Authors: Jim Harrison

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist and poet


Though his writing has been generally well received since he published Plain Song, Jim Thomas Harrison has remained on the fringes of American letters by choosing to avoid the literary circles of New York City and rejecting academia in order to focus specifically on his craft. The son of Winfield and Olivia (Wahlgren) and the brother of four siblings, he was born in northern Michigan, a place full of the lakes, rivers, swamps, and woods that would define the geography of his poetry and prose. From Grayling, his family moved to Reed City, Michigan, near the Manistee National Forest, where he spent most of his childhood.{$I[A]Harrison, Jim}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Harrison, Jim}{$I[tim]1937;Harrison, Jim}

During his youth, Harrison developed a love for hunting and fishing, which pervaded his life. Born into a farming culture, his father was a state agricultural agent who specialized in soil conservation. It is said that his father had categorical knowledge of Michigan’s flora, fauna, farmland, and watersheds, which may have taught Harrison to understand at an early age humans’ connection to nature. His parents encouraged him to read, and he began writing poetry on a typewriter that his father gave him. From Reed City, his family moved to Haslett, Michigan, near Lansing. He began writing seriously at the age of sixteen, when he also started to travel, mainly by hitchhiking, to New York City, Boston, Chicago, the western states, and San Francisco, a cycle that he would continue well into his twenties.

After high school, he attended Michigan State University (MSU). Although he did not always feel comfortable in the formal environment of the classroom, he became a lifelong student of world literature, among many other subjects, during his college years. He graduated in 1960 with a bachelor of arts degree, and after a few years of wandering physically and intellectually, he received his master’s degree in comparative literature in 1965. His master’s thesis, titled “A Natural History of Some Poems,” revolves around the discussion of the origins of his own poetry from the collection Plain Song. In this he borrows from Sigmund Freud, stating that the act of writing a poem is a primary process, meaning that it as natural as any human act. Therefore, poetry is not an art that should have been elevated from the concerns of common people. Harrison also explains the purpose of a poet’s use of persona, which is to transform a personal experience in order to explore the possibilities of its aesthetic and psychological significance. Persona becomes a key factor in his poetry and his career as a novelist, as even the most learned readers have trouble separating him from his characters.

In 1959 he married Linda King, with whom he raised two daughters. After Harrison earned his master’s degree, his mentor at MSU, Professor Herbert Weisinger, took him to the State University of New York at Stony Brook. There he taught for almost two years, starting in 1965. However, he found teaching unfulfilling and disruptive to his writing, and in 1967, he and Linda moved back to Michigan, where they rented a farmhouse in the Leelanau Peninsula in northern Michigan. They would live there the rest of the century. In 1968 Harrison began a literary journal called the Sumac Reader with poet and lifelong friend Dan Gerber. Based in Fremont, Michigan, the Sumac Reader published works by an impressive array of established poets, along with writers who would go on to have outstanding and prolific careers: Diane Wakoski, Charles Simic, Hayden Carruth, Barbara Drake, Adrienne Rich, Gary Snyder, Galway Kinnell, Carl Rakosi, Denise Levertov, and many more.

In addition to many formative experiences in the 1960’s, Harrison’s writing career officially began in 1965. With the encouragement of Denise Levertov, he published his first book, Plain Song. The first poem in this collection is titled “Sketch for a Job Application Blank,” which he wrote in New York City in the early 1960’s during a search for employment. He began this poem as a letter to Pablo Neruda, one of his early influences along with Federico García Lorca, Rainer Maria Rilke, Guillaume Apollinaire, T. S. Eliot, Boris Pasternak, and many others. However, the piece took a different route, and the result was that Harrison believed that he had finally written a poem worthy of the craft. Metaphorically, he had escaped the influences of his predecessors to find his own voice. Plain Song and Locations both focus on traditional aesthetics and formal meter. Filled with wilderness locales and imagery, these books often take on a fairy-tale quality, in which beauty and innocence are balanced with impending danger, violence, and death. The death is sometimes a transformed discussion of the loss of Harrison’s sister and father, who were killed by a drunk driver in 1962. Just as often he shows it through humans’ destruction of nature, which inevitably results in humans’ destruction of humans. He also uses intertextuality, references to Christianity, and a pastiche of classical mythology.

