Norman Maclean was born in Clarinda, Iowa on 23 December 1902 the son of Clara and the Rev. John Maclean. Norman’s brother, Paul, was born in 1906. The family moved to Missoula, Montana in 1910. Missoula was the place that Norman considered home, and the setting that shaped much of his life and writings.
Norman’s father ministered a small Scottish Presbyterian church in Missoula. He also schooled his children at home. In the mornings, Norman and Paul would be tutored by their father in reading, and, especially, in writing; in the afternoons they were free to explore the mountains or go fishing. Norman did not attend public school until age eleven, and then only because truant officers caught up with him.
Rev. Maclean also instructed his sons in the aet of fly fishing, beginning when Norman was six years old. Both Norman and Paul developed a deep love for the sport, but Norman acknowledged that Paul was the true master of the flyrod, able to think like a fish, if not a fly. Norman would later fill his most famous work, A River Runs Through It with stories and precise details of fishing the Big Blackfoor River with his father and brother
He was too young to serve in the military, but nonetheless the onset of World War I greatly impacted Norman’s early years. Missoula sent twenty-five percent more men to fight in WWI than the national quota required, greatly reducing its workforce. So, at fourteen Norman began spending his summers working in logging camps and for the United States Forest Service in the Bitterroot National Forest of northwestern Montana.
The years Norman spent standing lonely watches in the deep wilderness and fighting wildfires inspired, among other work, the short stories “The Woods, Books, and Truant Officers” and “Logging and Pimping and ‘Your Pal Jim,’” both reprinted in the Norman Maclean Reader. The novella USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky and the story "Black Ghost" in Young Men and Fire are also semi-fictionalized accounts of these experiences.
In 1921 Maclean left Montana to attend Dartmouth College where he excelled in his studies and became the editor in-chief of the humor magazine the Dartmouth Jack-O-Lantern. During his college years he continued took the train home every summer to Montana, and beginning in 1921, helped his father build the family cabin on the shores of Seeley Lake, fifty miles northeast of Missoula–a place to which he would return throughout his life to write and fish.
After graduating from Dartmouth in 1924 Norman spent two additional years there as a teaching assistant, a time he recalls in "This Quarter I Am Taking McKeon: A Few Remarks on the Art of Teaching." He returned to Montana and the Forest Service from 1926-1928 until leaving for the University of Chicago to begin graduate study. During this interval in his studies he also met his future wife Jessie Burns, the oldest of seven children born and raised in Wolf Creek, Montana, a small hamlet about 125 miles northeast of Missoula.
Three years after matriculating at Chicago, Norman was hired as an instructor and went on to become a legend as a teacher, receiving the Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching after a single year on the job. He would win the award twice more during his career.
En route to his doctorate, two more events would dramatically influence Norman’s life; his marriage to Jessie, and the murder of his brother Paul, who had followed Norman to Chicago in search of work as a journalist. Paul’s death remained perhaps the most shattering event in Maclean’s life, and it haunts his most memorable writing in River. His marriage would last until his wife’s death in 1968 and resulted in the birth of a daughter Jean, now an accomplished lawyer, and a son John Maclean, a journalist and author of Fire on the Mountain: The True Story of the South Canyon Fire, and two other books, Fire & Ashes and The Thirtymile Fire: A Chronicle of Bravery and Betrayal.
Norman received his Doctorate from U of C in 1940 as scholar of Shakespeare and the Romantic poets. His dissertation “From Action to Image: Theories of the Lyric in the Eighteenth Century” would become one of two scholarly articles Maclean published in R.S. Crane’s landmark volume of literary criticism, Critics and Criticism: Ancient and Modern. His other essay, titled “Episode, Scene, Speech, and Word: The Madness of Lear” unfolds MacLean’s theory of tragedy, which he later used to practical effect in A River Runs Through It.
He was the Dean of Students at Chicago from 1942 to 1945 as well as serving as acting Director of the Institute on Military Studies, co-authoring the Manual of Instruction in Military Maps and Aerial Photographs. After the war, he founded the Committee on General Studies in the Humanities, a highly successful interdisciplinary program he oversaw for fifteen years. In the 1950s and ’60s, he worked on a manuscript about General George Armstrong Custer and the battle of Little Bighorn, parts of which were published for the first time in The Norman Maclean Reader, along with correspondence with historian Robert Utley.
At the time of his retirement from active teaching in 1973, Maclean was the William Rainey Harper Professor of English. Upon his retirement, he devoted himself to writing. A River Runs Through It and Other Stories was published in 1976 by the University of Chicago Press – the first work original fiction in the history of the Press. At the time of its publication Maclean had already passed his 73rd birthday, but the book became a critical and popular success, and was enshrined as an American classic with a film adaptation by Robert Redford in 1992.
Though the stories collected in A River Runs Through it and Other Stories would be the only literary work to be published during the author’s lifetime, nine years after his death the press also published Maclean’s unfinished manuscript , Young Men and Fire – the tragic story of thirteen wildland firefighters who perished in a 1949 blaze near Maclean’s home in Mann Gulch, Montana. Young Men and Fire became a New York Times bestseller and won the 1992 National Book Critics Circle Award.
Norman Maclean died on 2 August 1990 in Chicago, at the age of eighty-seven of natural causes.