Haunted by Waters: A Talk with Norman Maclean
Norman Maclean teaching his popular course on Shakespeare at the University of Chicago, 1970. (Photograph by Leslie Strauss Travis)
Norman Maclean's novella, ďA River Runs Through It,Ē tries to come to terms with a tragedy of his familyís inability to help his brother Paulóa gambler, a street fighter, a genius with a fly rodówho, one day in 1938, was found in an alley, beaten to death with a gun butt. The novella makes sense of his senseless death in the only way it can: it makes beautiful through art and love that which will always surpass understanding. ďA River Runs Through ItĒ is the title story of a collection published in 1976 by the University of Chicago Press. The other stories, ďLogging and Pimping and ĎYour Pal, JimíĒ and ďUSFS 1919: The Ranger, The Cook, and a Hole in the Sky,Ē bring together Macleanís practical knowledge of logging, fire fighting and woodsmanship with his deep sensitivity to language and prose rhythms.
Born on December 23, 1902 in Clarinda, Iowa, Maclean spent much of his youth in and around Missoula, Montana. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1924 with an A.B. and received a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1940, where he began teaching in 1930. Three times the institution awarded him its prize for excellence in undergraduate teaching. When he retired from the university in 1973, he was the William Harper Rainey Professor of English. He died in 1990.
The author of many articles and stories, scholarly and otherwise, Maclean also helped edit Critics and Criticism: Ancient and Modern, published in 1952 by the University of Chicago Press. His nonfiction book, Young Men and Fire (1992), examined the causes of the tragic Mann Gulch Forest Fire. On September 24, 1931, he married Jessie Burns, who died in 1968. He was the father of two children. Most of the year Maclean made his home in Chicago, but in the summer he returned to his log cabin on Seeley Lake, Montana. The cabin sat on the west shore of the lake in a magnificent grove of larch trees that formed an immense canopy overhead. The sun filtering through the branches produced a light as meditative and otherworldly as that of the great Gothic cathedrals.
Maclean was a short, stout man with a face creased with wrinkles. In talking about his work, he salted his speech with profanity, colored it with anecdotes and local legends, and always spoke with the rhythm and music of poetry just underneath his prose.
When did you start fly fishing?
I was about six when we came to Montana, and almost immediately we started going on these vacations and my father started teaching me to fly fish. My father was a Presbyterian minister and always had at least a month off in the summer. We would camp out for a month on some big river, the Bitterroot or the Blackfoot.
Do you still fly fish?
No, I donít. I hope thatís a temporary answer. A couple of years ago I hurt my hip and I havenít been able to work very well since then. I quit fishing but Iím getting better. I hope Iíll still be able to fish a little before I quit for good. Itís hard though. I donít think Iíll ever be very good at it again. Iíve lost my sense of balance, and I canít stand up on those big rocks and I canít fish that big hard water. And thatís the only fishing I like to do, fishing the big rivers. If you want big fish, you fish big water.
I miss it a lot. I suppose I get some second hand pleasure by writing about it.
What has fly fishing taught you about the nature of grace?
Itís taught me many, many things about grace. I think itís one of the most graceful things an individual can do out in the woods. Itís a very difficult art to master. My father thought it had the grace of eternal salvation in it.
In ďA River Runs Through It,Ē you wrote, ďGood things come by grace, grace comes by art and art does not come easy.Ē Is that true of writing?
Oh, yes. Itís conceivable that someone could find it smirky and pleasurable on some kind of level, but I think itís a highly disciplined art. Itís costly. You have to give up a lot of yourself to do it well. Itís like anything you do thatís rather beautiful. Of course some people can do it seemingly by genes and birth, but I donít think nearly as often as one would think. I think it always entails terrific self discipline.
Why did you start writing fiction so late in life?
I canít answer that, but Iíll make a couple of stabs. There will be a certain amount of truth to them, but no one ever knows why he tries something big in life.
One stab is that in the literary profession, which was my life profession, it was always said that no one began serious writing late in life. That was kind of a challenge. I thought, ďAs soon as I retire, Iíve got some serious things Iíd like to write, and I think I know enough about writing to do them well. Weíll see how they come out.Ē
Just the fact that you would ask me such a question is part of the reason why I started. I wanted to answer it. But it must have been deeper than just showing off.
