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Stone River sculpture by Andy Goldsworthy

My Senior Thesis

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Stone River sculpture by Andy Goldsworthy. Photographer: L.A. Cicero


In the spring of 1993, I decided to write a senior thesis on Norman MacLean. MacLean had been an English professor at the University of Chicago, and late in life wrote two books: The River Runs Through It, a beautiful reflection on MacLean’s family in Montana, the death of his brother Paul, fly-fishing, and religion; and Young Men and Fire, an account of a 1949 forest fire in Montana that killed 13 fire fighters (“smoke jumpers”). I loved MacLean’s books, and especially the story of his brother. 

I had been to some of the Montana rivers during a summer spent kayaking, and I was fortunate to receive a URO grant to meet MacLean’s children, Jean and John, in Chicago. Ken Fields at Stanford and Marie Boroff, a student of MacLean and renowned scholar, provided guidance. On Boroff’s advice, I wrote about MacLean’s attempt to find meaning in tragic events: in the case of the smoke jumpers, through advances in the science of forest fires; in the case of his brother, whose murder defied rational understanding, through Paul’s beauty as a fisherman, and religion. As MacLean wrote, in his family there was no clear line between fly fishing and religion. 

My career as a literary critic ended with my honors thesis, and I went to graduate school and became an economics professor, and now a business school Dean. But I still love great writing, and the American West, and feel grateful that Stanford gave me the opportunity to develop those passions. 

Jonathan Levin

Philip H. Knight Professor and Dean of Stanford Graduate School of Business

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