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Norman Maclean reads from and discusses his book "A River Runs Through It"

BROADCAST: Jun. 8, 1976 | DURATION: 00:53:13


Fly fishing, relationships and people Norman Maclean has met are all apart of his book, "A River Runs Through It." Maclean's father taught Maclean and his brother the art of fly fishing. Maclean's book is semi-autobiographical with three short stories.


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Studs Terkel There are three beautiful short stories, a couple of might be called novellas, written by Norman Maclean, who has just retired as Professor of English, University of Chicago after many years, and the stories really are based upon memory. The theme you might say of these stories might be the fusion of art and life, and published by the University of Chicago Press. "A River Runs Through It and Other Stories", and Mr. Maclean my guest.

Norman Maclean "In our family there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ's disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry fly fisherman."

Studs Terkel And this is how the story opens, so it's really in a way the story about you and your brother Paul, and your father the Presbyterian minister, and women of your family, and fishing. But I suppose we start at the beginning, where this was and your relationship to your brother Paul.

Norman Maclean Well, this is in western Montana, actually, near Missoula, Montana, and not far from Idaho on the western slopes of the continental divide, in the heart of a very great trout fishing country. Great rivers like the Blackfoot and Flathead and the Bitterroot, all great trout streams, and my father was a Presbyterian minister who believed that his job to his church was done when he preached two good sermons on Sunday, and he left the church to my mother after that, and then he and his two sons went fishing.

Studs Terkel But the fishing was almost an extension, was it not, of his theology.

Norman Maclean Oh yes, and mine, too, I think. It would be as I say, it's very hard in my family to know where fishing and religion left off, and steep, of course fishing is very deep in the Bible itself. And it was deep in our particular way of life, and at the end it's just when my brother is murdered, I was about--it's one of the few things, fishing is one of the few things we have left in the way of religious comfort. We fished together then for--

Studs Terkel You and your father.

Norman Maclean My father and I for whatever comfort we could find in life.

Studs Terkel It's also a reflection of a very beautiful story, but a reflections also of another time, isn't it, of a certain kind of craftsmanship and pride and passion.

Norman Maclean Well, Studs, I say it's a depiction of a time--all three stories are roughly, that I call the end of history, when for most of history there were no roads through the woods, or not many, and very few trails, and everything was hand and horse, and there are no cats and no Jeeps and no power saws, and cross-cut saws, and it was a world that was infinitely beautiful and very tough, and it's hard at times to tell the toughness from the beauty, it was a tough kind of beauty.

Studs Terkel Throughout in all three stories, we'll come to the other two in a moment, but let's stick with the first one first. "A River Runs Through It" concerns primarily your brother Paul and your father, your family, and a brother-in-law. It's a family, and the battles there, but also something more. This is a kind of a love out of battle, really.

Norman Maclean Well, I--Bill Neill [sic] wrote me a nice letter about the story. He's like my family. He's a Canadian Scot, and he's the great historian who's author of "The Rise of the West", and of course he picks up the Canadian Scot business in it, and the competition, and decide how each person sees something of himself in it, and what he sees is the Scots going all the way back to the tribal and clan competitives business, and certainly in the characters, Scot characters I depict there, they're highly competitive, my brother and the sawyer, Jim Roberts, you know, they'd kill you before they'd lose. And the--whether he's fantastic in taking that back to the clans, I don't know.

Studs Terkel Well, that's interesting, you speak of clans, 'cause we think--let's stick for the moment with the Scottish flavor of this, your father, a Presbyterian minister, and also a stubbornness in your brother. Your brother obviously was the--you were there, but he was three years younger than you.

Norman Maclean That's right.

Studs Terkel But he was more or less the challenge to the others, wasn't he?

Norman Maclean [Molly?] was, certainly, my fa--he was, you know, he could always beat us after he got say to be eight or nine years old, and we didn't like that partic--

Studs Terkel Beat you at fishing.

Norman Maclean Fishing, that's right, and we sure didn't like it, but we had to eat it, and eventually, we--you know, it was a source of great love and pride. We couldn't hardly keep our eyes off him when he finished, he was so beautiful and when he became a master of it, really

Studs Terkel Could we talk about that, because you are describing an artist here, as fisherman, also what I find very fascinating, you go into the nature of it, specifically the nature of the work and the art of fishing.

Norman Maclean That's right. Well, I'll take that, the second part of that first, Studs, the part about the art. This story certainly was not something you can plan, and this story certainly was planned in part to be a kind of a manual on fly fishing. When it was through--

Studs Terkel By the way, a parenthetical comment, Professor Maclean, I am a city boy. I know absolutely nothing about fishing. You describe fly fishing and bait fishing. Perhaps in your own way you might describe the differences between--fly fishing is something quite special, isn't it?