When you teach literature, youíre so close to it, and yet in some ways so far. If you donít have a lot of extra energy, you donít have time to do what a lot of teachers claim they always want to do but seldom do, and that is both write and teach. I suppose I said it too, but being Scotch I was thick headed and so I tried it.
Itís very costly to start writing when youíre so old as I am. You donít have any of the daily discipline built up. Some writers get up every morning and itís like shaving to them. They can do it without thinking.
In ďA River Runs Through It,Ē you talked about Godís rhythms. What did you mean by that?
One of my fascinations about my own life is that every now and then I see a thing that unravels as if an artist had made it. It has a beautiful design and shape and rhythm. I donít go so far as some of my friends, who think that their whole life has been one great design. When I look back on my life I donít see it as a design to an end. What I do see is that in my life there have been a fair number of moments which appear almost as if an artist had made them. Wordsworth, who affected me a great deal, had this theory about what he calls ďspots of timeĒ that seem almost divinely shaped. When I look back on my own life, it is a series of very disconnected spots of time. My stories are those spots of time.
Did you feel a real need to write about these spots of time??
Iíve given up everything to write them. Iím now getting so old I donít know whether I can write much more. I knew when I started, of course, that starting so late I wouldnít get much done, but I hoped to get a few things done very well. Itís been very costly, though, and I donít know whether I would recommend it. Iíve sacrificed friends. Iíve lived alone. I work on a seven day a week schedule. I get up at six or six thirty every morning. I donít even go fishing up here any more.
When youíre this old, you canít rely on genius pure and undefiled. Youíve got to introduce the advantages of being old and knowing how to be self disciplined. You can do a lot of things because you can do what the young canít do, you can make yourself do it. And not only today or tomorrow, but for as long as it takes to do it. So itís a substitute, alas maybe not a very good one, for youth and genius and pure gift. And it can do a lot of things, but itís very, very costly. Sometimes I wish that when I retired Iíd just gone off to Alaska or Scotland and played croquet on the lawn.
Do you want to write many other things?
Iím too realistic to entertain such thoughts. Even when I began, which was right after I retired, I knew I could never become a great writer, if for no other reason than I didnít have time. When I started, I agreed to myself that I would consider Iíd accomplished my mission if I wrote several substantial things well. And I havenít lost that sense of reality; in fact it deepens as I grow older and see I was right.
I am now trying to finish a second long story based upon a tragic forest fire. Iíve been on that for some years, and I hope within the next six or seven months to have it completed. But I have been hoping that for some years now. Iím being enticed into making a movie of ďA River Runs Through It.Ē If I do those two fairly big things, then I wonít try anything very big again.
Do you write every morning?
I donít write every morning, but I keep my writing schedule. Iím the only one who keeps me alive now. I donít have a family living with me any more. I have two homes, here and Chicago. I have a lot of accounting and just plain housework to keep both those places going.
And even when you just make a small success, there are many people who want to see you. So I spend more time than I should seeing people and writing letters. I still go on four to six talking tours each year.
Your book has only three stories in it, but because theyíre so well written, itís made you more renowned than writers with four or five novels.
Yes, I would grant that, but there are probably a variety of reasons for that. To some at least, the book is a kind of model of how to begin a story and how to end a story, and it is taught as such. When people are good enough, they try to teach it as an example of prose rhythms. It has a special appeal to teachers of writing, and of course it has a great appeal to fly fishermen, for many of the same reasons: it seems expert at what it is doing. Iíve had biologists write me and tell me itís the best manual on fly fishing ever written.
Did you enjoy writing it?
I donít know how to answer that. Writing is painfully difficult at times, and other times I feel like I have a mastery over what Iím trying to do, and of course thereís no greater pleasure than that. But when you feel that words still stand between you and what you want to say, then itís a very unhappy business.
Where did you learn to tell stories?
When I was young in the West, most of us thought we were storytellers. And of course we all worshipped Charlie Russell, partly for his painting, but also because he was a wonderful storyteller. I feel I learned as much about storytelling from him as I did from Mark Twain or Wordsworth or any professional writer. The tradition behind that of course was the old cowboy traditionócoming into town with a paycheck, putting up in a hotel, and sitting around with a half a dozen other guys trying to out tell each other in stories. Whoever was voted as telling the best story had all his expenses paid for the weekend.
