Maclean in the Classroom

December 23: Norman Maclean was born on this day in 1902. Maclean's only book of fiction, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, was written and published when Maclean was seventy-four, after he had retired from teaching. In his forty-five years in the English Department at the University of Chicago, Maclean won a prestigious Quantrell Award for undergraduate teaching three times. Asked the year after he retired to give a talk on his success as a teacher, Maclean responded with "This Quarter I Am Taking McKeon," in which he defines a great teacher as "a tough guy who cares deeply about something that is difficult to understand." In elaboration, Maclean said that he was aware of learning only one thing about teaching, this imparted to him during his first year of work from a respected senior faculty member sent to inspect him, a severe and taciturn Scot named McCallum. Professor McCallum had nothing to say about teaching during or after Maclean's class, or for several weeks following; eager to hear the wisdom "that, however harsh, would let me in on the secret to the mystery," Maclean made an appointment to see him. When McCallum appeared indifferent to Maclean and the purpose of his visit, there seemed little choice but to ask:

   "Don't you have something to tell me that would help me be a good teacher?"

   He thought for a while and then said, "Wear a different suit every day of the week." He had come from Princeton.

    I said, "I can't afford that."

   "Well, then," he said, "wear a different necktie."

    I had been brought up to believe that you made the most in life of what little you had, and, since this is all that has ever been told me about teaching, I must confess that I wore a different necktie every day of the week until I retired. I never did get up into the daily suit class.

References to his upbringing occur frequently in Maclean's writing, most famously in the opening sentence of A River Runs Through It—"In our family there was no clear distinction between fly fishing and religion." Known for his clear, precise prose style, Maclean says in one of his letters that his father, a Scottish Presbyterian minister and also in charge of his sons' home schooling, "used to make me take a page of each paper I wrote for him and justify every word I had used."


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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