Norman Maclean Well, first of all, it's done with very, very light equipment. An eight and a half foot rod, in those days weighed four and a half ounces, now with modern materials it weighs only 2 ounces, and when you're good you can throw 150 feet of line, you can throw a line clear across the Blackfoot River. It takes you a lifetime to learn how to do it. Your flies have to--with all that power, it nevertheless must light very gently on the water, or else it'll scare the fish, you make a big splash. Bait fishing, you know, you just take an old bamboo pole, not even call them a rod, you--no casting involved, you just toss the bait out there and you sit on the bank and wait for something to happen, and I can--it's hard for me to see that there's any art in it. Or any, and certainly no beauty. But fly fishing, they say it takes you a lifetime to learn, and you have to set those lies down with infinite gentleness, you have to imitate the flies on, the motion of flies on water either by letting them sink and then bringing them up or bringing them in a zigzag way as if they were trying to get off the water, and all kinds of beautiful things, and difficult things you have to do. In bait you just let it go down and into the depths and watch a little piece of cork to see if it sinks, you know, and then you know you have a bite.

Studs Terkel As you describe it, Norman Maclean, there's a love, you describe it with a great deal of pride and longing, you do, because--your brother. Somewhere along the line also imagination, he was imagining what it was like to be a fly or a fish.

Norman Maclean No good if you can't. See, he says at the end when he's complimented about being a great fisherman, he still doesn't know how to think like a fish and he would like three more years of life to learn how to think like a fish. But of course he never got those three years. But he thought plenty like a fish as it was.

Studs Terkel We'll come to your brother in a moment and this, whatever this inside him that impelled him to think this way and behave this way, too. Your father and you, since you were Presbyterians and Scots, Isaak Walton had rated low in your pantheon.

Norman Maclean My father says he was Episcopalian and a bait fisherman and not, therefore, a respectable writer.

Studs Terkel But therefore the--and throughout there's, your father is thinking, too, of the water and how far back the water goes. The water preceded the word.

Norman Maclean Yeah. Oh, one of the last things--in the last time my father and my brother and I were together, my father and I got in a half playful argument over that point, and you know it remains in my mind forever. Why, I'd fi--he'd quit fishing early and I quit not long after he quit, and he was sitting up on the bank and so I went up to sit next to him, and I found that he was reading the New Testament in Greek, and he was reading it and he had it open to the Gospel of St. John, you know. And so I looked at it and I knew enough Greek to recognize that it was the opening of St. John and it just says, "In the beginning was the word and the word was with God, and the word was God." So I told him, you know, "St. John's wrong about that. The beginning was water, and if you listen to the river below, you can hear that the words are formed by the water running over the rocks, so entirely wrong." He said, "The beginning was the words, and the water that runs over the words merely brings the sound of the words up to us. But the words were original."

Studs Terkel Your father sat along the bank reading the Bible in Greek. He also had a hunting gun beside him, too.

Norman Maclean Well, he liked--he took the New Testament in Greek along with him practically every place we went either fishing or hunting.

Studs Terkel But I'm thinking of the [adage?] the Bible and the gun.

Norman Maclean Yeah. Well, that's when we were duck hunting and he'd, after the big shooting was over and only strays would come by during the heat of the day, he'd sit there with an old army blanket around him and read the New Testament in Greek and when a stray duck came by, he'd put the gun down and--or, the book down and pick up the gun and shoot the duck and then pick up the Bible again. And the dog would go out and bring in the duck.

Studs Terkel Can we coming to the matter of the relationship of the family, too. The life as it was and there were--there was a stubbornness, the obstinacy of your brother when there was a question of oatmeal. Eating oatmeal. This was almost mandatory, was it not?

Norman Maclean Oh well, that's true of any Scottish family, and my father really felt when my brother refused to eat it, it was, he was really witnessing sacrilege, and oats were that important. Oatmeal was that important to the Scots, but my brother just made it, he refused to eat it.

Studs Terkel It might be worth reading just to get the style, too, of Norman Maclean's very salubrious writing. It's the idea of the scene, as you describe with my underlined words there, just the reading of that, too, gives you an idea.

Norman Maclean "But our differences showed even in our toughness. I'm speaking now of both my brother and me. I was taught tough, but I was tough by being the product of tough establishments. The United States Forest Service and logging camps. Pa was tough by thinking he was tougher than any establishment. My mother and I watched horrified morning after morning while the Scottish minister tried to make his small child eat oatmeal. My father was also horrified, at first because a child of his own bowels would not eat God's oats. And as the days went by, because his wee child proved tougher than he was, as the minister raged the child bowed his head over the food and folded his hands as if his father were saying grace. The child gave only one sign of his own great anger. His lips became swollen. The hotter my father got, the colder the porridge, until father--until finally my father burned out."

