Defeat runs through it
In his November 30th review for the L. A. Times critic Art Winslow delivers an insightful assessment of the Norman Maclean Reader, which includes both previously unpublished Maclean material as well as selections from his two published works. The Reader, Winslow writes, offers Maclean fans invaluable insight into the author’s life and works and exposes the deeply tragic themes that underlie them both.
There is a river that runs through Maclean’s work, a strong and dark current of defeat, and if we needed further proof of that, both from his self-testimony and as evidenced in previously unpublished writing, it has arrived in the form of The Norman Maclean Reader.
Those who have read Young Men and Fire, Maclean’s nonfiction reconstruction of the 1949 Mann Gulch fire in Montana, in which 13 smokejumpers were burned to death, may recall the multiple parallels Maclean drew between their fate and that of the 7th Cavalry troops under George Armstrong Custer at the Little Bighorn, another death-dealing Montana site.… The surprise here is to learn that the Custer comparisons were hardly incidental: From 1959 to 1963, primarily, Maclean struggled to write a book about the battle of the Little Bighorn and its cultural afterlife, and The Norman Maclean Reader presents five heretofore unpublished extracts from his manuscript, including sections of what was to be his conclusion, titled “Shrine to Defeat”.…
[In both works] Maclean’s attempt to construct a narrative in tragic form, in accordance with Aristotelian ideas, can be seen as underpinning… his [writing].
In one of the letters that constitute the latter portion of this reader, he is found confiding to the Western historian Robert Utley that “I am trying to show that our psychological need to deal with defeat is an ultimate common magnetic power that has drawn so many people to this rather small encounter in military history,” an idea he universalized in the “Shrine to Defeat” section of his manuscript, where he asserts that “much of seemingly ordinary and uneventful life is spent marching and counter-marching over the scenes of previous defeats and in fortifying ourselves against those to come.”
Here, of course, one thinks of Maclean’s novella A River Runs Through It, the story of a trinity—a father and two sons—;broken by the murder of one son at its end, which closely parallels the real-life trauma Maclean and his father suffered over the murder of Norman’s younger brother, Paul (the name borne by his fictional counterpart as well).… He says of himself and his father, “In the end all we knew—really knew—about him [Paul] was that he was beautiful and dead and we had not helped.” A comment of his father’s in life—”It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us”—appears verbatim in the fiction (not in the portion excerpted) as the novella closes.…
The biggest tragedy of all, one that underlies the mystery of Maclean’s brother’s life, the unknowns surrounding Custer’s actions and the questions embedded in the crosses at Mann Gulch, is pointed to by Maclean in one of his letters when he admitted, “It is clear to me now that the universe in its truculence doesn’t permit itself to be that well known.”