Thursday, May 21, 2015

Norman Maclean and My Final Twenty Years

Norman Maclean, great teacher of Shakespeare, devoted lover of Montana, and author of just two books, one posthumous, lived to be 87. I know that I may not be so lucky.

My father’s father lived to be 83. As my father approached his 83rd birthday, he speculated on his chances of outliving Granddad Bull, but he did not do so. The week Dad turned 83, he was diagnosed with metastasized melanoma and died within four months.

I am twenty years younger than the age at which both my father and grandfather died, and you can do the math. Because of my family history, I don’t think it is unreasonable for me to speculate that I might not live so long as Norman Maclean, who has become something of a hero to me, in a way that even my father was not. It seems quite sensible, in fact, to speculate that I too will fail to outlive my father and die by the age of 83.

These could be my last twenty years.

I know that this may sound morbid. You might think that I am prophesying in a way that could prove self-fulfilling, that I could be handing down my own death sentence. But I think that Thomas More would understand my point of view. And Norman Maclean might offer advice.

It was More, another hero of mine since I first watched the film “A Man for All Seasons” in the 1960s, who advised his beloved daughter Margaret to meditate on the Four Last Things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. To view one’s life as so definitely finite forces the mind to contemplate such Things.

Maclean was the son of a Presbyterian preacher but also, by his own definition, agnostic. Yet his writing is shot through with religion and trinities and talk of grace, and he spent his last years meditating on deaths: of his brother Paul (memorialized in A River Runs Through It, which became a fine movie); of thirteen US Forest Service “smokejumpers,” the tragic heroes of Young Men and Fire; and most strikingly of his wife, whose death from cancer marks the very last paragraph of Fire so strikingly

I recently circled back to my literary hero thanks to the Norman Maclean Reader, a collection of previously published excerpts, unpublished essays, an interview, his letters to four key individuals, and several chapters from his unfinished study of the Battle of Little Big Horn—another meditation on defeat and death.

Maclean is my hero for several reasons, not least of which are his roots in the West. I was transplanted East from another M state when I was just ten, and have always viewed my childhood home on Honeysuckle Lane as Eden, and nearby Lake Minnetonka as the womb of the world. Thus I understand Maclean’s devotion to Montana.

But Maclean’s heroism is more practical for this reason: He didn’t start writing the works he became famous for until he was 70 years old. His two children asked him to put together a few “reminiscent” stories, much as my memoirs clients try to remember things about their pasts and families, and the results in Maclean’s case were River and Fire. These books published in 1976 and after his death in 1990 carry through many of the themes he grappled with in the unpublished Custer book.

I, of course, have grappled with a story of my own early life, and have posted excerpts fictionalized on this blog. They are still posted, though hardly advertised. Like Maclean, I am dissatisfied with this effort and now understand that The Long Walk Home, as I wanted to title my work, is unlikely ever to be published in anything like its present form.

I do hope, though, that through an aging process that may include a deepening faith and an enrichment of my gratitude for God’s gifts—even from such unlikely a giver as Gulliver—I may find a way of reframing the “reminiscent stories” I have tried to put down. That this hope is not a vain hope I know because of Norman Maclean, who did his best work as an old man.

But I know another thing from Norman Maclean, and from my heroic dad, as well: I had better keep working, in whatever form that work takes, whether writing, better yet, to service to the Church. Time keeps passing, and the clock ticking.

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