A River Runs Through It

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A River Runs Through It Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Norman Maclean
Norman Maclean was the son of a Presbyterian minister who had immigrated to America with his wife from Nova Scotia. The family, which also included Norman’s brother Paul Davidson, moved to Missoula, Montana when Norman was a child. During World War I, Maclean, who was too young to fight, worked in logging camps in a national forest. He attended Dartmouth College and then the University of Chicago, where he received a doctorate in English and became a professor of poetry and Shakespeare. In 1931, he married Jessie Burns, and they had two children. He died in Chicago in 1990.
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Historical Context of A River Runs Through It
In the first half of the twentieth century, Montana was even more pristine and untrammeled than it is today. Throughout A River Runs Through It, Norman contrasts this primeval, natural quality of the area to its more industrialized, modern status today, as national culture has become increasingly standardized and much of Montana has become known even to outsiders. In the summer of 1937, when much of the book takes place, towns like Wolf Creek and even cities like Missoula were small, tightly-knit places where most people knew everyone else, and even native Montanans like Neal were considered suspicious for having left for the West Coast. Some of the United States government’s shameful history of oppressing Native Americans is alluded to in the novella as well—we learn that Paul’s girlfriend, for instance, is barred from living in town as a member of the Cheyenne tribe, and instead has to live on the outskirts or else on a reservation.
Other Books Related to A River Runs Through It
For its full-bodied depictions of nature and American geography, Norman Maclean’s work has been compared to that of author Henry David Thoreau, though in a Western rather than Northeastern American setting. There are also resonances between A River Runs Through It and the writings of John Muir, an early naturalist and environmental writer in the latter half of the nineteenth century, who is considered a major force in establishing and preserving the national park system in America. In other ways, however, A River Runs Through It—with its authoritative, somewhat somber, but still reverential prose—recalls the “original” book that Norman’s father returns to again and again: the Bible.
Key Facts about A River Runs Through It
  • Full Title: A River Runs Through It
  • When Written: 1972-1976
  • Where Written: Chicago
  • When Published: 1976
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Novella, Autobiographical Fiction
  • Setting: Montana
  • Climax: Norman and his father watch Paul catch a huge fish on the Blackfoot River near Missoula, the last time they’ll see him fish before Paul’s death.
  • Antagonist: Neal, Norman’s brother-in-law, comes in from California for a visit one summer and is exasperatingly ignorant about the codes of fly-fishing, constantly getting into trouble that will then be blamed on Norman.
  • Point of View: First-person
Extra Credit for A River Runs Through It

Flying High. Following the publication of A River Runs Through It, and especially the movie version starring Brad Pitt, there was a substantial uptick in fly-fishing throughout Montana.

Late Bloomer? Norman Maclean didn’t begin writing fiction until he was 70 years old—before that, he had published a Theory of Lyric Poetry, as well as a nonfiction book on military history.