2022 marks the 120th anniversary of the birth of American writer Norman Maclean. Maclean, a onetime professor of English at the University of Chicago, is author of the semi-autobiographical novella A River Runs Through It, which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1977. 2022 also marks the thirtieth anniversary of director Robert Redford’s Oscar-nominated eponymous film.
Redford’s River is a gorgeously filmed tale of a conservative Montana family whose members include a Presbytarian minister, John Maclean (Tom Skerritt), his wife (Brenda Blethyn), and two sons: older Norman (Craig Sheffer) and younger Paul (Brad Pitt). Redford narrates as the elder Norman. The boys grow into men under the shadow of John’s lessons, mingling Scripture with fly fishing—until Paul’s tragic death turns their idyllic world upside down.
John’s lesson to his sons isn’t so much about fly fishing as about the great river in which we all stand—some of us catching more than others. Life has a rhythm, as natural as breathing in and breathing out. Sync with that rhythm and you master living. As Norman says,
My father believed that man by nature was a damn mess. And that only by picking up God’s rhythms were we able to regain power and beauty. 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.
That’s the thing about fly fishing. It works not only by “releasing out” but also by “reining in.” It mimics the rhythm of the river that, in turn, mimics the rhythm of life—a this way and a that way, each essential to the other. Living is an art that respects a river’s flow.
The movie romanticizes Paul’s mastery of fishing. Standing alone with his rod, reel, and line, he looks angelic. Yet he can’t translate his suppleness in his beloved Blackfoot River to suppleness in the river of life. His rigidity bears the hallmark of release but no reining in. His impulsiveness—if not his indulgences (alcohol, women, gambling)—leads to him dying young. Norman isn’t as graceful a fisherman, but better accepts that life is to be savored, not spent. He sacrifices much, indulges little, and goes on to live a full life.
Paul says glibly, “In Montana there are three things we’re never late for—church, work, and fishing.” But he misses the point of his father’s lesson on all three. John was also trying to teach his sons that if you can’t master your passions, your church will be empty, your work pointless, and your fishing futile.
In a scene that captures their shared foreboding of Paul’s death, John and Norman spar with each other to complete William Wordsworth’s verse:
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind; …
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death, …
Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
It is with “faith that looks through death” (and beyond it) that John says from the church pulpit, “And so it is those we live with and love, and should know, who elude us. However, it is also true that you can love completely without complete understanding.”
Torn by Paul’s untimely death, Norman misses the mark in concluding that life is not a work of art. To everyone, including perhaps the trout that live to tell the tale, Paul is an artist who has perfected his art.
River seems to invert the Biblical parable of the prodigal son. Here, it is the older son who is long-lost, returning after years away from home weary from responsible, not reckless, living. It is the younger son who stays back and turns out reckless—yet the father, in thrall to the artist, calls him “beautiful” and stands ready to slay the fatted calf and celebrate if he so much as drops by for dinner.
Some say River is about men and their ineptitude in communicating with those they love. But there’s a deeper point about love. Love is beyond words, in spite of words. Love is not merely understanding someone’s situation, intellectually—your local therapist can do that. Love requires an empathetic understanding, sacrifice, and simply being there.
Isn’t there an irony about the free-flowing river? It flows only as long as it’s bounded by banks. It bubbles with energy only as long as it’s hemmed in by rocks. Restraint, above anything else, is the key to its freedom. It dies—or reaches fulfilment—when it enters the sea. Does the river’s death mean that its life has been fruitless? Not if it has followed life’s rhythm, life’s this way and that. Dying is but a part of life.
Maclean ends his book, as Redford ends his film, with this revelation, a truth that even Maclean seems to have grasped only dimly:
Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. On one of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs . . . I am haunted by waters.
Maclean’s novella and Redford’s film remind us that striving is the essence of life. In Robert Browning’s immortal words, “A man’s reach must exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for.”
Sometimes we’re fishermen, at other times fish. The point isn’t whether we die—we will—but how we live, and how joyfully we fish and swim.
Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer whose focus is pop culture. Twitter: @RudolphFernandz.
Image: A screenshot from the film A River Runs Through It.
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