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David James Duncan

Updated on December 9, 2014

American Novelist and Essayist

David James Duncan is the author of the novels The River Why and The Brothers K and several works of nonfiction. His work has won a Lannan Fellowship, the 2001 Western States Book Award for Nonfiction, a National Book Award nomination, three PNBA Awards, two Pushcarts, an honorary doctorate from University of Portland, the American Library Association's 2003 Award (with Wendell Berry) for the Preservation of Intellectual Freedom, inclusion in three volumes of Best American Spiritual Writing, and many other honors.

David has spoken all over the U.S. on wilderness and rivers, literary and imaginative freedom, the irreplaceable importance of wild salmon, the pathos of fly-fishing, and on the writing life, the nonmonastic contemplative life, and the nonreligious literature of faith. He is a contributing editor to Orion. He scripted and narrated an award-winning 2005 documentary on the natural history of bamboo fly-rods titled Trout Grass (see, and is doing the same for The Fire in Water, a film on the unnatural history of the Interior West's vanishing wild salmon.

David writes, "home-churches," "river-schools" and lives with his wife, the sculptor Adrian Arleo, and their family on a western Montana trout stream.

"We hear nothing so clearly

as what comes out of silence."

and more great quotes

by David James Duncan

The River Why

The River Why, Twentieth-Anniversary Edition
The River Why, Twentieth-Anniversary Edition

Not in recent memory has there been such a unique and vibrant fictional character — a character who could make us laugh so easily, feel so deeply, who speaks with such startling truth about the way we live — as Gus Orviston, the irreverent young flyfisherman in The River Why.

Leaving behind a madcap, fishing-obsessed family, Gus embarks on an extraordinary voyage of self-discovery along his beloved Oregon rivers. What he unexpectedly finds is man's wanton destruction of nature and a burning desire to commit himself to its preservation.

Here then is the funny, sensitive, very special story of one man's search: for meaning, for love, and for a sane way to live...a tale that gives a contemporary voice to the concerns and hopes of all living things on this beautiful, watery planet Earth.


Salmon: Running the Gauntlet

I just saw "Salmon: Running the Gauntlet" on PBS Nature and saw that David James Duncan was in it. Watch the full episode here: Salmon: Running the Gauntlet ~ Video: Full Episode | Nature | PBS and listen to a related interview with David James Duncan here: Salmon: Running the Gauntlet ~ Interview with David James Duncan | Nature | PBS.

The Brothers K

The Brothers K
The Brothers K

If John Irving reimagined The Brothers Karamazov as one of his kooky families and Thomas Pynchon did a rewrite, the result might be something close to this long-awaited second novel by the author of The River Why. The brothers are the Chance boys, sons of Papa Toe, a minor league pitcher whose crushed thumb is replaced by a transplanted toe, and his devout Seventh Day Adventist wife. Like Dostoevsky's Karamazovs, the Chances speculate on the nature of God, delve into the nuances of what constitutes moral behavior, experience evil, suffer from criminal acts, and, finally, determine that God is love and love redeems. But these are American boys, and although their lives contain some terrible moments, this is essentially a comic novel. Among its many merits, it reflects far better than most fiction the wide variety of Sixties experiences, giving student radical and Vietnam grunt alike their sympathetic due. Baseball provides the central metaphor for this huge hypnotic novel, but although in that sport a "K" indicates a strikeout, here it scores a home run.


River Teeth

River Teeth: Stories and Writings
River Teeth: Stories and Writings

In his passionate, luminous novels, The River Why and The Brothers K, David James Duncan has won the devotion of countless critics and readers, earning comparisons to Harper Lee, Tom Robbins, and J.D. Salinger, to name just a few. Now Duncan distills his remarkable powers of observation into this unique collection of short stories and essays.

At the heart of Duncan's tales are characters undergoing the complex and violent process of transformation, with results both painful and wondrous. Equally affecting are his nonfiction reminiscences, the "river teeth" of the title. He likens his memories to the remains of old-growth trees that fall into Northwestern rivers and are sculpted by time and water. These experiences — shaped by his own river of time — are related with the art and grace of a master storyteller. In River Teeth, a uniquely gifted American writer blends two forms, taking us into the rivers of truth and make-believe, and all that lies in between.