The storytellersí tradition is a very, very deep one in the West. It probably doesnít exist very much any more, but then you donít have the great sources of stories. You donít have bunkhouses for loggers and cowpunchers any more. They live in town with families. They donít sit around at night and tell lies to each other. So part of it has been lost.
I learned as much, even technically, about storytelling from Charlie Russellís stories as I did, say, from Hemingway. He [Russell] was still alive and kicking until I was in my twenties. He was an idol of Montana, much more so than now. Heís an idol now of course, too, but then we worshipped him, and with good cause. His stories are only two to ten pages long, but if you want to learn how to handle action economically and just have every sentence jumping with stuff, take a look at him. Marvelous storyteller.
A volume of his called Trails Plowed Under is just a miraculous piece of narration. Good title, isnít it? That title pervades not only his paintings, but all of his stories. All the time he was writing and painting he had this feeling that ďthe West that I knew is gone.Ē Thereís always a nostalgia hanging over his paintings and stories.
When you were writing your stories, how did they change as you turned them into fiction?
They changed long before I started writing them. Iím not sure that after a few years I could tell what happened from what I say happened, which is fortunate if you want to be a storyteller. I had a drenching of storytelling in all the years when I was in the Forest Service and logging camps, and so itís easier for me to tell a story about what happened than telling it exactly as it happened. They became stories long before I told them.
Did you have to make them longer when you wrote them down?
No. From the time my father gave me my first lessons in writing to the end of my training in writing, I always had teachers whose chief criterion was literary economyóuse of the fewest words possible.
When you were writing your stories, did you write them down all at once, or bit by bit?
I know pretty well ahead of time what Iím going to do in the whole story, and often I come home after going for a walk in the afternoon and take a bath before dinner; in the bathtub I sit in the hot water till it gets cool, trying to figure out what Iím going write the next day. The next day Iím concerned with saying it. Thatís probably highly individual. A lot of guys when they sit down donít know where theyíre going. They even use the act of writing to make them find out what theyíre going to write about.
Do you work over the stuff that youíve written a number of times?
Yes, three or four times.
Sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph?
I suppose so, but that would vary. Iím a great believer in the power of the paragraph. I canít say that I always write by paragraphs, but I often do. I think that paragraphs should have a little plot, should lead you into something strange and different, tie the knot in the middle, and at the end do a little surprise and then also prepare you for the next paragraph.
Why did you choose to write those particular stories?
The title story, ďA River Runs Through It,Ē was the big tragedy of our family, my brotherís character and his death. He had a very loving family, but independent and fighters. We were guys who, since the world was hostile to us, depended heavily upon the support and the love of our family. That tends often to be the case with guys that live a hostile life outside.
There was our family which meant so much to us, and there was my brother who was a street fighter, a tough guy who lived outside the mores of a preacherís family. We all loved him and stood by him, but we couldnít help him. We tried but we couldnít. There were times when we didnít know whether he needed help. That was all and he was killed. I slowly came to feel that it would never end for me unless I wrote it.
The others? Well, theyíre all spots of time. Spots of time become my stories. You get that very openly in the Forest Service story. Thatís the plot. They go out and itís spring, and the things that they do and their order are determined by the job. Thereís no human preference indicated. The first thing you did was clear out the trails from the winter, dead trees and all that fallen down stuff. Then you made some new trails, then pretty soon fire season came and you fought fires. It was determined by the seasons and the nature of the job.
The plot starts that way and then things begin to happen in such a way that human decisions are determining and changing this natural order of things. Itís the change in the causes that order the events which is the story.
Iíd had a good training when I was young in the woods. My father didnít allow me to go to school, kept me home for many years until the juvenile officers got me, and as a result I had to work in the morning, but the afternoons were mine. All the guys my age were in school, so I went out in the woods alone. I became very good in the woods when I was very young. I trained myself, both in the logging camps and in the sawmills. I was going to know the wood business from the woods to board feet.
