The Achievement of “Young Men and Fire”

By Alan ThomasSeptember 10, 2015

The Achievement of “Young Men and Fire”

IN 1990, NORMAN MACLEAN, author of A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, died without sending his long awaited second book to a publisher. A sprawling nonfiction account of a 1949 Montana forest fire that killed 12 Forest Service Smokejumpers, the book existed in a complete but unfinished draft. The next year, Maclean’s children, Jean Maclean Snyder and John Maclean, decided to entrust the manuscript to the University of Chicago Press and to me, the Press’s then-young literature editor. They needed some persuading to sign with Chicago, but by then the Press had done well for A River Runs Through It, and Jean and John knew that we would put everything we had into Young Men and Fire. I had given them a plan for how I’d edit the manuscript. They knew I wasn’t underestimating the job, but they also knew that I believed it was already a brilliant work, and they knew I would be open to advice.

In some ways I was an unlikely editor for the book. I wasn’t from the West, or even from the Midwest. I’d gone to the kind of fancy eastern university that Maclean sometimes made a point of disdaining. And I hadn’t come to know Maclean during the seven years I’d been in Chicago. It was one of my regrets — not having sought him out when he was still well — right up there with my regret at never meeting another neighbor on the South Side, Muddy Waters.

I had met Maclean once, in November 1983, the month after I started working at Chicago. He walked past my office on the way to visiting our publicity director. I caught up with him, and we talked. He asked me about my recent graduate work, and I told him I had done a thesis on George Orwell. I learned then — from his inscription in my copy of River — that Maclean approved of Orwell, which makes a lot of sense: both men were tough, they could be hard on the people around them, and they saw lean, precise writing not as a stylistic choice but an ethical obligation.

Jean and John signed with the Press in the spring of 1991. It couldn’t have been easy for them. They were still grieving for their dad, who had died the previous August. A year before his death, Jean told me that her father, by then quite ill, was suspicious and fearful that someone would rewrite his book, and there seemed no way to reassure him.

My boss had agreed that I could go away for a couple of months that summer to work exclusively on the manuscript, free of the distractions of the office. It would have been appropriate to go do the work in Montana, but because my wife was living in Japan for the year, I went there. So my experience of Young Men and Fire was indelibly stamped by Saitama, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Tokyo that was uncannily quiet except for the idiot barking of the landlady’s two miniature collies.

That fall I finally made it to Missoula, carrying 11 closely typed pages of questions for Maclean’s research partner Laird Robinson, and then with Laird to Mann Gulch itself, carrying a 4x5 view camera and a big wooden tripod. Laird took mercy on me and carried the tripod much of the way. All this (except the camera) was necessary because Maclean never finished Young Men and Fire to his satisfaction. He had been working on the book ever since 1976, right after the publication of A River Runs Through It. As early as 1980, he already had a first draft and was calling the book “overdue.” Four years later, Maclean started drafting a preface that began: “The question I have been asked most often about this story is: ‘What took you so long to write it?’”[1]

I want to explore that question of what took him so long, but before I do, let’s briefly review some of what happens in Young Men and Fire. Maclean explains that he was drawn to the Forest Service Smokejumpers because they were young men much as he had been, for he had worked in the woods and fought fires in his youth. On the afternoon of August 5, 1949, a Missoula-based crew of 15 Smokejumpers parachuted into Mann Gulch, in what is now the Gates of the Mountains wilderness, about 20 miles from Helena. They were joined on the ground by a local fire guard, who brought the crew back up to strength: one Smokejumper had gotten airsick and hadn’t jumped. The fire looked routine from the air, and at first it looked routine on the ground, confined to a ridge where the gulch meets the Missouri River. But after the men had covered about a mile on their way to the fire, a rare combination of wind and topography caused the fire to enlarge suddenly and leap across the gulch, in what wildland firefighters call a blow-up. The men reversed direction as the fire barreled toward them. Within 11 minutes, 13 of them were dead or shortly to die of their burns.

It was soon a very public disaster, sensationalized in newspapers, covered in Life magazine, retailed by Hollywood. But it was personal to Maclean. His brother-in-law had been one of the local volunteers on the fire after it had blown up. It would eventually consume 3,000 acres and take five days to bring under control, and as he recounts in “Black Ghost,” the preface to Young Men and Fire, he visited the fire while it still burned. Many of the Smokejumpers were from local families, his neighbors. Maclean had known the wife of the Smokejumper’s foreman, Wag Dodge, since they were young.