Studs Terkel That's a marvelous scene, 'cause when you describe that scene you can see that the stubbornness of the little guy, the little boy.

Norman Maclean Yeah, of course, and that, Studs, is also preparatory in a very diminutive a way for his death at the end, whereas I think that kind of characteristic in him was somehow involved in his ultimate death.

Studs Terkel You think there was a self-destructive--driving your brother.

Norman Maclean Oh, I think that as a minimum he would--he went always alone. He wouldn't take no help or no advice, and I think somehow that was involved in his

Studs Terkel You have this description of yourself and your brother and also the seeking of respect. You knew he was the artist when it certainly came to fly fishing. He also worked as a newspaper man.

Norman Maclean That's right.

Studs Terkel How was he in that?

Norman Maclean Well, he was very able, and he worked on a small newspaper in Helena, it was the only newspaper in Helena, that which is the capital of Montana. It was small. And it was back in the days which you must remember well, Studs, when newspapers in small towns were very personal, and in--and were really incredibly inventive in personal invective, and you spent most of your time doing in the people you didn't like, and he had an editor who was in the same spirit of things, and the editor wrote the editorials, and my brother got the news to fortify the editorials, so they worked very well together.

Studs Terkel And they're both drinking men.

Norman Maclean They drank all day, and I say in the stories, they drank so they wouldn't get sorry for anybody during the day.

Studs Terkel It says something else here about your brother, the drinking, the writing, and the fishing, and the--he was a loner. It was he against the elements, wasn't it, pretty much?

Norman Maclean That's right. Of course, that's pretty Western, too. It was very heightened in him. That's very--was at least very Western, and it's in me, too. As you can see from the stories, I always--when you talk about working, as you do so brilliantly, it's--a lot of it is union and social significances of working, but the way we did it out in that free open country, it was mostly the individual against nature. We didn't have great groups of workers working together, we were working, you know, against a forest fire or something

Studs Terkel At the same time, though, there's something else that makes your story--this first one, we'll come to the other two in a moment, so moving, "A River Runs Through It", is you and your mother and your father are watching your brother and it's almost inevitable. You're trying to reach out to him, too. There's a reaching out throughout here in all cases, a reaching out to help, and at times there is a connection. And when you and your brother pays you tribute one time fishing you're doing pretty well [there's one where?]--you know he's the best and you--even though he's your younger brother, it's his respect you seek, too.

Norman Maclean Well, that was all over us, Studs. I suppose the business of reaching out and help, it came, of course, I suppose ultimately from our religion, an extension of the brotherhood of man and fortified of course by the Scotch sense, a terrific sense of family, a general feeling not limited to the Scottish in those times, we all had intense feeling about family and helping each other, no matter what. They say it came, I think ultimately from our religion.

Studs Terkel But there was one little thing, though, there was a holding back, that is, the feeling was deep, but the outward manifestation I suppose being Presbyterian or Scot, I don't, don't want to stereotype this, but there was not fully confronting him verbally. Isn't this part of it, too?

Norman Maclean Well, that's all through, when you come to the Scots, they're rather taciturn group of people, and part of the power in writing about them is that in very few and indirect words you've got to show they are under feeling, and they're not going to express their feeling directly to somebody, it will be very intense feeling, especially family feeling. They say that on the walls of our church was "God is Love," and we interpreted those three words to apply to the four of us in the family, but not the world outside.

Studs Terkel Here we come to the aspect of clan, don't we?

Norman Maclean I suppose.

Studs Terkel So this is a throwback, isn't it in a way, to the old legacy? Isn't it?

Norman Maclean I think that it may be. Oh, I'm sure it is. I think it's more general, though, obviously than--I think that was a part of history, necessary part of history that we, in order to survive we men felt and women felt much more deeply about their family than we do today. It was just never any question in our mind that anybody got in trouble in our family, he couldn't be wrong.

Studs Terkel There was even a case here of someone who seemingly was outside, that is, your wife's brother. He was of another world in a way, wasn't he? Neal?

Norman Maclean Well, as you can see, I never really knew what to make of him, and I don't, his own family didn't, but you--as I say in the book, it's no great pleasure to see your wife's face on somebody you don't like, and he was no favorite of mine. He's a kind of, you have, we have a lot of those still in the far West, they go to the West Coast and make good in some small way, and then they come back and try to lord it over us, you know.

Studs Terkel Was he an Easterner?

Norman Maclean Oh, no, he was from, he came from Wolf Creek, 111 population, but he went to Seattle for a few years, then he come back and be a big shot, you know? So nobody loved him.

