Norman Maclean and the problem of identity : storytelling, tragedy, and American literature /

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Calatrello, Stephen
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Middle Tennessee State University
Although Norman Maclean is best known for his novella A River Runs through It, in Young Men and Fire, he asserts a central premise that undergirds his work: "The problem of identity is always a problem, not just a problem of youth." At seventy, Maclean began his literary career, one that can be viewed as his attempt to explore this problem.
Throughout his life, Maclean championed narratives---stories and storytelling. This book-length study presents an analysis of Maclean's intrigue with narratives, particularly the process by which narratives shape the individual's self-identity. For Maclean, the problem of identity can be resolved at any given time when a person finds a story that tells him something about himself. Applying insights from the criticism of Gerard Genette, Dan McAdams, Jerome Bruner, and Donald Polkinghorne, it becomes evident that Maclean does more than transform personal histories into art; his texts constitute what McAdams calls narrative identities, "stories people construct and tell about themselves to define who they are for themselves and for others.".
Any study of Maclean, particularly one involving his quest for identity, must explore how he renders two events from his personal history: the murder of his brother Paul and the Mann Gulch Fire. Maclean's treatment of these personal tragedies reflects his belief that tragedy is the most demanding of literary forms; as such, this study focuses on Maclean's ideas regarding tragedy, tracing them to Aristotle and Shakespeare. Beyond the Aristotelian and Shakespearean influences, one senses that Maclean---approaching the end of his life---casts himself as his own tragic hero. As McAdams would put it, Maclean becomes an individual, "a storyteller who narrates life while living it.".
Although Maclean's influences were numerous and diverse, many of them were writers associated with the American literary tradition; therefore, this study traces the influence of four canonical writers on Maclean. Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, and Hemingway provide a useful context against which readers may better understand Maclean's art, for many of these writers were themselves exploring matters of individual self-hood and identity.