When World War I came along they were looking for young guys or old men to take the place of the foresters who were getting grabbed up as soldiers. So I was in the Forest Service when I was fourteen. And it became a very important part of my life. I almost went into it; I thought until I was almost thirty that I was going to go into the Forest Service as a life profession.
All these things are important to me: my family, the years I spent in the logging camps, the years I spent in the Forest Service.
Why are these stories about your life in Montana, rather than about teaching in Chicago?
Iíve written many things about Chicago and teaching, some of my best things in articles, stories, talks, discussions about teaching. I wrote a story about Albert Michelson, who measured the speed of light and was the first American scientist to win the Nobel Prize. Strangely, when I was quite young I came to know him intimately. I was just a kid from Montana, a half assed graduate student and teacher in English, and I was knocking around with this guy who was regarded as one of our two greatest scientists (Einstein being the other). Now I suppose Nobel Prize winners are a dime a dozen, but in those days we had only two in the whole country; he was one of them, and Theodore Roosevelt was the other. I was very touched, as a young boy from Montana, to be trusted with the acquaintanceship of such an outstanding, strange and gifted man. I think my story about him is one of the best things I ever wrote.
Did anyone help you in editing the stories in "A River Runs Through It"?
Iím a loner in respect to writing. First I should go back to my origins. My schooling was lonely. My father taught me himself, and the prime thing he taught me was writing. I studied by myself and reported to my father three times every morning. I was brought up as a lonely kid and thatís continued. Now that everybody has gone off to town after Labor Day and thereís nobody on this side of the lake, Iím just coming into my own here. Thatís the way I am, and itís pervaded my writing.
Having said that, though, I always try to turn, somewhere short of publication, to four or five friends to read over the manuscript. Two or three are from the University of Chicago, and then the first woman full professor at Yale in the English Department, who was a student of mine in her day. Sheís a great critic. Then three or four from the woods.
I have this three fold cadre of critics. I give it to them before it becomes a manuscript to be submitted. I listen a great deal to what they say. Theyíre tender with me, but they know me from a long, long time back and I suppose they know what to say and whatís useless to say.
What did your father have you read when he was teaching you?
I think the most important thing was what he read out loud to us. He was a minister, and every morning after breakfast we had what was called family worship. And family worship consisted of his reading to us. Weíd all sit with our breakfast chairs pulled back from the table and he would read to us from the Bible or from some religious poet. He was a very good reader, and if he had any faults as a reader it was that he was kind of excessive, as preachers often are. But that was very good for me because in doing that, he would bring out the rhythms of the Bible. That reading instilled in me this great love of rhythm in language.
Now when I teach poetry or prose I can teach it quite analytically. When I was at Stanford, I had a long session analyzing prose rhythms with their advanced creative writing class. Thatís not easy to do, partly because the rule of prose rhythms is that you better not have them show very much. And most of the time you better not have them show at all. Any time you or I or anybody else who has any taste at all suspects that the writerís trying to write pretty, then heís dead. That guy is just as dead as a dead snake.
If you are a writer whose prose falls into rhythm you have to be very, very careful. Most of the time you just approach rhythms and then drift away from them, and then drift back towards them, not really going into any rhythmical passages except as the tension mounts, as the passion increases.
If you look at the last page of ďA River Runs Through It,Ē you can scan it as if it were written in accentual rhythm. But when youíre on the sand bar with the whore and that goddamn brother in law of mine, you donít hear any rhythms although theyíre there. Theyíre very faint. They come close to rhythm and then drift out. My ordinary style is better than ordinary speech, but not so much you would notice it.
In that story, were you more conscious of the differences in rhythms?
It depends upon the kind of emotional level youíre operating on. ďA River Runs Through ItĒ is my notion of high, modern tragedy. Itís tragedy and deep feeling, and I tried to write about how men and women do things with great skill and loving kindness, with their hands and their hearts, both at the same time. Fishing is such an example. But rhythm is there even when I stop and tell you how you put hobnails in a shoe and why you put them where you put them, and how you pack a horse. I like to tell you about things that men and women can do with their hands that are wonderful. I write about them very carefully. All the time Iím on a level above ordinary speech because what Iím trying to tell you is above ordinary speech. Iím trying to tell you how you do things expertly. When I do that, the language goes up a little bit.