Studs Terkel Well, here's a, some mar--by--some marvelous, wild incidents involving your brother-in-law and a girl named "Rawhide" and how you and your brother tried to save him, and you took a beating from a woman in your family 'cause thought you had injured him. Before that, though, even though there's a taciturnity, it seemingly, outwardly, tremendous passion, it's a wild spirit in your brother Paul when he goes to town and gets drunk and he has his Indian lady friend, and

Norman Maclean She's a wonderful woman, isn't she?

Studs Terkel Now, they're on the town.

Norman Maclean Yeah. I was always fond of her. Great dancers. Like Maria Tallchief, great big tall girl. She could--when she danced, she was as beautiful as my brother when he was fly casting. She was really beautiful.

Studs Terkel You remember her.

Norman Maclean I do. Yes.

Studs Terkel I put down here just a comment about you, your Cheyenne beauty who was tough and always looking for fights. And your brother who were a combination, and it says she and he, I put it down. Your brother was an artist and she was an artist.

Norman Maclean That's

Studs Terkel "Even I couldn't walk down the street beside her without her getting me into trouble. She liked to hold Paul with one arm, you with the other, walk down Last Chance Gulch on Saturday night and running into people into the gutter to get around us, and when they wouldn't give up the sidewalk, she'd shove Paul and me into them. But she looked--but there was something about her when she danced. She was one of the most beautiful dancers I ever seen, she made her partner feel as if we were about to be left behind, really had a strange and wonderful and somewhat embarrassing a feeling to hold someone in your arms who was trying to detach you from the earth." She was that good.

Norman Maclean She was that good.

Studs Terkel She was as beautiful a dancer as he was a fly caster.

Norman Maclean Well, there was something about, I think, all high art that's kind of between heaven and earth, you know, when I see these wonderful young women ice skating, it seems to me like something occurring between heaven and earth and a lot of track, because track is beautiful by being kind of between heaven and earth. And she was between heaven and earth, too. Tough as she was.

Studs Terkel 'Cause your book is about beauty, too, isn't it? It's about beauty, it's about a search for beauty, isn't it?

Norman Maclean My life

Studs Terkel Your life--well, of course, here again we come to a point--we're still sticking with this first story, but we'll come to the other two in a moment because it's so moving, and your writing, you see the point is, you're not too certain at times about fiction and reality, about life and art, and even your book, it's a fusion of the two. As your brother put himself when he told stories, he was not the hero, but he was in it in a way and this sense you are in these very stories. That you are there as the observer, at the same time you're not detached.

Norman Maclean No, I'm always there as the [eye? I?] who's a narrator, is someone who is, knows a great deal about an art, and maybe knows more about it because he isn't completely perfect at it himself. So I'm always in respect, say, to fishing or being a sawyer in a logging camp, I always had to do it in a kind of a thoughtful way. Whereas people who, I work against or fish against are geniuses, they're masters and perfect in the art, and they're able to do things that I'm not able to do, and because in part they don't have to think a great deal about it, but being kind of imperfect in the art myself, now speaking of myself as in this character or in these stories, that allows me to talk about characters who are perfect in the art, in a way in which I couldn't, I think, if I tried to pose as if I were equally good.

Studs Terkel In each of these three stories, you're talking about a marvelous craftsman: your brother the fly fisherman, a guy named Jim the logger, the sawyer, and a guy named Bill the packer.

Norman Maclean That's right. They're masters.

Studs Terkel Yeah, these guys--you're talking--you're really talking about craftsmanship.

Norman Maclean Don't forget the half-breed Cheyenne girl.

Studs Terkel And the girl. And in, by the, one of the subject, there's another girl, this is sad description, funny old "Rawhide", I guess in all towns you would find someone like her at the end of the bar, wouldn't you?

Norman Maclean She'd been, hoped to be a rodeo star and wasn't quite good enough to make it, so she couldn't keep away from tough guys. I think part of her desire to be a great rodeo star was just to be with a tough guy.

Studs Terkel And so she--

Norman Maclean She became a barfly.

Studs Terkel And all the men are "Buster." All the men are Buster--

Norman Maclean Except me. She always called me "You." "Oh, so it's you again, huh?"

Studs Terkel Is the fact that you--throughout were they aware that you were going to go to school? Was that it? In all these cases? That you were the young guy was going to go to school?

Norman Maclean Well, certainly not in the Forest Service story.

Studs Terkel But the logger

Norman Maclean The logger one, yes.

Studs Terkel But this girl, old Rawhide, still pretty, wasn't she? But had known many men and gone from one to the other. You will find in almost every neighborhood bar in the city an old Rawhide. I call her Betty Ann. Betty Ann. You find Betty Ann and you see her at the end of the bar, her face kind of splotched and red now a little, very beautiful once upon a time, less a little puffy and there's Betty Ann, and many beers and many guys and many shots of whiskey--

Norman Maclean Trying to move in on the free drinks all

Studs Terkel And she's got a dime always to put in the jukebox, and they all know her, and [easy about?] Betty Ann, and once upon a time, and you almost see what's going to happen to Betty Ann, too, as you wander a year later in, you see Betty Ann a little heavier now, the eyes and this was old Rawhide.