Dodge had survived, and the way he did so added to the anguish of the dead men’s families, leading to lawsuits and government manipulation of evidence. Racing with his men along a 76 percent slope in Mann Gulch, a wall of flame 50 yards behind him, Dodge calculated that his men could not outrun the fire. “The one cool spot” in Mann Gulch right then, says Maclean, was inside Wag Dodge. He had a notion. He knelt in the dry grass, pulled out a matchbook, and set the grass ablaze. The idea was to get inside the burned area and let the main fire sweep past. Dodge either couldn’t make his men understand, or they weren’t buying it. They took off. Dodge hopped over the edge of his fire, lay down in its ashes, and buried his face in a wet handkerchief. Only two of his men were fast, strong, or lucky enough to outrun the flames, cross out of Mann Gulch, and survive. Whether the rest were killed by Dodge’s so-called “escape fire,” and why they disobeyed him, are two of several mysteries that propel Maclean’s narrative.

Young Men and Fire is divided into three parts. As Maclean explained to his friend and research partner Laird Robinson in a letter:

Section 1 is the fire as based on what was contemporary opinion — statements of the survivors and the Report of the Board of Review. […] Section 2 is our Quest for the missing parts. It is based primarily on science, our use of the sciences of the woodsman, lookout, timber cruiser, and the science of the archives to locate exactly where it happened and what happened there. […] This division of the story is somewhat influenced by my teaching Plato when I was fairly young. He thought the lowest form of knowledge was common opinion (Section 1) but still it was a kind of knowledge; above common opinion is science and to him the highest and most abstract form of scientific knowledge is mathematics.[2]

I will return to mathematics and to the book’s third and final section. My point here is to underline Maclean’s idea of the book’s structure, which built in the principles of repetition and return: this is a book that goes over the same ground again and again, looking for new clues, new narrative trails.

Let’s now pick up Maclean’s question, “What took you so long to write it?” In his draft preface, he takes a stab at an answer:

I don’t really know and probably never will and if I ever do I probably won’t live to tell.

But the question is not so personal to me that I am entitled to pass it by without trying to answer it publicly. Many authors say that the hardest book to write is the second. […] In your second book you are for the first time competing with yourself and that turns out to be pretty tough competition. Even when all you are trying to do is make jokes at a small party, it’s paralyzing when you can’t tell the old ones over again. There’s always a question one often asks himself painfully, “Is there nothing more to me than I have already found out?”

Maclean’s explanation for his struggles is undoubtedly true, but it doesn’t get us very far. His friend Marie Borroff offered others. “In the end,” she wrote, “[the book] defeated him, at least in his own eyes,” because Maclean was thwarted by the Forest Service’s cover-up of evidence from the Mann Gulch debacle, because recreating the last moments of those who died was too painful, and finally because of “the inevitable waning of his energies.”[3]

We know that by late 1980 the first of these — the inconsistencies created by Forest Service tampering — had indeed stymied him. Maclean said as much in a letter to Lois Jansson, the widow of forest ranger, Bob Jansson, who witnessed the Mann Gulch blow-up and helped lead the rescue effort. “I can’t tell you,” he writes to Lois, “how these questions haunt me and alter my basic feelings about the story and for the time being cripple my progress with it.” He feared this was no longer the kind of Western story he knew how to write but was becoming material for a journalist. He tells Lois, this “might be a pretty good story for my son, who is one of the better Washington news reporters, but it’s no story for me” (19 November 1980 letter).

Yet Maclean persevered. He had two overriding aims: first, clear up the mysteries around the fire, centrally whether Wag Dodge had contributed to his men’s deaths while saving his own, and second, to follow, as a consoling exercise of compassion, the doomed Smokejumpers on the final stretch of their race against the flames. By 1979 or ’80, Maclean and Robinson had learned a great deal about the fire and had confronted a retired Forest Service investigator they believed was involved in the cover-up. But the question of Wag Dodge’s culpability, among others, was still unsettled. It’s at this point, which arrives near the end of the book, that Maclean decides “to get another start” by finding out what really goes on in the Northern Forest Fire Laboratory next door to the Missoula Smokejumper base.

One way to read this passage is as evidence that Maclean’s obsessive inquiry into Mann Gulch had become its own reward. He refers in the same paragraph to his “anti-shuffleboard philosophy” of living after the age of 70. “Seventy seemingly being what man has been given as his biblical allotment on earth,” he wrote, “I wanted this possible extension of life to be hard as always, but also new, something not done before.” Maclean wrote Young Men and Fire in part to learn about himself — he is explicit about this in the book and in his letters — and at some level he did not want to let the book go because it sustained him. But this was not the only reason it remained unfinished. His letters show that by the mid-1980s, the project was also making him miserable. If there is an overriding reason Maclean couldn’t finish the book, perhaps it is this last attempt “to get another start.” More than 80 years old and his time running out, Maclean is about to fall down the rabbit hole of fire science.