My Story as Told by Water - Confessions, Druidic Rants, Reflections, Bird-Watchings, Fish-Stalkings, Visions, Songs and Prayers Refracting Light, from Living Ri

My Story as Told by Water: Confessions, Druidic Rants, Reflections, Bird-watchings, Fish-stalkings, Visions, Songs and Prayers Refracting Light, From Living Rivers, in the Age of the Industrial Dark
My Story as Told by Water: Confessions, Druidic Rants, Reflections, Bird-watchings, Fish-stalkings, Visions, Songs and Prayers Refracting Light, From Living Rivers, in the Age of the Industrial Dark

"I was struck by a boyhood suspicion that rivers and mountains are myself turned inside out," writes David James Duncan. "I'd heard at church that the kingdom of heaven is within us and thought, Yeah, sure. But the first time I walked up a trout stream, fly rod in hand, I didn't feel I was 'outside' at all: I was traveling further and further in." An estimated three thousand river walks later, here is My Story as Told by Water, in which Duncan braids his contemplative, activist, and rhapsodic voices together into an irresistibly distinctive whole, speaking with a power and urgency that will recharge our national appreciation of the vital connections between our water-filled bodies and this water-covered planet.

Offering a wide-ranging, contemplative exploration of the rivers that touch his life, Duncan backs his insights with a fierce defense of the sacred cultures and fauna that living waters sustain. With a bracing blend of story, logic, science, and comedy, he dissects the hollow industrial platitudes that lead to the ruin of publicly owned rivers for private profit. Standing up for the river made famous by the pen of his neighbor, Norman Maclean, Duncan exposes America's anachronistic federal mining policy and the devastating cyanide technology to which it has led. As an advocate for the bankrupted fishing towns, Native tribes, and unraveling web of life of the Pacific Northwest, he lays bare our biological and religious obligation to breach four of the Columbia and the Snake rivers' 221 massive dams to save wild salmon. Yet Duncan centers even his darkest explorations in the joys, gratitude, and wonder that walking rivers, rod in hand, provides him.

Here is a brilliant writer revealing captivating speculations on being born lost, on the discovery of water, on wading as pilgrimage, coho as interior compass, and industrial creeks as blues tunes. Here are rivers perceived as prayer wheels, dying birds as prophets, salmon as life-givers, brown trout as role models, wilderness as our true home, wonder as true ownership, and justice as biologically and spiritually inescapable.


God Laughs & Plays - Churchless Sermons in Response to the Preachments of the Fundamentalist Right

God Laughs & Plays; Churchless Sermons in Response to the Preachments of the Fundamentalist Right
God Laughs & Plays; Churchless Sermons in Response to the Preachments of the Fundamentalist Right

In God Laughs and Plays, David James Duncan argues that the de facto political party embodied by the so-called "Christian Right" has turned worship into a self-righteous betrayal of the words and example of the very Jesus it claims to praise. In opposition, Duncan offers a thought-provoking collection of "churchless sermons," stories, memoir, and conversations — all united by the contention that the way of life preached and embodied by Jesus is apolitical and should be free of media machinery.

While reminding us that the true Christian ethos scorns riches and embraces the poor; blesses peacemakers, not war-makers; and asks us to love and serve neighbors and "do good" even unto enemies, Duncan also goes a step further: he offers a poignant and inspiring glimpse into a profound new cosmology that can help humanity manage the epochal challenges of a fast globalizing and ecologically challenged world.


Lost River

Lost River, a limited edition print with an essay by renowned author and conservationist David James Duncan, was released in 2005 by Save Our Wild Salmon. The image was created by photographer Frederic Ohringer and the project was underwritten by Patagonia. The words are just as poignant today as they were 6 years ago:

I dreamed the people who fished the river never knew want, seldom knew confusion, & with the salmon’s self-sacrifice to guide us we could always find love. I dreamed I obeyed the river so gratefully the name of every rapid, fall & riffle engraved itself on my tongue, & the salmon came back to us again & again, & I never once doubted they would bless my family’s table forever.