Norman Maclean That's

Studs Terkel Perhaps the story about your brother. And also things about his life you didn't know, wild gambling and debts.

Norman Maclean That's right.

Studs Terkel And it's as though something was going to happen to him. Did you have the feeling something was going to happen to your brother?

Norman Maclean I think both my father and I did, after a while. And we didn't. And here's where the help business comes in. We didn't know for sure whether there were these cracks and crevices in his character. We didn't know whether he needed help, and I think that's the situation often with many of us, that we have someone that we know either in our family or close by who is quite beautiful and in some kind of an accomplishment. And yet there's something strange that you don't know about, you more and more feel this kind of ominous, and you don't know whether you ought to step in and be embarrassed and find out that you're not wanted or there's nothing wrong with him, or step in and try to be of help, and then some great catastrophe and you're left with that on your hands and heart forever, trying to work with it and you never can work it out.

Studs Terkel And so when you discover your brother's death, he was beaten up. You don't know how or why. And then you and your father have this--you go fishing and you have that discussion.

Norman Maclean That's right. And that's it.

Studs Terkel Perhaps, you know, to end the first half of the pro--the story, perhaps even to read the last three paragraphs of the story. This is the first story of the three. It's the title story, "A River Runs Through It".

Norman Maclean "So now nearly all those I loved and did not understand when I was young are dead, but I still reach out to them. Of course, now I am too old to be much of a fisherman. And now, of course, I usually fish the big waters alone, although some friends think I shouldn't. Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise. Eventually all things merge into one and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops under the rocks are the words and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters."

Studs Terkel That's the end of this story. "A River Runs Through It", Norman Maclean. And we'll resume in a moment with the other two stories, "Logging and Pimping and 'Your Pal, Jim.'" In a moment we'll resume after this message.

Folk Singer [content removed, see

Studs Terkel The record's jumping around. "I could not speak to tell him his forgot his Mackinaw." And he's going out, the record's cockeyed, so we'll--he's going out into the open and it's about 40 degrees below zero, he buttoned up his vest, and then finally at a thousand degrees below zero froze my logger love and today he's in one of those Douglas firs and to this day he's looking for some guy who stirs his coffee with his thumb. That would be the logger. In a way this is your friend, your mentor, in another adventure of yours. Jim Grierson, isn't it?

Norman Maclean That's right. Well, he--this was in a period, short period of my life when I worked in logging camps instead of in the Forest Service and worked for big money, we gyppoed, you see.

Studs Terkel Now, you should describe what gyppoing is.

Norman Maclean Well, you could then work either for wages by the day or you could work by the thousand board feet that you cut.

Studs Terkel Was piecework.

Norman Maclean Piecework, that's right, and since he was a great logger he chose to gyppo, as we said, or work by the piece, for that means, of course, that you kill yourself off, turns out, too, that that's what he liked to do. I think it wasn't just merely to get the money, but it was working with him was a form of competition, and was a cheap source of pleasure in life and something like football. He tried to mow you down. And there are a lot of people that are that way in the work ethic world that really love it, and they look at it as a form of competition and they try to destroy you if you work

Studs Terkel Yeah. Now, this is a little different from your brother. See, both were skilled craftsmen, your brother fisherman and Jim the sawyer, the logger. But the difference is, your brother himself and the elements and he was good. He wasn't trying to beat anybody.

Norman Maclean He always liked to bet you.

Studs Terkel Oh, he always liked to bet, didn't he? That's right. Your brother was a bettor, wasn't he? Betting the establishment.

Norman Maclean That's right.

Studs Terkel Now, this guy was also anti-establishment.

Norman Maclean Big. Big anti-establishment.

Studs Terkel But at the same time, he was a contradiction, wasn't he? He was a, he liked Eugene V. Debs, he was a socialist--

Norman Maclean That's right.

Studs Terkel And hated the company, but he hated the guys more than the company.

Norman Maclean That's right. He was, you know, he was as you say a contradiction, but not really. He was so great in his craft that he despised the men, but he thought he and the men were getting a raw deal. But internally he had no respect, really, for anybody.

Studs Terkel How could he--did you ever talk to him about that? This guy you worked for? You were young--

Norman Maclean We didn't talk for months, you know, on one end of the saw the other, we got into this big competition and for months we didn't speak to each other.

Studs Terkel Well, you describe that. Now, you're right there with him, you each, you has one end of this big saw, chopping down these logs, sawing down these logs, and there's no conversation. It's just working like hell. Well, you almost did--did you almost feel you couldn't make it sometimes?

