Recently I was invited to say a few words about Norman Maclean’s writing at the festival held in his honor in Missoula and Seeley Lake, Montana. Since Maclean’s books A River Runs Through It and Young Men and Fire have meant an awful lot to me, this was a delight and great privilege indeed.
Many remarkable things happened while I was there, but here I’d like to mention just one that I found both amusing and (yikes!) disconcerting. On day two in Montana I bought a copy of the local paper, the Missoulian, looking for the pregame report on that day’s clash between the Washington Huskies and Montana Grizzlies. (I’m a big Husky fan and this was the teams’ first meeting in over sixty years.) Scanning the front page, I suddenly realized I knew the fellow in the lead photo (noting the bald spot by which my wife used to recognize me at the airport). The article featured comments of people in town for the festival, including myself. Thus far all well and good. I could show the folks back home in Holland that after one day I was already “world famous in Missoula.”
But then the matter took a little unexpected turn. That afternoon at the festival, a man posed a question to the panel of writers (including Annick Smith, William Kittredge, Pete Fromm, Peter Stark and Richard Manning). “I read this morning in the Missoulian,” he said, “that Norman Maclean was bipolar. I hadn’t realized that, and that has got me thinking now about the relationship between mental health and genius. Would any of you care to reflect on that?”
Annick Smith who chaired the discussion, and who’d known Maclean personally, gave the man a long look and said, “Well, I’ve never heard anything about Norman Maclean being bipolar,” but she gamely passed the question on to the panel as a speculative buzz rose through the room. Hearing the word “bipolar” I started to squirm and reached for my copy of the Missoulian. And yes, there it was: I’d used that very word, which in fact was Maclean’s own word, in the interview. So I raised my hand to clarify.
Maclean was a westerner who went east to school (to Dartmouth) and later east again, to teach at the University of Chicago. Every summer Maclean would leave Chicago for Montana, feeling himself torn between two worlds – the tough, outdoor world of mountains and logging camps, and the more genteel life he lived as a professor of literature at the University of Chicago. Maclean often used the word “schizophrenic” to describe the fluctuation between the two, and the challenge of uniting the two parts of himself in one identity. This notion resonated with me because I myself grew up in the west and then went east to study, and now I go back and forth between Holland and the US. So I can easily relate to the feeling of moving between two worlds. And that is what I said to the journalist from the Missoulian. But I used the word “bipolar” to describe the experience, thinking of the movement between two poles of experience, and the ups and downs that are a part of that. But I was speaking metaphorically, as was Maclean. He did not literally suffer from schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
That afternoon I wrote a letter to the Missoulian, to set the record straight. I hope it stays straight!
If you’d like to read what I wrote on Maclean for Commonweal, you can find it here. Since then I’ve written a longer piece, as yet unpublished, called “Norman Maclean on the Good, the True and the Beautiful.” I hope to find a good home for it soon.