A River Runs Through It is full of lushly described scenes of fly-fishing in Montana—in Maclean’s hands, the effort to figure out which fish are biting and how to best angle oneself in relation to them becomes almost a minor epic. Some might distinguish between a technical skill that involves separate, learnable tasks, and a kind of artistic genius that simply cannot be learned, but the novella collapses this distinction—for Maclean, technical skill is not in opposition to sublime artistic genius, but rather a necessary aspect of art.
Thanks to Maclean’s descriptions, the reader gains an amateur knowledge of the vocabulary and technique of fly-fishing. The four-count rhythm is one well-tested skill revealed to us as essential to the task—a task that is alternately described as an art or as a skill. Sometimes, this craft is a matter of expertise developed over time, but in other cases it is a matter of individual creativity, even genius. Paul’s “shadow casting,” for instance, a wrist-based technique that makes the fish believe there are flies flitting over the water, is an idiosyncratic technique rather than a standard rule of fly-fishing. Paul’s seemingly natural gift for fly-fishing is a source of admiration for Norman and their father. It almost compensates for Paul’s weaknesses in other aspects of life, though the tragedy is that fly-fishing is the only way Paul can ever truly feel at home and in control. By describing fly-fishing as an art developed through skill, the book elevates the sport to the level of more classical arts like painting, sculpture, and poetry. In the novel, fly-fishing becomes an art particular to the American West, one whose secrets may be shared with the readers, but which remains in the possession of a lucky few (as Neal’s disastrous attempts to join in make clear).
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Skill and Art Quotes in A River Runs Through It
My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.
Rhythm was just as important as color and just as complicated. It was one rhythm superimposed upon another, our father’s four-count rhythm of the line and wrist being still the base rhythm. But superimposed upon it was the piston two count of his arm and the long overriding four count of the completed figure eight of his reversed loop.
The canyon was glorified by rhythms and colors.
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. Many of us would probably be better fishermen if we did not spend so much time watching and waiting for the world to become perfect.
The cast is so soft and slow that it can be followed like an ash settling from a fireplace chimney. One of life’s quiet excitements is to stand somewhat apart from yourself and watch yourself softly becoming the author of something beautiful, even if it is only a floating ash.
Poets talk about “spots of time,” but it is really fishermen who experience eternity compressed into a moment. No one can tell what a spot of time is until suddenly the whole world is a fish and the fish is gone.