Norman Maclean Oh, lots of times. He was a bigger man than I was and he was a better sawyer than I was, and I say in the story I just, you know, barely lived to survive to say that he was a great sawyer, he practically destroyed me.

Studs Terkel What sort of man was that? I mean, I'm trying to figure this out. He hated the company, he [was there?] being gypped by the company. He said he was a socialist, thought Eugene Debs was too soft.

Norman Maclean Too soft.

Studs Terkel At the same time, he hated the men. He was on his own.

Norman Maclean That's right. He didn't respect them. He didn't think they were, you know, first-class. And--

Studs Terkel There was a ques--

Norman Maclean A world apart to himself, but had great power over the men, they were afraid of him.

Studs Terkel Told they were afraid of this guy. Did he ever speak out on their behalf against the company?

Norman Maclean Oh yes, he did indeed.

Studs Terkel He did that. So there's the contradiction.

Norman Maclean But he--as I say, in that world of logging, there were just three things that existed: work and fighting and women. And a logger was supposed to be good at all three of them, but if you had to make your better choice, you'd better be good at working. You couldn't last in that world if somebody else outworked you. Might as well, you know, take your duffel bag and start down the road. You just couldn't submit to somebody out-working

Studs Terkel Now that seems to be the key to all three of your stories. Here there's a descript--that work also--at least I found this in my adventures, that the subject of work becomes the subject of a great deal of discussion. More than sex. Work.

Norman Maclean Oh, yes. Sex is just a part of that world. The logging world is almost complete in itself. That there are games insofar as they [had any were?] log rolling contests and sawing contests and axe contests on the 4th of July, and their whores all had to swear the way they did, all the swear words were logging terms, even though they didn't know what they, the women didn't know what the terms meant.

Studs Terkel That's interesting. Even when they visited the cathouses, even when they were in bed with the girls, the talk endearing was logging talk.

Norman Maclean Logging talk.

Studs Terkel Almost like the old preacher in Moby Dick. The sermon was nautical, wasn't it?

Norman Maclean That's right.

Studs Terkel "Nearly all our talk," writes Norman Maclean in the story "Logging and Pimping and 'Your Pal, Jim'" "nearly all our talk, though, was about logging, because logging was what loggers talked about, they mixed into everything. For instance, loggers celebrated the Fourth of July. The only sacred holiday in those times except Christmas, by contest and logrolling, sawing and swinging the axe. Their work was their world through their games and their women and even in the swearing." What did she say? Anabel. Who I take was one of the whores, would occasionally come bump the line, "Somebody ought to drop a boom on that bastard," and these were some of these ersatz Southerners. Oh, by the way, he had another vocation, did he not? That was Jim Grierson.

Norman Maclean Yeah, he was a pimp in the winter. He thought that was cultural and kind of gave him a chance to take out a library card in the Carnegie Public Library. So he spent his winters pimping and reading Jack London. Jack London was a favorite of his. Didn't read the dog stories, he read the socialist stories, you know, Jack London.

Studs Terkel He was a strange kind of socialist, wasn't he?

Norman Maclean He was, indeed.

Studs Terkel So he was pimping and a great logger and a socialist.

Norman Maclean Socialist, yeah.

Studs Terkel He thought that was cultural, the idea of being the pimp.

Norman Maclean Yeah. I'm sure he thought it was several other things, too.

Studs Terkel And this ends with, this is the briefest of the stories. It ends with the idea of the letters he sends to you. He wants you to--by this time, by the way, they're aware that you are the boy, you're the kid who's going to go to college. They know that.

Norman Maclean That doesn't impress them very much. Impresses the men, but it didn't impress Jim Grierson very much.

Studs Terkel But you get these cards on occasion.

Norman Maclean But I get the cards.

Studs Terkel Then we come to the third story, it's all part of one piece, really, and this is the one you and it's called "The Ranger, the Cook and the Hole in the Sky". Your experience with the Forestry Service.

Norman Maclean That's right. My early experience. I was only 17 then,

Studs Terkel And here you come across another craftsman.

Norman Maclean A [real great?] one.

Studs Terkel Who was Bill Bell?

Norman Maclean A second one, too, Studs. The cook was a great

Studs Terkel Oh, and the cook.

Norman Maclean Yeah, he was a master, too, except he had a crevice in his character, but in his skills he was a master. He could do anything with cards except keep his mouth shut.

Studs Terkel Throughout you're haunted by the, you're possessed by the idea of skilled craftsmen.

Norman Maclean I still am.

Studs Terkel Bill, now he was a packer. Oh, in all these stories you've described specifically the work, whether it's your brother the fly caster, whether it's Jim Grierson the sawyer, whether it's Bill Bell the packer. What is the job of packer?