And certainly when you come to the great tragic moments, when youíre just pouring out your heart, you donít have to worry about your rhythms; theyíll be there if youíre at all a rhythmic person.
So the ear has a great deal to do with your writing?
Yes. It goes along with the art. The great fly tier from Livingston, Dan Bailey, said, ďThe bookshelves are full of books on how to fish, but only Maclean tells you how it feels to fish.Ē
Could these stories have been set anyplace other than Montana?
Montana is very dear to me. You talk about a man without a country, but Iím a man with two countries. Montanaís always been one, no matter where the other one is.
So you wrote the stories because the area was important to you?
Itís my homeland. I love it, Iíve always loved it and I always will. When I tell my doctor Iím getting old, that I better close up that place in Montana, that itís getting too tough for me to run, he says, ďIf you do, Norman, youíll die.Ē So here I am.
Why was it important that you get every detail of those stories correct?
Again, I could answer ďbecause my father told me so.Ē But Iíll jump to the other extreme. If you are interested at all, as I told you I was, in whether there are designs and shapes in the passage of events, then design is very important to you. Itís very important whether the design or shape or form of a series of events is really in the thing or whether itís something that you, the artist, have manufactured. Itís important to me that there is a design and shape to quite a few things that we do in our life. So Iím very, very careful. I donít want to be cheating; I want to get the design as exactly as I can, in itself, not from me.
So you see it as something outside of yourself?
I want to. Iím not always able to. I have to admit that Iím not always sure there is a design and shape to things. Sometimes I think I must be the cause of the designs of things, but I donít really think that is always true. I think that there have been designs and shapes in my life, and Iíve been almost apart from them. I was a character of them, but I wasnít the author of them.
So in what sense are your stories true? Do you tell them exactly the way they happened?
No, I always allow myself a literary latitude. Often things donít 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 didnít consider that a violation at all.
Everything in the story happened to me in the Bitterroots. In the story I have a big fight. The fight was actually in a Chinese restaurant, but in the story I had it in the Oxford, a restaurant and gambling joint in Missoula. Itís been there for sixty or seventy years and a lot of us Missoula guys were brought up in there. And they said, ďGod, how could you put the Oxford up there in Hamilton?Ē I donít think it made much difference in terms of the story. I felt at home in the Oxford, and I didnít feel at home in Chinese restaurants. Little things like that, mostly for the sake of hastening the story on, of sharpening it.
But youíre still true to the spirit of the stories?
I hope so. As I told you, Iím engaged now with several others in trying to make a script out of ďA River Runs Through It.Ē
Theyíre always saying, ďYou make it too tragic. A movie audience, unlike a literary audience, wonít accept that much tragedy.Ē Itís just too bad if they wonít. I didnít ask to write this script. It wasnít my idea. Iím unbending about this, just totally unbending. Iím not going to compromise.
St. Marys Lake, Glacier National Park, Montana.
How was your education in Montana different from the one you got back East?
It wasnít a very good education. In 1920 when I was going to go to college neither my father nor I had a very high opinion of the University of Montana. The state was still dominated by the Anaconda Copper Mine Company [ACM]. You had to watch what you said about them and about politics. They owned the whole state and theyíd just crush you out of existence if they didnít like you.
At the time I worshipped the chairman of the English Department at the University of Montana. His name was H. G. Merriam. The ACM was out to get him night and day, but never did. He came to be recognized as a kind of martyr, sacred to the history of Montana.
I wanted no part of being a sycophant for rich companies, and the education was not very good at the time. Now I think both state universities in Montana are fine schools.
What sorts of things did you learn in the woods as compared to the things you learned in school?
I learned what little math and science I know, in surveying. The only branch of mathematics I remember anything at all about is trigonometry, the thing that we needed in surveying. In respect to biology, I learned a good deal of what I know in a very wonderful kind of wayóthrough direct observation. I suppose fishing, as much as anything, helped me, the close observation about what fly should be used. In a backwoods kind of homey way we were good naturalists. Although home spun observation has big gaping holes in it, it also has rich parts that you hardly get anymore. If you didnít know a caddie fly when you saw one, and you didnít know whether they spawned in shallow water or deep, you just werenít going to get any fish on certain days. And you developed from that a sense of their beauty. Itís odd, but insects are an important part of life to me.