Harry Gisborne, the fire science pioneer, is a secondary but important character, appearing early in the book. In November 1949, Gisborne went to Mann Gulch with ranger Bob Jansson to try to understand the nature of the blow-up there. After he hiked around the gulch, Gisborne sat down for a rest and remarked on the view. Then he collapsed of a heart attack and died. Just three months after the fire, Jansson, one of the most sympathetic figures in Young Men and Fire, had another body to get out of Mann Gulch. Maclean treats the Gisborne/Jansson relationship as a mirror of his own with Laird Robinson — and wonders if Mann Gulch will kill him as it did Gisborne. Maclean saw something else of himself in the old fire scientist: like him, Gisborne had found explanations of the Mann Gulch fire elusive. Gisborne knew a lot about fire behavior, but he told Jannson at the scene that the fire was “the greatest freak I ever studied — [I] know less about what happened now, than before I came.”[4]

Maclean had always been drawn to scientists like Gisborne. One of the best essays collected in The Norman Maclean Reader is his profile of Albert Michelson, the University of Chicago physicist who measured the speed of light and won America’s first Nobel Prize. Michelson interested Maclean as a billiard player and a local legend, but also as what he called one of those “great men […] who are big enough to overturn [science] and then set it on its wheels again but going forever in a different direction.”[5]

Maclean liked that Michelson was a scientist who made machines, whose head and hands worked together. His admiration of capable hands and handiness is a refrain throughout his writing. At the critical moment in Mann Gulch, Dodge, who was “gifted with his hands,” hit upon the escape fire because his hands and mind together told him it was the logical thing to do. Maclean was prodigiously handy himself, and proud of it. Pete Dexter noted this quality in him when he wrote that Maclean “knows everything he touches”: “He knows his furniture, each of his trees, every log in his cabin — faults and graces — all on a personal basis.” So it must have reassured Maclean that the mathematicians at the Northern Forest Fire Laboratory didn’t just count and measure, they built things, like wind tunnels. One of those mathematicians, Dick Rothermel, remembers that soon after they met, he showed Maclean the Texas Instruments calculator he had adapted to calculate fire spread. So Rothermel too was Maclean’s kind of scientist: a handy one with a machine.

The trouble with Maclean’s venture into fire science is that it depended heavily on expertise that was beyond him. Accuracy, getting things right, was everything to Maclean. In his mind, the best review he could get of A River Runs Through It was a review by a fisherman who found nothing to correct in it.[6] Would Maclean ever get the same kind of satisfaction from his pages on fire science? “When Laird and I were in the woods,” he says in Young Men and Fire, “I suppose we thought of ourselves as educated men, if there was ever an occasion to think on such a matter, but I at least knew that my education, starting with what I got from my father, had never included much math.” Maclean had imagined from the beginning that mathematics would figure in this story,[7] but when it came down to it, he feared, with some justification, that he was out of his depth in the Fire Lab. Trying to master this new body of knowledge was a gamble so late in the game — a move sure to delay his book, if not sink it altogether.

Still, Maclean’s turn to fire science gradually paid off. With the help of Rothermel’s calculations, he pinned down the fire’s rate of spread in Mann Gulch and the time that it caught up with the Smokejumpers. And using an up-to-date understanding of the behavior of winds in a large fire, Maclean was able to explain why Dodge’s notorious escape fire burned as it did, and to exonerate the foreman. But all this came at a cost. Maclean’s draft pages piled up and up, and so did the repetitions and inconsistencies in those pages. He must have known it and been unable to fix it.[8]

Reading Young Men and Fire for the first time, you expect that the book will end with fire science and the definitive account it allows Maclean to give at the end of part two of the book. But there is a third and last part to come, a very brief section that feels like a coda. It is in some ways the most experimental part of Young Men and Fire, and Marie Borroff, for one, argued in her essay on the book that it is not a success, that the book should have ended short of part three. “I have to say,” writes Borroff, “and I say it hesitantly and with pain — that what we are presented with in the last twenty pages as his further attempts to bring the poetic imagination to bear on his subject strike me as just that: as attempts.”[9]

Perhaps, but those last pages were important to Maclean. Part three, he says in his notes, entrusts itself “to the Imagination and Compassion of the Story-teller.” Imagination takes the form of an elevated view of the Smokejumpers’ last moments, extending an earlier reference to Thomas Hardy’s Sky Spirits, “who comment upon tragedies of man from distant horizons.” Compassion brings the storyteller, and us, back to the ground with the doomed men, “to project ourselves into their final thoughts.” He envisions, most importantly, their loneliness, which, he writes, “loomed up suddenly — they were young and not used to being alone.” Here, accompanying the men to their end, Maclean recalls his wife, who died of cancer of the esophagus: “Perhaps it is not odd, at the end of this tragedy where nothing much was left of the elite who came from the sky but courage struggling for oxygen, that I have often found myself thinking of my wife on her brave and lonely way to death.”