Norman Maclean Well, packing is the art of transporting goods when there are no roads and when you've got some animal, I suppose it started with dogs, but in my time of course it was horses and mules, and you packed in whatever you needed in a world where there was no, where there were no roads.

Studs Terkel Here again the beauty of the art of it. There's a passage in there that I have marked that perhaps you

Norman Maclean For years I wanted to be a packer, that

Studs Terkel You yourself did.

Norman Maclean Yeah.

Studs Terkel The special craft in it. Later on his ability to talk with animals, too. That aspect

Norman Maclean The unpacking was just as beautiful. One wet stained back after another without saddle or saddle sore, and not a spot of white wet flesh, where hair and hide had rubbed off. Perhaps one has to know something about keeping packs balanced on the backs of animals to think this is beautiful, or to notice it at all, but to all those who worked come moments of beauty unseen by the rest of the world, so to a horseman who has to start looking for horses before daybreak, nothing is so beautiful in darkness as the sound of a bell mare."

Studs Terkel It's funny, something that's taken for granted, work, you find in work that is done by an expert. You find the art there, of course.

Norman Maclean I find most of the reason one way or another for a living. But I, you know, I suppose I try to do what you state so well in that subtitle of your book, "Working", you talk about what you're trying to find out is what men do, and then a very important addition, on how they feel about doing

Studs Terkel That's it.

Norman Maclean So I'm not really concerned about outlying fly fishing or the art of packing, but how the hell we felt about it when we did it.

Studs Terkel Yeah. Here--

Norman Maclean 'Cause that to me is just as important, maybe a more important part of preserving history is to preserve our feelings about what we did that we thought was crucial to living.

Studs Terkel Every profession, you're right, has a pinnacle to its art. In the hospital it is the brain or heart surgeon, in the sawmill it is the sawyer who with squinting eyes makes the first major cut that turns a log into boards, and then you speak of the packer, but also his ability and feeling to talk with animals. You describe a scene here with a recalcitrant mule.

Norman Maclean Well, I say he had a hard time really communicating with humans. That's true of a lot of men who work around stock for a living. They do better communicating with stock than with men, and he just knew how to handle mules. He didn't fool with them, and he never touched them. He never beat them. He knew too much for that, because a mule is a very, very unforgiving and long-remembering animal. He'd take them out and he'd put them in the sun and he'd tie one foot up. Let him stand there for two or three hours.

Studs Terkel That's

Norman Maclean That's very rough punishment.

Studs Terkel But it's nothing--

Norman Maclean But it really, you know, it was very Christianizing on the

Studs Terkel That's a great line you have. "You can't imagine what a Christianizing effect it has even on a mule to stand for a couple of hours in the hot sun minus a foot," and then he and the mule became--

Norman Maclean He never lost the friendship--

Studs Terkel Friends.

Norman Maclean Of a mule.

Studs Terkel But you see, there's something else here, now a cardplayer, now we come to the, someone you didn't like, a certain guy, the cook--

Norman Maclean I never liked to cook.

Studs Terkel But there's something I didn't--but your friend Bill was not a good cardplayer, and I think there's a very perceptive observation you make here, I think. "I didn't know the reasons to dislike him the cook. When you get older," well, this is the part I'm looking for. It's about Bill. He was a good craftsman, but he was not a good cardplayer. A very, sometimes very good craftsmen, but not good cardplayers. Why do you think that is? I have a theory. See what your theory is.

Norman Maclean Well, I think you can say it the other way around. Most card players, even though they're often terrific with their hands, are not very good craftsmen at anything else. And as for Bell, I just don't think he had the kind of mental sharpness to be a good cardplayer.

Studs Terkel I think my theory is someone--guys who are artists in their world love that work or they do so well in that work, so much pride in it that when it comes to something like cards that is kind of easy and a kind of fun in a way, of relaxation, enjoyment, are loose and easy rather than being--thinking of beating someone. I don't know. It's just a theory. I may be wrong.

Norman Maclean I think that it wouldn't really work, Studs, for Bill Bell. I think he had great aspirations to be a good cardplayer. He was always losing his shirt as a result of that, and he couldn't understand how he was so good with his hands in tying knots and that kind of thing, and yet lose his shirt every time he sat down to a card table. I just--he didn't have the kind of mind even to know how to play percentage, let alone be fancy with the cards. Just wasn't

Studs Terkel He was someone who was instinctually good in his work as a packer, good with his hands and body.

Norman Maclean And to be able to think like an animal or feel like an animal.

Studs Terkel That's what your brother always said, he'd like to feel like a fish someday. So we come to someone you didn't like. Why is it? There's a cook here. And this cook is someone who is--why didn't you like this cook? You were 17 at the time. What'd the cook do to you?

