Norman Maclean

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Norman Fitzroy Maclean
Born(1902-12-23)December 23, 1902
Clarinda, Iowa
DiedAugust 2, 1990(1990-08-02) (aged 87)
Chicago, Illinois, United States
Professor of English literature
Alma materDartmouth College
University of Chicago
GenreNature, fishing, outdoors, biography
Notable worksA River Runs Through It and Other Stories (1976)
Young Men and Fire (1992)
SpouseJessie Burns (1905–1968)
ChildrenJean Maclean (b. 1942)
John Maclean (b. 1943)

Norman Fitzroy Maclean (December 23, 1902 – August 2, 1990) was an American author and scholar noted for his books A River Runs Through It and Other Stories (1976) and Young Men and Fire (1992).


The Maclean family (with Norman on the left) around 1911

Born in Clarinda, Iowa, on December 23, 1902, Maclean was the son of Clara Evelyn (née Davidson; 1873–1952) and the Reverend John Norman Maclean (1862–1941), a Presbyterian minister who managed much of the education of the young Norman and his brother Paul Davidson[1] (1906–1938) until 1913. Norman Maclean also grew up with five sisters.[2] The ancestors of the Maclean family were Gaelic speaking Presbyterians from the Isle of Mull. His parents had migrated to Iowa from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada. After Clarinda, the family relocated to Missoula, Montana in 1909. The following years considerably influenced and inspired Norman's writings, appearing prominently in the short story The Woods, Books, and Truant Officers (1977) and the semi-autobiographical novella A River Runs Through It and Other Stories (1976).[3]

Forest Service[edit]

Too young to enlist in the American Expeditionary Force during World War I, Maclean found work in logging camps and for the United States Forest Service in what is now the Bitterroot National Forest of northwestern Montana. The novella USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky[4] and the story "Black Ghost" in Young Men and Fire (1992) are semi-fictionalized accounts of these experiences.


Maclean later attended Dartmouth College, where he served as editor-in-chief of the humor magazine the Dartmouth Jack-O-Lantern; the editor-in-chief to follow him was Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss and who, according to MacLean, was “the craziest guy I ever met.”[5] He was also a member of the Sphinx and Beta Theta Pi. He received his Bachelor of Arts in 1924 and chose to remain in Hanover, New Hampshire to serve as an instructor until 1926—a time he recalled in "This Quarter I Am Taking McKeon: A Few Remarks on the Art of Teaching".[6]


On September 24, 1931, Maclean married Jessie Burns (1905–1968),[7] a redheaded Scots-Irish woman from Wolf Creek, Montana. They later had two children: a daughter Jean (born in 1942), now a lawyer, and a son, John (born in 1943), now a journalist and author of Fire on the Mountain: The True Story of the South Canyon Fire (1999) and two other books, Fire & Ashes (2003) and The Thirtymile Fire: A Chronicle of Bravery and Betrayal (2007).[8]

University of Chicago[edit]

Maclean began graduate studies in English at the University of Chicago in 1928 and earned a doctorate in 1940. During World War II, he declined a commission in naval intelligence to serve as Dean of Students. During the war he also served as Director of the Institute on Military Studies and co-authored Manual of Instruction in Military Maps and Aerial Photographs.[9] Maclean eventually became the William Rainey Harper Professor in the Department of English and taught the Romantic poets and Shakespeare. "Every year I said to myself, 'You better teach this bastard so you don't forget what great writing is like.' I taught him technically, two whole weeks for the first scene from Hamlet. I'd spend the first day on just the line, 'Who's there?'"[10] U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who took a poetry class taught by Maclean at the University of Chicago, credited him as "the teacher to whom I am most indebted."[11] Maclean also wrote two scholarly articles, "From Action to Image: Theories of the Lyric in the Eighteenth Century" and "Episode, Scene, Speech, and Word: The Madness of Lear",[12] the latter describing a theory of tragedy that he revisited in his later work.


After his retirement in 1973, he began, as his children Jean and John had often encouraged him, to write down the stories he liked to tell. In 1976, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories was published to widespread acclaim. The book was the first work of fiction published by the University of Chicago Press. It was nominated by a selection committee to receive the Pulitzer Prize in Letters in 1977, but the full committee ignored the nomination and did not award a Pulitzer in that category for the year. In 1992, A River Runs Through It was adapted into a motion picture directed by Robert Redford and released by Columbia Pictures, starring Craig Sheffer as Maclean, Brad Pitt, Brenda Blethyn, Emily Lloyd and Tom Skerritt.