These are the last lines of the book — an abrupt, almost unbearable ending. All deaths are lonely, Maclean seems to say in these final pages, but acknowledging that his own wife was lonely in death may reveal a deeper sorrow. We think of his father’s words in A River Runs Through It: “It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us.” We think of Dodge, who at the crucial moment couldn’t save his men, and whose wife told Maclean, “I loved him very much, but I didn’t know him very well.” And we think of the loneliness of an old man spending his last years at a writing table, as the energy to finish leaves him.

The closing pages of Young Men and Fire may be imperfect and strained, but that is because Maclean is trying to grasp something ultimate — the quality of “a special kind of death,” the death of the young and unfulfilled. He speculates that for them the last emotions were fear, followed by self-pity and bewilderment, and then finally, as they each made a last lunge up the hill, “some firm intention to continue doing forever and ever what we last hoped to do on earth.”

Until Norman Maclean came to it, the Mann Gulch fire had been a mere debacle. Thirteen men killed. A foreman, Wag Dodge, living under a cloud in spite of his courage. A ranger, Bob Jansson, scarred by what we would now recognize as post-traumatic stress. Grieving families. Eight lawsuits. Shabby meddling with the evidence by government men. Maclean’s overriding ambition was to find in all this some “carefully measured grains of consolation needed to transform catastrophe into tragedy.” Maclean spoke often of the way our lives can assume a design, can take on the shape of art. Tragedy implied design, a key term, and aspiration, for Maclean. Tragedy, he writes in the book, is “inflamed with the disorderly” and yet is also the “most composed” of all art forms. If he could tell the story of Mann Gulch as a tragedy in something like this classical sense, the result would be catharsis and redemption.

When Young Men and Fire was published, I sent copies to families of the men who had died at Mann Gulch. A month later, I received a note from the sister-in-law of Stanley Reba, whose cross lies closest to the bottom of Mann Gulch, near where Dodge set his escape fire. Her sister and Reba had been married less than a year when he was killed. Her sister, she said, “never really recovered from his death, and eventually took her own life. I loved Stan as a brother even though I really knew him such a short time. I loved my sister. Mann Gulch was a double tragedy for me and my family.” The letter continues,

I hope this introduction can help you understand what the book Young Men and Fire means to me. I have climbed to the crosses, but in reading Mr. Maclean’s book, have reclimbed the mountain over and over again. The poignant beauty of Maclean’s prose is consoling. I felt that at last they had not been forgotten nor would they be. Young Men and Fire is their testimony.

This response to the book was everything Maclean hoped for. But he would never read it, because at the end he lived more for telling and retelling the story — for getting it right — than for publishing it. What he did not know, or could not accept, is that a great and imperfect book can be consolation enough.


[1] “Notes of Summer 1984 on Foreword.” Unpublished manuscript. Special Collections, Regenstein Library, University of Chicago.

[2] Unpublished letter to Laird Robinson, April 24, 1985. Special Collections, Regenstein Library, University of Chicago.

[3] Marie Borroff, “The Achievement of Norman Maclean,” The Yale Review (April 1994), 121-22. Marie Borroff was a student of Maclean’s who went on to become the first female professor of English at Yale. Maclean’s letters to her are selected in The Norman Maclean Reader, ed. Alan Weltzien (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008). Another, less convincing, explanation was offered by Robert Sallee, one of the two surviving Smokejumpers: that his and the other survivor’s disagreement with Maclean about the route of their escape caused Maclean to set the manuscript aside. Mark Matthews, A Great Day to Fight Fire: Mann Gulch, 1949 (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007), 229.

[4] Earl Cooley, Trimotor and Trail (Missoula, Mountain Press Publishing, 1984), 129.

[5] “Billiards Is a Good Game: Gamesmanship and America’s First Nobel Prize Scientist,” The Norman Maclean Reader, 81.

[6] Pete Dexter, “The Old Man and the River,” Esquire (June 1981), 89.

[7] In a 1976 letter requesting support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Maclean explains that he has embarked on a new book about the Mann Gulch fire with the aim “ultimately to translate the cloud, wind, and tragedy into mathematical formulae.” (One of his early theories was that a thunderhead had played a key role in the blow-up.)

[8] He wrote to Dick Rothermel on 19 September 1986 that chapter 63, retelling the Smokejumper’s race in light of Rothermel’s calculations, “set us back at least 2 years in our schedule.” That section appears now as the first 10 pages of chapter 14 (pp. 267-77), reduced to a fraction of its original length in editing.

[9] Borroff, “The Achievement of Norman Maclean,” 130-131.


Alan Thomas is editorial director for humanities and social sciences at the University of Chicago Press. He delivered this talk at the In the Footsteps of Norman Maclean literary festival, Seeley Lake, Montana, on 11 July 2015.

LARB Contributor

Alan Thomas is editorial director for humanities and social sciences at the University of Chicago Press. He delivered this talk at the In the Footsteps of Norman Maclean literary festival, Seeley Lake, Montana, on 11 July 2015.


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