The East and Montana: Norman Maclean’s Views … and Mine

 Those who know me and who are also familiar with author Norman Maclean understand that Maclean’s writings resonate strongly with me.  This is because my personal and professional lives parallel Maclean’s in a few small ways, the same part of Montana that was important to him is tremendously important to me, and some of my views of religion seem to echo his. 

Maclean never made his views of religion particularly clear.  An academic mentor of mine was a colleague of Maclean’s at the University of Chicago.  This mentor, a well-known scholar of religion, told me that when he was with Maclean, the latter never really discussed religion and certainly never spoke about fishing or nature in mystical terms.  Indeed, this mentor said that he and many other colleagues were surprised to discover that Maclean was so interested in such topics, after A River Runs through It and Other Stories was published in 1976.

A short 1986 interview by Nicholas O’Connell with Maclean, however, adds a bit definition to Maclean’s views of religion.  And, as vague as his statement is, it sums up my views as well.

I feel I have company about me when I’m alone in the woods.  I feel they’re beautiful.  They’re a kind of religion to me.  My dearest friends are also beautiful.  My wife was and infinitely beautiful thing.  I certainly feel there are men and women whom I have known and still know who are really above what one could think was humanly possible.  They and the mountains are for me “what passeth human understanding.”[1]

Like Maclean, I have followed an academic path—one that has taken me to some completely unforeseen places, geographically and otherwise.  With regard to my geographic landing points, I am often asked, upon telling people that I am originally from Montana, what I am doing in the East.  Drawing again from O’Connell’s interview, I find that Maclean provides a reasonably good answer to this question for me.  I should note, however, that there are many more options for the academician in Montana now than there were when Maclean left for Chicago in the 1920s.  On the other hand, today’s academic job market is much more competitive than it was in Maclean’s time.  Regardless, here are Maclean’s thoughts about having one foot in Montana and the other in the East:

Very, very early I formed this rough outline in my mind of this life I have led.  I love Montana with almost a passion, but I saw I couldn’t live here really if I was going to be a teacher;  I’d have to be degraded and submit to views that I couldn’t accept.  I felt that this was imposed upon us from the outside—that wasn’t our true nature.  I tried to figure out a way to continue this two-world thing that I had begun by going East.

And that’s probably the chief reason I quit teaching and then went back to it.  I figured teaching probably was the only way I could live in the two worlds.  I could teach in the East, and that would give me a chance to come back a fair number of summers and retain a permanent footing in a homeland that I knew so well.  I thought that out as I was doing it.  I just didn’t stumble on the life I have lived.[2]

Decades later, I’m in that spot where I too have quit teaching and am about to return to it.  My quitting allowed me to reduce my “worlds” from three to two, since my wife and I were actually working in different eastern states.  Now, we’re together, and we mostly inhabit one eastern world.  Happily, we also still spend time in Montana.  In fact, we’ll be heading there in a few days.  This, of course, is what brought Maclean to my mind in the first place.  Soon, I’ll be fly fishing my “home waters” in the Big Blackfoot River drainage.  This is where Maclean’s early home waters were too.


[1] Nicholas O’Connell, “Interview with Norman Maclean,” in The Norman Maclean Reader: Essays, Letters, and Other Writings by the Author of A River Runs through It, ed. O. Alan Weltzein, 180 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008).

[2] Ibid., 176.

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