of yours who was wondering if he could get permission to publish the fishing story in a fishing series of his? Only yesterday I received a similar request from someone who plans to put out an anthology of fishing stories.
I hope all goes well with you. We have a long winter.
March 27, 1979
Thank you for your warm-hearted letter. Don’t apologize if it is a little late. I know you are always living a two-story life.
I wish, though, you could find time to write more of your own kind of thing. I am glad that my starting to write in life gives you some kind of comfort. Given good health, you will find time (in the fullness of time) to sit and write in beauty. I myself don’t derive great comfort from that thought, if for no other reason than that you can write in beauty now if you could only find time to sit.
It might interest you to know that I think I also wrote quite well when I was young. T. S. Eliot made his big early reputation by winning The Dial poetry contest with his Waste Land. In that contest, there were three judges and one of them (Carl Sandburg) selected my entry as number one. So as you can see I have never had much luck in winning contests.
I don’t look at the past, however, with much regret—or great jubilation. Like most woodsmen I have known, I am a fatalist. I figure it’s all or mostly a matter of having your number called. Of course, you have to be ready, as you will. But, Nick, right now you are a beautiful writer. […]
Just keep pegging away until you are 73 and try not to ask questions. For the next 3 years after 73 God might take care of you.
August 8, 1980
The other day I wrote the last sentence of the first draft of the last chapter of my long overdue story on the tragic forest fire. A few hours later I realized it was Aug. 5, the anniversary date of the tragedy (Aug. 5, 1949). This Delphic coincidence, like most omens, can receive opposite interpretations, but I prefer to interpret it as a good omen, indicating that my story is one with the event rather than it is about to go up in smoke.
Anyway, I am using it as an excuse to myself to take a few days off to answer the pile of letters that have been gathering volcanic dust on them (from Mt. St. Helens—including last night) on the table on my front porch.
I’ve begun with what’s most important—I am delighted to learn of your promotion to full professor, since I wrote a letter for you—I’m sure I have a copy of it in my files in Chicago and will send you one when I get back home. I remember among other things saying in it that you were a better writer than Izaak Walton, taking a chance that none of those eastern bastards on your promotion committee had ever read A River Runs Through It in which it is quite clear I was brought up in a family of fishermen who thought Izaak Walton was a piss-poor fisherman and writer. Evidently I was right—that’s the way my predications about New Yorkers turn out—usually. It’s odd, but being a full-professor settles pretty much for good a fair number of life’s problems, and so I am delighted you will be free of these problems and can spend more time fishing and being a better writer than Izaak Walton.
As for me, I also took a slight step forward academically this spring. I was awarded an honorary doctoral degree (Doctor of Letters) by Montana State University. It leaves a good feeling to be well thought of in the country one loves and thinks he knows.
As for the future of my new story, Nick, I expect to spend another 3 or 4 months on it before I submit it to a publisher. Then I think I’ll try to avoid wasting some of the year of time I wasted with A River having it rejected by eastern publishers who after keeping it 3 months would return it with the comment it had trees in it or was just like the stuff they received every day. My son-in-law, whose advice I nearly always follow, says I should get an agent, preferably a Jewish woman with motherly instincts. He’s a Jewish boy from Brooklyn, so he sure as hell should know what he is talking about. Who knows? Maybe around the first of the year a Jewish woman who makes good chicken noodle soup might ask you if you would like to read the manuscript of a story about a forest fire entitled, “A Wildfire Runs Through It”?
Oct. 27, 1980
Your letter says it was written on the 15th of August, so that makes over 2 months since I haven’t answered it—and it’s such a nice, warm-hearted letter, even though you didn’t mention coming to Montana until you were back home in New York. And didn’t tell me you had been promoted to full professor until a lot more than 2 months after you were.
Anyway, I am delighted that you now are sitting on the top rung of the academic ladder, with what security, if any, goes with the position.
Still, Nick, I think your department promoted you knowing you pretty damn well and knowing that you weren’t going to play the political or administrative game. In my letter of recommendation I certainly tried to make clear to them that if they expected to get the maximum yardage out of you they had to let you call your own signals. I predict that you will find fulfillment and happiness in your new and permanent academic position.
I was also glad to hear you also did pretty well fishing in Montana—better, I am sure, than if you had come over to Seeley Lake and I had taken you to the Blackfoot or Swan to fish. I have had a hard time myself believing what I am going to tell you next—I fished only 3 times this summer and was terrible. The fish could see me coming all the way from Chicago. I was worst of all in my sense of timing in setting the hook, and the worse I got the faster I got. I left a wake of gasping trout behind me wondering whether they had been seeing things instead of flies.
But I did work hard on my forest-fire story. I have worked way too long on it already, and I won’t be able to live with myself if I don’t finish it by the end of this coming winter. Never again will I try to write a story that is historically accurate in every detail. It is clear to me now that the universe in its truculence doesn’t permit itself to be that well known. At my age, [I] should have know[n] that, but at my age I no longer have the choice of turning back. I just worked, as remote from my friends as from fish.
Of course you can see it when I finish it—I would feel a big part of it was missing if you didn’t. But I won’t feel neglected if we both soon realize that it is a very western book and New York is not its Cape Canaveral. As you already know, I start off with a pretty dim view of New York publishers—and they of me. I will omit this opportunity of stating my view of them—five of them turned down A River Runs through It. I can still fish better than that.
June 15, 1981
I was real sorry to hear that you are through telling fish stories. You are one of the best of all of them, and in fact you hold your present high academic position to a sworn statement that you are better than Izaak Walton. You had better be careful about making public any such change in intention or you may end up marking papers for popular lecturers with classes over 135.
Oddly, though, I think I can at least partly understand your change of feeling. Maybe I am even worse than you are—I am almost at the point where I have quit fishing (not just writing about it). With me, I think it was mostly a case of coming to a place in life of not being able to do well what I had done fairly well most of my life. After I became a chronic heart-patient and several times picked myself out of the sand and didn’t know how I got there I discovered I didn’t like fishing any more. So it seems there comes a time that marks the end of each thing—even of sacred love.
It hardly seems possible, though, that you should quit telling fishing stories, and it is probably only a passing fancy. But, if the feeling persists, why don’t you quit and see what happens? You have already created a highly informed and loving literature about fishing—full of information and love about the water, and what’s in it and above it but also about your son who went with you. Let be, if that’s what your heart says. I am a great believer in listening to your heart.
As for me, I have just returned from Montana and two days from now I am going to start out again. Last Sunday I was at the University of Montana (Missoula) where I was awarded an honorary doctoral degree (last year at this time I was awarded an honorary doctoral degree at Montana State University, Bozeman). This coming Sunday I will start with a loaded car to spend the summer at Seeley Lake and, for Christ’s sake, finally finish my story on the Smokejumper tragic forest fire.
Of course, Nick, you can see it. You are among the few I most want to see it. I haven’t even yet thought much of what I’ll do with it when I finish it— probably turn it over to an agent, but if I do, after informing him of my great admiration for you and your literary judgment and your kindness to me and with the instruction that, no matter what, you are to see it at your leisure.
But, Nick, I am sure that, after you see it, you will recognize the story and I are even more western than you thought we were. There won’t be that kind of one-to-one relation there was between A River, you, and me because of fishing. This is a Smokejumpers story—at all times a story about forest fires and firefighting and at times almost a manual of these subjects. I think it would be the part of caution to assume that we were not made to go firefighting together—we might waste a lot of each other’s time trying to help each other. But read it and see for yourself.
I think it will be good.
Reprinted with permission from The Norman Maclean Reader. Published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2008 The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.