Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Norman Maclean began writing A River Runs Through It, his first novel, after he retired from a highly respected career as a teacher at the University of Chicago, where he was a noted Aristotelian critic. He received honors for excellence in undergraduate teaching three times. His knowledge of literature, his humanity as a teacher, and his critical expertise gave him the background to write about his life in Montana. The imagery of Maclean’s prose style and the subject matter of A River Runs Through It did not attract commercial publishers, however. The University of Chicago Press took on the book, the first fiction it had ever published, out of respect for Maclean’s university career.

The novel was an immediate critical success and went through printing after printing as word of its quality spread. It became a serious contender for the Pulitzer Prize. Critics compared the novel to Ernest Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” and The Sun Also Rises (1926) and to Henry David Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849). Maclean’s novel attracted many film offers, none of which suited Maclean, who wanted artistic control to a degree unknown in the movie industry. Finally Robert Redford, a respected advocate of Western literature and film, persuaded Maclean to let him direct the film version, but Maclean died before the film was finished. It was released in 1992 and received three Academy Award nominations, winning an award for best cinematography. A River Runs Through It is a modern classic, bringing increased recognition to the deep regard that Western American people feel for the land and its resources.