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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

Teachers. Do your students a favor. Make them aware of their ignorance.

This is paraphrased from Joseph Epstein's recent article: "Today's College Classroom is a Therapy Session." I thought he was dead right in saying: "The one certain thing I learned about teaching is that you must never say or even think you are a good teacher. If you believe you are…you probably aren't." These words reverberate from Flannery O'Connor and Robert Coles and last week's blog, related to pride's "treacherous self-satisfaction."

I relish mysterious conjunctions and smiled when I learned from Epstein's article that one of his teachers at the University of Chicago was Norman Maclean. "When he (Maclean) asked a question, he made you (Epstein) feel as if you were being interviewed by the bad cop. (The good cop… unlikely to return soon)." Maclean, after a lifetime of being a demanding teacher, and a continual immersion in great literature, turned to writing late in life: his one masterpiece, A River Runs Through It, published when he was 73.

My blog is Literature I Have Loved; and Maclean's short novel tops the list. Were if not for another of my literary loves, Wallace Stegner, I would not have known to read Maclean. I would have been one of those who say, "Oh, yes, I've seen the movie." Lovely, and thank you Robert Redford for buying rights to River. But the film is not this brilliant story. Maclean catches the reader's soul with a distilled prose, remarkable for its economy, simplicity, clarity, and poetry. I feel awe for sentence after sentence. The storm came on a wild horse and rode over us. The older brother, Norman, says: "I could find words but not sentences they could fit." Decades later, Norman finds those sentences and recounts the tragicomic tale of brother Paul. "There is nothing in the shade but shadows," narrator Norman says, referring to the river of life. It is those shadows which Maclean turned to in his late 60s, wanting to capture Paul's story. Professor Maclean, by the way, taught Shakespeare all those years in Chicago.

Here is the rub (a borrowed phrase from Will S.). "You can't catch fish if you don't dare go where they are." And unless you are Yale's Harold Bloom with a photographic memory, brilliance and meaning will not be caught in one read (or several) of a literary work like Maclean's.


Once I was invited to a local book club to discuss A River Runs Through It. I knew only a few women there and had said few words before one woman voiced her opinion: If Paul had (had) a real father, he would not have been the way he was. By which she apparently meant wild and alcoholic, and a terrible risk-taker. I was not feeling well and learned the next day that I had walking pneumonia. That afternoon I wanted to walk out and leave the women to share opinions based on a quick read or having seen the movie. I did not leave because the hostess was a special friend and she loved Maclean and fly fishing! That's when I asked the book club members to please forget today and return to the early 1900s in Montana. The story's largest time frame is 1937, with both backward and forward narrative movements. The Scottish Reverend Maclean is a father of another time and place: "To him, all good things, trout as well as eternal salvation, come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy."

I assume the book club member had swallowed current psychological tidbits about what makes a good father. Was the thinking relevant to Maclean's youth and his parents? I mention this because time and place are shades and shadows for all of us. Flannery's name has been removed from a building because of this. And is not fly fishing, metaphorically speaking, the art of reading the profound and poetic, which A River Runs Through It, clearly is. "All there is to thinking," Norman Maclean recounts, "is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren't noticing which makes you see something that isn't even visible."


Next time: the USC literature professor, wise Dr. Coanda, who taught me that, all things eventually merge into one, and a river of knowledge through it.

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