Maclean House[edit]

During 1991, a renovated church retirement home was turned into an undergraduate dormitory on the University of Chicago campus named Maclean House. Maclean House's mascot was the "Stormin' Normans" in honor of its namesake. The dorm was closed after the 2015–2016 academic year and subsequently sold to be turned into apartments.[13]

Later years and death[edit]

Maclean died in Chicago on August 2, 1990.[14]

He spent the last years of his life attempting to write a non-fiction account of the 1949 Mann Gulch Forest Fire. The manuscript was published posthumously as Young Men and Fire and won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1992. In 2008, the University of Chicago Press published a new compendium of unpublished and some previously published works, The Norman Maclean Reader. The anthology included parts of a never-finished book about George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn which Maclean had worked on from 1959 to 1963. Publishers Weekly gave the book a respectful review in Summer 2008, remarking, "Readers of the two earlier books will find, as Weltzien [Alan Weltzien, the book's editor] phrases it, 'new biographical insights into one of the most remarkable and unexpected careers in American letters.'"

Literary works[edit]


Articles and essays[edit]

  • 1952: Two essays—(1) "From Action to Image: Theories of the Lyric in the Eighteenth Century" and (2) "Episode, Scene, Speech, and Word: The Madness of Lear"[19] and (2) —in R.S. Crane's Critics and Criticism: Ancient and Modern[20]
  • 1956: "Personification But Not Poetry" in ELH: English Literary History Vol. 23, No. 2 (Jun., 1956), pp. 163–170.

Edited works[edit]

  • 1988: Norman Maclean (edited by Ron McFarland and Hugh Nichols)[21]
  • 2008: The Norman Maclean Reader (edited by O. Alan Weltzien)[22]


  1. ^ Baumler, Ellen (July 11, 2012). "Montana Moments: Paul Maclean's Unsolved Murder". Montana Moments. Archived from the original on September 25, 2018. Retrieved September 25, 2018.
  2. ^ Kidston, Martin J. (July 9, 2000). "Paul MacLean in Helena". Independent Record. Helena, Montana. Retrieved April 28, 2020.
  3. ^ Tribune Staff. "125 Montana Newsmakers: Norman F. Maclean". Great Falls Tribune. Archived from the original on March 10, 2012. Retrieved August 26, 2011.
  4. ^ "A River Runs Through It Characters". Archived from the original on September 19, 2018. Retrieved September 19, 2018.
  5. ^ {{Cite article|url= Maclean and Me|access-date=May 23, 2020
  6. ^ The Norman Maclean Reader. Archived from the original on September 19, 2018. Retrieved September 19, 2018.
  7. ^ "Jessie G "Jakie" Burns Maclean (1905-1968) - Find..." Archived from the original on September 19, 2018. Retrieved September 19, 2018.
  8. ^ Maclean, John N (2007). The Thirtymile fire: a chronicle of bravery and betrayal. New York: Henry Holt. ISBN 9780805075786. OCLC 70208085.
  9. ^ Maclean, Norman; Olson, Everett C; University of Chicago; Institute of Military Studies (1943). Manual for instruction in military maps and aerial photographs. New York, London: Harper & Bros. OCLC 573866.
  10. ^ Dexter, Pete (June 1981). "The Old Man and the River". Esquire. Archived from the original on July 9, 2014. Retrieved July 7, 2014.
  11. ^ "John Paul Stevens: By the Book". The New York Times. April 6, 2014. Archived from the original on October 1, 2015. Retrieved April 6, 2014.
  12. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on June 4, 2011. Retrieved March 28, 2011.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
  13. ^ "Blackstone, Maclean, Broadview to Become Apartments". Archived from the original on September 19, 2018. Retrieved September 19, 2018.
  14. ^ C. GERALD FRASER (August 3, 1990). "Norman Maclean, 87, a Professor Who Wrote About Fly-Fishing". The New York Times. Archived from the original on September 27, 2016. Retrieved July 10, 2012.
  15. ^ This work was originally Maclean's doctoral dissertation at the University of Chicago
  16. ^ From Harper's Geoscience Series. (New York: Harper & Brothers), LCCN: UG470.M17
  17. ^ (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) ISBN 0-226-50066-7
  18. ^ (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, published posthumously) ISBN 0-226-50061-6
  19. ^ "Norman Maclean, King Lear essay". Archived from the original on March 20, 2018. Retrieved September 24, 2018.
  20. ^ The first essay is adapted from his 1940 doctoral dissertation and book The Theory of Lyric Poetry from the Renaissance to Coleridge, found on pp. 408–50 in Crane's work. The second is found on pp. 595–615. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) LCCN 57007903
  21. ^ (American Authors Series, Confluence Press, 1988). Includes previously uncollected writings, as well as interviews and essays about Maclean. ISBN 0-917652-71-1
  22. ^ (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008) ISBN 978-0-226-50026-3. Selections from his work plus previously unpublished material including letters and his writings on George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

External links[edit]