Did you have a hard time getting adjusted to the East Coast?
I suppose so. I donít know if I ever did get really adjusted. But they were very kind to me. I think the East is very different from what most Westerners think it is, at least the Westerners of my time. They thought of the Easterners as socialized jerks, snooty, kind of removed from life.
I didnít find that at all. They were very kind to me. They were very interested in me, much more so then than now probably, because I was one of the early guys from the West going back East. So I was supposedly kind of an oddity from the high brush. But they were better than I ever thought they would be.
Why did you come back to Montana?
Because I didnít want ever to leave, and never left. 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 couldnít live here really if I was going to be a teacher; Iíd have to be degraded and submit to views that I couldnít accept. I felt that this was imposed upon us from the outsideóthat wasnít our true nature. I tried to figure out a way to continue this two world thing that I had begun by going East.
And thatís probably the chief reason that 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 didnít stumble on the life I have lived.
Did you come to like Chicago?
I love Chicago. My wife was very wonderful in helping me come to feel that. I was very provincial in a lot of ways. She was gay and loved life wherever she lived. She really worked me over in our early years in Chicago. I was insolent and provincial about that city. She made me see how beautiful it was, made me see the geometric and industrial and architectural beauty.
You canít look for Montana everywhere. There are all kinds of things that you should be looking for. Thereís no architectural beauty in any big city that equals the modern architectural beauty or the industrial beauty of Chicago. You see this great big crane, a giant in the sky, picking up things as gracefully as a woman picks up a child. So thatís the way our early married life went. She tried to get me to see many kinds of beauties.
In a lot of ways I think that helped me immensely in writing about Montana. I think many Montana stories are limited by being too provincial. Theyíre about roundups and cattle rustlers and whatnot. That isnít even up to date.
I was concerned when I wrote about Montana to write with great accuracy about how it really was, but at the same time to show fundamental concerns with universal problems of existence: here is a member of a family who doesnít always abide by the rules and regulations of his society, and heís living something of an underground life and heís getting desperate about it and he needs help. Canít we do something to help him? And you canít find anything that will help him.
I received over 100 letters about that story, saying, ďI have a brother just like that, and I canít find anything to do that will help him.Ē From New York City, Jewish girls in New York City.
Seeing the kinds of problems that run through the hearts of sensitive and intelligent people, no matter where they are, will give an enrichment and enlargement to those problems present in any region.
Chicago is very much a home to me, too. I probably couldnít do without either home; my life depends on both of them. I donít feel that because I love both places Iím living the life of a schizophrenic. I feel that they work for each other. I can see more about each one, because of the other.
Why do you like living in the mountains so much?
Thereís something about mountains that does strange things to us mountain people. We were brought up in the mountains and always looked at people from the plains as deformed. We took mountains to be the natural state of affairs. I still do. I look at plains and I think, ďChrist Almighty, once there were mountains here and then something came along and knocked them over. How could something like this be a natural product of the universe?Ē
I remember the first time I got disabused of that. When I was up here one summer at Seeley Lake, an old farmer from the Dakotas came out here to visit. Heíd never seen the mountains before. This poor old bastard had been living out on the flat plains all his life, hadnít really seen any good country. He lasted about two or three days here before he hurried back home. He was terrified of the mountains. He was afraid they were going to fall on top of him and kill him. As he hurriedly left, we were stumped. We thought we were doing him a favor showing him this country.
Did the stories in A River Runs Through It help connect your life in Montana with your life in Chicago?
Often the way things that seem disparate and different are unified is by art and beauty. When you see it and are moved by it, you are about as close as you can get to putting the whole shebang together. Somewhere it says all things merge into one and a river runs through it.
Is there a prejudice among East Coast publishers against Western stories?
Not until recently have the Western writers ever gotten a good break from the publishers in New York. I feel that deeply. If I heard that one of the New York publishers was coming across Grizzly Basin Iíd be out there and shoot him on sight. They are a filthy bunch.
