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. …