Monday, September 23, 2013

A River Runs Through It

After enjoying a long and successful career as an English professor at the University of Chicago, Norman Maclean published his first book of short stories at the age of seventy-three. It proved to be a smashing debut. A River Run Through It and Other Stories sold than 160,000 copies, largely through word of mouth, even before the 1992 film version by Robert Redford had been considered. Born in Clarinda, Iowa, in 1902, Maclean grew up in Missoula, Montana.  He was the William Rainey Harper Professor of English at the University of Chicago until his retirement in 1973.

Maclean’s father was a Presbyterian minister and a considerable influence on Norman’s life. He recalls his father’s origin;

“My father was all Scotch and came from Nova Scotia from a large family that was on poor land. His great belief was in all men being equal under God...My father loved America so much that, although he had a rather heavy Scottish burr when he came to this country, by the time I was born, it was all gone. He regarded it as his American duty to get rid of it. He despised Scotch Presbyterian ministers who went heavy on their Scotch burr. He put a terrific commitment on me to be an American. I, the eldest son, was expected to complete the job.”

“He told me I had to learn the American language.  He spoke beautifully, but he didn’t have the American idioms. He kept me home until I was ten and a half to teach me. He taught me how to write American.”

Maclean, a member of the Illinois Saint Andrew Society, later recalled his father’s practice of preaching two “fairly good sermons” on Sundays and baptizing, marrying, and burying “the local Americans of Scotch dissent on week days.”

(The above is taken from The Scots of Chicago written by Wayne Rethford and June Skinner Sawyers. Page 125)


Norman Maclean died on August 2, 1990.  He died at home in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago after a long illness. He had taught at the University of Chicago for 45 years. On September 24, 1931, he had married Jessie Burns described as a “red-headed Scots-Irish woman from Wolf Creek, Montana.”

The obituary for Mrs. Jessie B. Maclean was published in the Chicago Tribune on December 10, 1968. She was 63 years old, lived at 1216 Madison Park and died in Billings Hospital. Mrs. Maclean had been the secretary of the University’s department of biochemistry and executive secretary of the school’s Medical Alumni Association. In 1967, she received the Association’s Golden key for distinguished service.

Norman was a graduate of Dartmouth College in 1924. He earned a doctorate at the University of Chicago in 1940 and was named the William Rainey Harper Professor of English Literature in 1962. He was awarded honorary degrees by Montana State University and the University of Montana.

He was survived by a son John; a daughter, Jean Maclean Snyder, and 4 grandchildren. I could not find where Norman Maclean and his wife were buried. Perhaps someone can help.

If you saw the movie, you know that his younger brother, Paul Davidson, was murdered. This occurred in Chicago on May 2, 1938, in the alley between Eberhart and Rhodes Avenue, just south of 62nd street. The murder was never solved. The police said, “he had battled fiercely with his assailants before being subdued.” Paul graduated from Dartmouth in 1928 and was a champion handball player. He was buried in the Missoula Cemetery, Missoula County, Montana, Block 58, Lot 4, grave 6.

Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Illinois St. Andrew’s Society

Upcoming Event:

October 5, 2013 - History Club Meeting

Our speaker will be Bruce Allardice, Professor of History at South Suburban College in South Holland, Illinois. He has six books to his credit and numerous article on the Civil War. Professor Allardice is Past President of the Civil War Roundtable in Chicago and the Northern Illinois Civil War Roundtable. He will speak about the Scots of Chicago who fought in the war with a special emphasis on General John McArthur. Reservations (708-447-5092) are helpful but not necessary.



  1. Jessie "Jakie" Burns Maclean was cremated and her ashes spread on a mountain in Wolf Creek that her family named after her. Norman Maclean was also cremated and his ashes were scattered in the mountains of Montana. That is about I know at this point, if I learn more I will let you know.

  2. Hi I am Norman's dad's and mother's cousin. Dr. Rev. J.N. Maclean and Clara Evelyin Davidson. I am the family historian on the Canadian side. I have info on both sides of the family, how they got married etc. I am a distant cousin to Jean and John Maclean. I was also present at the Maclean festivel last July in Seeley Lake. I started my research a couple of years ago. I was in the local Montana newspapers and local TV here in Alberta Canada earlier this year. If you need info I can only give the Canadian side of the family. I shared my info with the Macleans and Rev. Maclean's church in Missoula, Montana.

  3. Hi I am Norman's canadian cousin and have the documentatiion on his mother and dad. Rev J.N. Maclean and Clara E. Davidson. I am the. Canadian family historian. My great great, grandfather was responsible with the meet up with his cousin Dr.\Rev J.N. Maclean and Clara Davidson.