Contributed by Jeff Crane
Many years ago I was driving out of Yellowstone National Park through the West Entrance, following the beautiful Madison River, and noticed a man standing on a boulder in the middle of it, casting repeatedly without his fly making contact with the water. I knew immediately what he was doing and, being a wisenheimer in my youth, pulled over to observe. Just a few days earlier I had pretended to shop in a fly-fishing store in Jackson Hole, shocked at the exorbitant prices for flies and poles. As I wandered the store fantasizing about new gear, I overheard one man who, on hearing about the outstanding fishing at Henry’s Fork (legendary trout waters), responded, “I didn’t fly here from California to fish in Idaho.” Other tourists dropped thousands of dollars on poles, nets, dry flies, and waders. As a native Northwesterner I was trained to dislike a certain kind of tourist, and the guy on the rock seemed to fit into this category. He was trying to shadowcast like Paul Maclean in the movie A River Runs through It. I knew this and so deliberately ruined his moment by watching him until he gave up. After that, he stepped into the river and worked his way upstream the way a fly fisherman should.
I had forgotten this incident until asked to introduce the movie, the first in the film series for the project Where Rivers Meet. As I reflected on Robert Redford’s 1992 film and its impact on me, I recalled this event and how for years I had told the story for laughs over beer. Now the sins of my callow youth became clear to me. Like many of us, that would-be shadowcaster was seeking beauty, transcendence, maybe even the sublime.
There is a belief amongst fly fishermen in the West that the film version of A River Runs through It ruined fly fishing, its popularity creating a boom of fly fishing pretenders for several years. Over time I became one of those who complained about tourists ruining our rivers and places of beauty. What I conveniently forgot was that the movie and the novel were what led me to fly fishing too. Except for the money, I was similar to those fly fishing tourists. I had fished my entire life. From running a trot line for catfish in Mississippi to tossing a Mepps lure for trout in the Cascades of Washington to trolling a silver spoon and chartreuse squid for salmon in Puget Sound, I had certainly known fishing waters. But fly fishing had remained foreign. Inspired by the beauty of the movie and novel and what this type of fishing seemed to offer, I endeavored to make myself a fly fisherman. And this has meant everything to me.
My days and evenings fishing the North Fork of the Clearwater (which Norman Maclean regularly fished), Kelly Creek, Henry’s Fork, and the Solduc, watching a cutt rise to slurp down a parachute adams, or seeing the flashing bright colors of a rainbow fighting through riffles, are a consequence of my seeing this film. Learning to read, work, and truly understand a river with a fly rod, and thereby escaping the pressures and anxieties of modern life while better comprehending nature and my place in it, is a gift of this film and novel.
As for Redford’s film, which won an Oscar for best cinematography and was nominated in other categories, I think it is his best work. The movie, like the novel, captures the beauty of the western landscape and the ability to temporarily transcend our limitations through immersion in nature. It is a beautiful and haunting story about loving someone bent on self-destruction, and so it is a story with themes that cut across culture and time. But the novel initially met with resistance from publishers. One rejection letter noted disapprovingly that there were trees in the story. Finally, in support of one of their beloved professors, the University of Chicago Press published it in 1976, making Maclean’s work the first fiction the press ever published.
The movie is great, but the novel is a treasure. And one that is not nearly as well-known as it should be. This might be because it has been classified as “western literature,” a category that novelist and essayist Wallace Stegner felt unfairly rendered great literature set in the West as merely “regional literature.” It might also be due to the fact that Maclean started writing fiction late in life, after retirement, and so did not build a strong following of readers. Another factor might be the rise of a more varied field of literature featuring the perspectives of people historically and culturally marginalized on the basis of race, ethnicity, and sexuality. In such a literary milieu A River Runs through It may feel overly masculine and traditional. It deserves greater empathy. Journalist and novelist Pete Dexter writes of the novel that it “filled holes inside me that had been so long in the making that I’d stopped noticing they were there. It is a story about Maclean and his brother, Paul, who was beaten to death with a gun butt in 1938. It is about not understanding what you love, about not being able to help. It is the truest story I ever read; it might be the best written. And to this day it won’t leave me alone.”
Those lauding the novel often cite the passage describing the use of Mrs. Maclean’s metronome to teach the rhythm of fly casting or quote the stunningly beautiful closing passage. I want to consider a different passage from the novel, one that captures the precision and beauty of Maclean’s writing, relates to key themes in Where Rivers Meet, and is conveyed effectively in the film.
The passage describes a quiet moment on a riverbank as Norman and the father watch Paul Maclean fish. It conveys the sense that older brother Norman has of being less than Paul in his father’s eyes and his father’s effort to correct it. “While my father was watching my brother, he reached over to pat me, but he missed, so he had to turn his eyes and look for my knee and try again. He must have thought that I felt neglected and that he should tell me he was proud of me also but for other reasons.” From there he describes Paul moving through the powerful waters of the Big Blackfoot in language that any fly fisherman would recognize as accurate. “It was a little too deep and fast where Paul was trying to wade the river, and he knew it. He was crouched over the water and his arms were spread wide for balance. If you were a wader of big rivers you could have felt with him even at a distance the power of the water making his legs weak and wavy and ready to swim out from under him. He looked downstream to estimate how far it was to an easier place to wade.” Then the father’s deep knowledge of his son, of his personal quirks, his recklessness and tendency toward self-destruction, is revealed in a passage reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver in its ability to suggest much through restrained, minimalist prose. “My father said, ‘He won’t take the trouble to walk downstream. He’ll swim it.’ At the same time Paul thought the same thing, and put his cigarette and matches in his hat.”
What follows is a passage of pure beauty as Maclean reveals the fondness of the older brother for the lost younger one and, at the same time, captures what was best about their lives on one of those glorious days shared by a father and his sons on the bank of the Big Blackfoot River.
“…However, one closeup picture of him at the end of this day remains in my mind, as if fixed by some chemical bath. Usually, just after he finished fishing he had little to say unless he saw he could have fished better. Otherwise, he merely smiled. Now flies danced around his hatband. Large drops of water ran from under his hat on to his face and then into his lips when he smiled. At the end of this day, then, I remember him both as a distant abstraction in artistry and as a closeup in water and laughter.
My father always felt shy when compelled to praise one of his family, and his family always felt shy when he praised them. My father said, ‘You are a fine fisherman.’
My brother said, ‘I’m pretty good with a rod, but I need three more years before I can think like a fish.’
Remembering that he had caught his limit by switching to George’s No. 2 Yellow Hackle with a feather wing, I said without knowing how much I said, ‘You already know how to think like a dead stone fly.’
We sat on the bank and the river went by. As always, it was making sounds to itself, and now it made sounds to us. It would be hard to find three men sitting side by side who knew better what a river was saying.”
As in Sumida River and Curlew River, in A River Runs through It rivers and nature are intertwined with loss and, to varying degrees, memory and redemption. This moving narrative of youth entwined with nature, of the transcendence and solace found in casting a fly to a four-count rhythm, and of the struggle to understand why some people simply will not be helped, speaks to us in the same manner as Where Rivers Meet speaks to us of love and loss. Noh theater, British opera, and American literature and cinema remind us of the power of nature, not as a backdrop but as the living stage on which we act out our lives and even as a character in our individual and collective stories.
Dr. Jeff Crane,
Associate Dean, College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences
University of the Incarnate Word
Visit Jeff Crane’s author page on Amazon.