Alan Thomas on Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire

September 11, 2015
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Over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, University of Chicago Press editorial director Alan Thomas has a piece on the legacy of Norman Maclean’s now classic account of the 1949 Mann Gulch disaster, Young Men and Fire—carefully detailed and processed by an account of Thomas’s own experience of bringing the long delayed manuscript to publication. Below follows an excerpt from the longer essay, a must-read for anyone interested in Maclean’s stunning reportage or the contradictions and complexities inherent in a young man editing a posthumous manuscript from one of our most acclaimed storytellers, on furloughs in Japan, Chicago, and Missoula, Montana. Visit the LARB website for me.

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Reading Young Men and Fire for the first time, you expect that the book will end with fire science and the definitive account it allows Maclean to give at the end of part two of the book. But there is a third and last part to come, a very brief section that feels like a coda. It is in some ways the most experimental part of Young Men and Fire, and Marie Borroff, for one, argued in her essay on the book that it is not a success, that the book should have ended short of part three. “I have to say,” writes Borroff, “and I say it hesitantly and with pain — that what we are presented with in the last twenty pages as his further attempts to bring the poetic imagination to bear on his subject strike me as just that: as attempts.”

Perhaps, but those last pages were important to Maclean. Part three, he says in his notes, entrusts itself “to the Imagination and Compassion of the Story-teller.” Imagination takes the form of an elevated view of the Smokejumpers’ last moments, extending an earlier reference to Thomas Hardy’s Sky Spirits, “who comment upon tragedies of man from distant horizons.” Compassion brings the storyteller, and us, back to the ground with the doomed men, “to project ourselves into their final thoughts.” He envisions, most importantly, their loneliness, which, he writes, “loomed up suddenly — they were young and not used to being alone.” Here, accompanying the men to their end, Maclean recalls his wife, who died of cancer of the esophagus: “Perhaps it is not odd, at the end of this tragedy where nothing much was left of the elite who came from the sky but courage struggling for oxygen, that I have often found myself thinking of my wife on her brave and lonely way to death.”

These are the last lines of the book — an abrupt, almost unbearable ending. All deaths are lonely, Maclean seems to say in these final pages, but acknowledging that his own wife was lonely in death may reveal a deeper sorrow. We think of his father’s words in A River Runs Through It: “It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us.” We think of Dodge, who at the crucial moment couldn’t save his men, and whose wife told Maclean, “I loved him very much, but I didn’t know him very well.” And we think of the loneliness of an old man spending his last years at a writing table, as the energy to finish leaves him.

The closing pages of Young Men and Fire may be imperfect and strained, but that is because Maclean is trying to grasp something ultimate — the quality of “a special kind of death,” the death of the young and unfulfilled. He speculates that for them the last emotions were fear, followed by self-pity and bewilderment, and then finally, as they each made a last lunge up the hill, “some firm intention to continue doing forever and ever what we last hoped to do on earth.”

Read Thomas’s essay in full at the Los Angeles Review of Books, here.

To read more about Young Men and Fire, click here.

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