Religion and Fly Fishing: Taking Norman Maclean Seriously

By Weinberger, Theodore | Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Religion and Fly Fishing: Taking Norman Maclean Seriously


Weinberger, Theodore, Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature


That there are allusions to religion in Norman Maclean's "A River Runs Through It" can come as no surprise to anyone who reads the first sentence of the story: "In our family there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing" (Maclean 1).(1) Yet in explicating the function of religion in this story, even the most astute of Norman Maclean's critics do not go much beyond identifying these allusions to religion.(2) What has been ignored in critical readings of this story is the interplay between religion and fly fishing. In fact, the narrator's prominent declaration of this interplay distinguishes Maclean's story from other notable texts on fishing and life outdoors. Izaak Walton's The Compleat Angler (which is mentioned at the beginning of "A River Runs Through It"),(3) for example, draws upon religion to show how fishing is an honorable recreation.(4) And Henry David Thoreau, one of this country's most famous naturalists, regularly mentions the "spiritual life," "God," and "religion" in his writings on rivers, ponds, and woods.(5) But for both Walton and Thoreau, it is possible to think of religion as distinct from one's life outdoors. Such was not the case for the Maclean family, if we are to take Norman Maclean seriously.(6) Indeed, we will see that the first sentence of "A River Runs Through It" can be read as an epigraph for the entire story.

One of the things that we know about the religious life is that it often lies on a different plane than ordinary experience. George Santayana thus writes: "Another world to live in--whether we expect ever to pass wholly into it or no--is what we mean by having a religion" (Santayana 5). It is significant, then, that the narrator of "A River Runs Through It" speaks of fishing as entering into another world. When he goes fishing with his brother Paul, he refers to the Continental Divide not just as a geographic fault line, but as "the divide between our two worlds" (15). The Continental Divide separates West-flowing from East-flowing waters, but here it also separates the world of fly fishing from the world of Helena, Montana.(7) Maclean uses the Continental Divide as both geographic and experiential divide. There is the world on the river and there is the world off the river. And the Maclean brothers imbue the act of crossing the threshold with sanctity: "As usual, especially if it were early in the morning, we sat silently respectful until we passed the big Divide" (14). Once over the divide, the fisherman works to make the world on the river into ultimate experience:(8) "Something within fishermen tries to make fishing into a world perfect and apart--I don't know what it is or where, because sometimes it is in my arms and sometimes in my throat and sometimes nowhere in particular except somewhere deep" (41). Fishing is made into a "world perfect and apart" by the fisherman--it does not objectively exist as such.(9) The skilled, hard-working fly fisherman, just like the skilled religious practitioner, is able, somehow, mysteriously, to inhabit a "world perfect and apart."

If religion is often experienced as another world, the usual way of effecting such a shift in experience is through ritual.(10) Johan Huizinga writes, therefore, that "the ritual act has all the formal and essential characteristics of play ... particularly in so far as it transports the participants to another world" (18). Because we know that there are certain rules and rituals in religion, it comes as no surprise to us in "A River Runs Through It" that there are certain rules and rituals on the river. We have already seen that the act of entering the world of fishing is observed with a moment of silence (14). The fishing rod is always to be referred to as a " rod"--and never as a "pole" (3); the casting motion is to be done in four steps (5), and there is to be no drinking on the river (62). The fisherman works to make "his" world perfect and apart; and ritual acts and rules aid in this work. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Religion and Fly Fishing: Taking Norman Maclean Seriously
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.