Norman Maclean Well, for one thing, I'm trying to be honest enough to admit, he took my place with Bill Bell, I'd worked for Bill Bell two years prior to that, when I first went into the forest service and I was kind of his boy, and I did great favors for, little favors for him, and he did great favors for me. And I kind of thought of him as my great father, and Bill was always in trouble with the gamblers over at Hamilton, and they always had him over the barrel and--

Studs Terkel He was an easy mark.

Norman Maclean He was an easy mark. They were always waiting for him with joy. And he got a hold of this cook who was a great card player, and he saw a chance to get even with the shills and gamblers over in Hamilton, so he made the cook his favorite. And on a low level at least, that was one of the reasons I disliked him, I felt I'd been displaced by the cook, and there are other reasons, too. I don't know, as I say there, when you're young you can often spot a phony or somebody who's got something wrong with him in a way in which you can't later in life, and just intuitively I felt this guy as I said was a 40-cent piece, there was something wrong with him, and I couldn't explain it then, I can't explain it to you now, but I turned out to be right.

Studs Terkel You used the phrase "40-cent piece," [he uses?] the phrase "three-dollar bill."

Norman Maclean Yeah.

Studs Terkel These phrases, so that was the phrase, "40-cent piece." So we come to an adventure involving the cook, Bill, yourself, and others at the logging camp. They're always were taken by the gamblers. Now Hamilton was the gambling town around there, is

Norman Maclean That's right. That was the first time, big town, first town of any size as you pulled out of the Solway Forest, and the bay route, you came to this town of Hamilton and part of that story as you know, Studs, is I'm trying to create the creation of a summer crew. In those days that was all the men had, really, in the way of association. We didn't have labor unions out there. They didn't have any church. Most of them had no family, and they'd never seen each other. And by working together in the summer, in playing practical jokes on each other they slowly became a crew, and became very good as a crew. And then the big thing that solidified it all at the end of the year being a crew was to go to town and clean the town out. That was always a culmination of being a crew and then we dissolved, we never saw each other

Studs Terkel But they were always cleaned out.

Norman Maclean In the end.

Studs Terkel But this time, we come to your big adventure. Now that you re--the cook is a professional gambler, and the cook doesn't want to take the--the cook, crook I said, doesn't want to take the crew. So you're putting your money--he's going to vindicate--you're going to win some money through him.

Norman Maclean That's right.

Studs Terkel And here's your adventure. What, you'd take a long walk to town and you get sick and you're helped by the freckled waitress, this is all part of it, too, isn't it? And finally comes the big--you're there, the big game which the cook is going to play against these gamblers for you, and the big fight.

Norman Maclean And again, he, as I said, I--even in the game he was so far superior as a cardplayer to these tinhorn gamblers from Hamilton, these shills, it was pathetic, but he couldn't help in the clutch in showing them how he'd done it. And so, you know, we're all done in, we get in this enormous fight, and because he has to show this guy that he palmed the card into his hat, and show off.

Studs Terkel But there was a marvelous way you describe this fight. You're on the ground now, and all you see are boots, and you could tell who--of course, the loggers' boots were different from the cowboys' boots of the town. So you could tell who was standing up, who was vertical, who was horizontal.

Norman Maclean Yeah, I tried that on purpose, although it corresponds pretty closely to reality. I try to describe a big fight from a position of lying under a card table, and just telling from boots and legs what was happening in the fight.

Studs Terkel But at the very end, at the very end you were 18, 17, 18, you finally realize you are no longer scared and you win Bill's respect, don't you?

Norman Maclean I think so.

Studs Terkel So doesn't this connect with all your two other stories, your brother Paul's respect, Big Jim's respect, the sawyer, and Bill's respect. So it's also your search for respect too, isn't it? For the men you admire.

Norman Maclean All three of them, certainly, have this one basic thing, theme, you know, kind of a test of manhood. I went out so early in the woods it was always a great problem with me, as a boy really working with men whether I was a man, and every one of those stories involves kind of testing myself as a boy or a young man and finding out whether I really had hair on my chest, you know?

Studs Terkel Talking to Norman Maclean, who has just retired after a good number of years teaching English in the University of Chicago and decided to write three stories. These stories, two novellas and a story, "A River Runs Through It and Other Stories", published by the University of Chicago Press, and they are quite beautiful. And the last passage, and thank you very much.

Norman Maclean "So I was never to see Bill Bell or any of the other men again. Or the girl my age from Darby. When the dot of Morse code disappeared into the sky, another summer crew of the United States Forest Service had come and gone forever. Everything that was to happen had happened and everything that was to be seen had gone. It was now one of those moments when nothing remains but an opening in the sky and a story, and maybe something of a poem. Anyway, as you possibly remember, there are these lines in front of a story, and then he thinks he knows the hills where his life grows. These words are now part of the story."

Pete Seeger [content removed, see catalog record]