I dreamed Big & Little Dalles & Methow & Priest Rapids & Lodgepole & Entiat Rapids. I dreamed Coulee Bend & Kettle Falls & beautiful Celilo. I dreamed Chalwash Chilni & Picture Rocks Bay & Spanish Castle & Victoria & Beacon Rocks. I dreamed Black Canyon & Deschutes & Klickitat Canyons & Rocky Reach & Ribbon Cliff. I dreamed I fished by the peach groves of the place called Penawawa, drunk on the river’s sweetness within the fruit.

I dreamed I fell asleep to the sound of water, & when I woke a cloud had enveloped the minds of the ruling pharaohs, & they had attacked the river as if its song & flow were curses. I dreamed 227 dams clogged the river & all that I knew was submerged.

I dreamed the salmon young lost strength & direction in the slackwaters, couldn’t reach the sea, & when they no longer brought the ocean back to us we grew as lost as they. I dreamed my people stood shoulder to shoulder in casinos the way we’d once stood by the river, our fists full of quarters, our minds full of broken hope & smoke.

I dreamed I asked why the salmon had to die & the pharaohs told me, “So wheat can ride the slackwater in barges.” I dreamed I tried to reason, telling them of wheat shipped by railroad, & they laughed & marched off to conduct business hard to distinguish from war.

I dreamed I led the last salmon people out into the wheat fields, & in a golden light we launched our dories, & we went fishing in the stubble. I dreamed I cast the Spey of a Nez Perce named Levi, & the beauty of hidden salmon gleamed in field & sky, & our fishing became prayer. But still the pharaohs ruled the water. I dreamed the one who reads even lost rivers then said, “It is finished,” & the last salmon floated by us as a cloud above us.

I dream I am an old man, & Levi & the farmer whose fields we sailed sit with me at Penawawa beside a river finally freed. I dream we hold rods in one hand, sweet peaches in the other, & our lines run true as prayer into the shine. But whether the salmon come, whether they bring the lost ocean back to us, my dreams, like the river, refuse to say.

–David James Duncan

More at MOLDY CHUM: Lost River.

Official Website - David James Duncan

Online Essays, Articles & Interviews

David James Duncan

Trout Grass - Documentary of the Natural History of Bamboo Fly-rods

Trout Grass
Trout Grass

This unique film documents the transformation of bamboo from a hardy species of grass into a meticulously crafted split-cane fly rod. Shot on location in the lush forests of Southern China and the majestic rivers of Montana, Trout Grass captures the allure of craftsmanship and rivers as well as the notion that fishing is about much more than catching fish.

Scripted and narrated by David James Duncan


Citizens Dissent - Security, Morality, and Leadership in an Age of Terror

Citizen's Dissent
Citizen's Dissent

Wendell Berry and David James Duncan assess the moral, economic, ecological, and democratic ramifications of the first new national security strategy in fifty years. By turns informative, honest, and emotionally crushing, they speak to the collective conscience of our nation: "What does real security require of us? What does true patriotism require of us? What does freedom require of us?"


What do you think about David James Duncan and his works?

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    • agoofyidea profile image


      6 years ago

      The River Why is an amazing book. I think it is his best.

    • puerdycat lm profile image

      puerdycat lm 

      7 years ago

      "Liked" Your Lens! Have loved the original Brothers K and interested in your recommendations!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      cool lens keep it posted.

    • Yourshowman LM profile image

      Yourshowman LM 

      8 years ago

      Nice lens.

    • Yourshowman LM profile image

      Yourshowman LM 

      8 years ago

      Nice lens.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      I grew up in the Maryland countryside outside of Washington DC 50 years ago. Disgusted by progress and encroaching suburbs I began my westward journey the week I finished college. I first paddled upstream to Maine. Sidetracked to Ohio. Drifted to Austin, TX and bounced to Phoenix. I swam upshore to Bellingham, WA then joyously rocketed further west to the place which captured my heart in the late 70's. The Bitterroot Valley Montana. David James Duncan's book "My Story as Told by Water," found its why to my lap where I finally read words which express my passion of wilderness. I join in his quest to protect our beloved waters, and look forward to someday serendipitiously bumping into him.

    • verymary profile image


      9 years ago from Chicago area

      Nicely done! Thanks for the recommendations! 5*****


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