IT was honorable to study English. A generation ago, before government grants skewed higher learning to fields where contracts and equipment dominate, a student could major in literature or creative writing without apology. Less so now. Then, to a number of us, the language held secrets as compelling as helical structures in genes.
But fashion has little to do with fascinations that abide.
On May 19, 1977, I went to see Norman Maclean. Maclean was a retired English professor at the University of Chicago who had almost won a Pulitizer for literature. His slim collection of short stories, ``A River Runs Through It,'' had been nominated by Pulitzer jurists but was passed over by awards committee.
Why had Maclean taken up writing so late?
``I'd finished a career,'' he said. He'd started teaching at Chicago at 20. Three times over the years he had been named the university's outstanding teacher.
As for writing, he could not recommend it. ``If you don't come through you're in a mess,'' he said. ``Everyone laughs up their sleeves. The woods are full of young men and old men who want to write and who might end up looking foolish. How many times has anyone started to write over 70 and come out all right? And yet I did it. I'd strong personal therapeutic reasons for doing it. I was trying to come to terms with my brother's death, which I'd never done. Such reasons offset prudence. No matter how the story came out, I was that much ahead.''
His wife too was gone. She had encouraged him, when he left Dartmouth to teach at Chicago, to stop moping over city life and make something of the situation at hand. Maclean had grown up in Montana, fishing and working in logging camps. He'd passed up Harvard, where he was registered, to enroll at Dartmouth, where he'd arrived with shotgun and fishing rod. His preparation: mornings of rigorous tutoring in writing in his minister father's study, afternoons of fly fishing on the Blackfoot.
```You have to capitalize on where you are, not whine about the place you're not,''' his wife had told him, he said. ``I almost left Chicago my first year or two. I love Chicago now. There are different kinds of beauty. My cabin in Montana is only 16 miles from the glacier. But I couldn't hold out for glacial beauty. There is a heavy industrial beauty - the view from the planetarium looking back across the skyline. There was the St. Thomas Church with its beautiful Stations of the Cross. At five in the morning I would take a couple of students with me to see the city ... the Washington Racetrack near the park, the stock exchange room, the Art Institute - you have to capitalize on where you are.''
He was distant from his colleagues, his contemporaries. He was more comfortable with the young. ``I must have spent 15 days last summer at the smoke jumpers' base in Montana,'' he said. ``I don't recommend reminiscences for old age. I reestablished my ancient admiration for the Forest Service among young friends. They know I know my stuff.''
``Certain skills, an outlook on life arrived at by knowing and loving nature, how to run a power saw - these bring men together rather than age.''
``I work in the mornings,'' he said of his writing routine. ``I don't like to start cold. In the evening I lie in the bathtub thinking about what I'm going to do the next morning. I have my day's instruction in mind when I start.''
Maclean, who passed on last week in Chicago, gave four axioms for writing: 1) All prose should be rhythmical. 2) The rhythms should be barely perceptible. 3) Rhythms should be noticeable at times, as when the author is ``fooling around and showing off.'' And 4) Rhythms can be mandatory: ``If an author writes out of a full heart and rhythms don't come with it then something is missing inside the author. Perhaps a full heart.''
We talked for some time. He had taught mostly poetry - Wordsworth, Hopkins. Young writers still sent him their work. It was honorable to study English. To note the flick of the writer's wrist, the four-beat cadence of casting, the ripples of meaning after the fly lights on the water.
The river of literature runs through another generation.