I had the good fortune of a dream coming true. Iím sure every rejected writer must dream of a time when heís written something that was rejected which turns out to be quite successful, so that all the publishers who rejected him are now coming around and kissing his ass at high noon, and he can tell them where to go.
Alfred A. Knopf, probably the most celebrated of all publishing companies in this country, rejected A River Runs Through It. Two or three years after it was rejected, I got a letter from an editor at Alfred A. Knopf asking me if Alfred A. Knopf couldnít have the privilege of getting first crack at my next novel.
Well, well, well. I donít know how this ever happened, but this fell right into my hands. So I wrote a letter. Itís probably one of the best things I ever wrote. I understand itís on the wall of several newspapers in the country. I can remember the last paragraph:
ďIf it should ever happen that the world comes to a place when Alfred A. Knopf is the only publishing company left and I am the only author, then that will be the end of the world of books.ď
I really told those bastards off. What a pleasure! What a pleasure! Right into my hands! Probably the only dream I ever had in life that came completely true.
Have your stories done anything to change the prejudices against Western stories?
I hope so, but a change like that has to be very broad. You talk about New York publishers, and in a way there is no such thing; thereís this bastard and that bastard. It takes a lot of things to affect a good many of them. It may be that the most important thing is not that theyíre accepting more Western writing, but that Western writers are getting broader based themselves, more generally interesting and more generally concerned about problems of mankind instead of just cattle rustling.
Itís a much healthier situation now. Not very much happened for many years, but now things are happening. You have a guy like Ivan Doig writing. I donít care how much of a New Yorker you are, you better realize youíre reading a helluva good writer when you read Ivan Doig.
What was the reaction to A River Runs Through It back East?
There were four or five New York publishers who turned it down. On the other hand, New York reviewers, from the very beginning, have thought very highly of it. Publishers Weekly was very warm hearted about it. There were probably 600 reviews of it, and I think I read only one poor review. Reviewers consistently have been very warm hearted, irrespective of the reason. So I have no kick about reviewers.
Who were some of the writers that youíve learned from?
The Bible. Wordsworth. Very early, through my father, Wordsworth became a favorite poet of mine. Heís influenced my life a great deal. When I was in the woods I always carried a copy of his selected poems with me. I think poets have influenced me more than prose writers. Gerard Manley Hopkins has influenced my poetical side, and I think some of it comes out in my prose. I like his passion. I think Browning is the best English poet after Shakespeare. I learned a tremendous amount from him about how to handle dramatic dialogue, dramatic speech and character.
Same way about Frost, who had a lot of influence on me. He was an occasional teacher at Dartmouth when I was there, so I had the privilege of being in classes that he taught. I liked him even before I went to Dartmouth. He talked straight to you, and often poetry was there, or something close to it.
What did Frost teach?
Creative writing. We had evening classes in a great big basement room with a wonderful fireplace in it. Heíd just walk in front of the fireplace in circles. As a teacher he was like a poet: he composed nothing but monologues. Nobody ever stopped him.
How about Hemingway?
Hemingway was an idol of mine for a while, as he was for practically all of us of that generation. He and I were about the same age. Unlike a lot of people who thought a lot of Hemingway, I still think a great deal of him. Now Hemingway is in disrepute as a kind of fake macho guy. I realized that he did put on kind of a show, but on the other hand I donít see how you could be a real American writer unless you knew Hemingway well, and had learned a great deal from him. He was a master of dialogue of a certain kind, that very tight crisp kind. He was a master in handling action, too. He was almost as good as Charlie Russell. In a page or even a paragraph he could tell you the most complicated action. So I donít fall into the school of so called modern critics who dislike Hemingway.
According to The Westminster Shorter Catechism, which you mention in ďA River Runs Through It,Ē manís chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. Did writing the stories help you to do that?
I donít know whether I can answer that. I suppose that in any conventional sense Iím a religious agnostic. There are things that make me feel a lot better. I donít particularly find them in a church. I find them in the woods, and in wonderful people. I suppose theyíre my religion.
I feel I have company about me when Iím alone in the woods. I feel theyíre beautiful. Theyíre a kind of religion to me. My dearest friends are also beautiful. My wife was an infinitely beautiful thing. I certainly feel that 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 ďwhat passeth human understanding.Ē