In 1968 Harrison received the National Endowment for the Arts Award, and in 1969 he received a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 1968 he met a former acquaintance from MSU, Thomas McGuane, author of The Sporting Club (1969), Nobody’s Angel (1982), and Nothing but Blue Skies (1992). McGuane, who became one of his best friends, helped to move Harrison’s career in a more progressive direction, encouraging him to try fiction. This encouragement, along with an extended hospital stay for an injury sustained during a hunting accident, resulted in Harrison’s first novel, Wolf. Based on the literal and intellectual wandering Harrison did in the 1950’s and 1960’s, Wolf received mixed reviews. Many labeled the novel as experimental and sensed too much autobiography. However, Swanson, the main character, represents a culture of lost intellectuals in the Vietnam War era.

In the same year that Wolf was published, Harrison published his third book of poems, Outlyer and Ghazals. The work provides social commentary in several visually driven short poems that expose a range of human desires. Letters to Yesenin, his fourth book of poems, consists of thirty-one poems for Sergei Esenin, a young Russian poet who killed himself in St. Petersburg in 1925. In the same year he published Letters to Yesenin, Harrison also published his second novel, A Good Day to Die, which pursues the idea of humans’ destruction of nature more explicitly than the poems published earlier and continues his discussion on the lack of direction in the United States during the Vietnam War. He followed this with the novel Farmer, a regional tale of adultery that draws from Christian mythology and cultural archetypes. Despite Harrison’s having published three novels and five books of poetry, his family lived below the poverty level throughout the 1970’s. Because his fiction and poetry made little money, he earned a meager living by writing book reviews for The New York Times and columns in Sports Illustrated and Esquire, along with taking odd jobs. His fifth book of poetry, Returning to Earth, strays from his insistence on metrical form and pursues the idea of self-doubt. It is as if, to borrow his own idea, he is killing poetry so that it may rejuvenate.

Harrison’s career was rejuvenated by the critical and financial success of his collection of novellas, Legends of the Fall. In the novella Legends of the Fall, Harrison seemed to be defining the American experience through his characters’ universal experiences. Through Tristan, he shows a country shaped by a history of hypocrisy and violence and a person who wants to escape that violent pattern by turning his back on the society that perpetuates it. Harrison elaborates on this idea through many of his characters: Julip, Clare in The Woman Lit by Fireflies, Dalva, and Brown Dog, his most comical and alienated figure. Sensing that the encroachment of society upon wilderness and human nature leaves fewer and fewer ways to escape the pattern, some of his characters turn inside themselves, to negative effect. However, Dalva finds a way to transcend the pattern by understanding it and uprooting it, which allows her to act deliberately and think clearly. In many ways, Harrison found his most effective medium for social commentary through her and her grandfather, John Wesley Northridge. In fact, this may have seeped into his later poetry, The Theory and Practice of Rivers, and New Poems, After Ikkyu, and Other Poems, and The Shape of the Journey, which speaks in a thoroughly conscious voice that transcends his earlier work.

After Legends of the Fall, Harrison received a contract to write screenplays, which supported him financially for almost two decades. He stopped writing screenplays in the late 1990’s, but he continues to write fiction, poetry, and essays. His work has been published in more than twenty languages, he maintains a loyal following in the United States, and he remains popular in France. In semiretirement, he divides his time among his farm in Leelanau County, a home in southern Arizona, and a hunting cabin near Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The constricting label of “regional” writer, which he bucked throughout his career, no longer applies, and his writing has gained an academic interest that continues to grow.

BibliographyDavis, Todd. “A Spiritual Topography: Northern Michigan in the Poetry of Jim Harrison.” Midwest Quarterly 42, no. 1 (Autumn, 2000): 94-104. Examines the spiritual topography in the poetry of Jim Harrison, that is, how his quest for life’s meaning is influenced by the natural world, particularly the landscape of Northern Michigan, and how that landscape figures in the poems.Harrison, Jim. “The Art of Fiction, CIV: Jim Harrison.” Interview by Jim Fergus. The Paris Review 107 (1988): 53-97. In this interview, Fergus asks the right questions about life, literature, and art. Harrison’s responses are personal and enlightening, giving the reader a variety of interesting insights into the craft of fiction and poetry.Harrison, Jim. Conversations with Jim Harrison. Edited by Robert DeMott. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2002. This collection of interviews with Harrison includes bibliographic references and an index.Harrison, Jim. Interview by Wendy Smith. Publishers Weekly 237 (August 3, 1990): 59-60. A general discussion of some of the basic characteristics of Harrison’s writing, followed by comments by Harrison on his work; Harrison notes that, although he still considers fiction and poetry his major work, he is intrigued by the screenplay format.Harrison, Jim. “Jim Harrison.” In Conversations with American Novelists, edited by Kay Bonetti, Greg Michaelson, Speer Morgan, Jo Sapp, and Sam Stowers. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997. Harrison discusses how the skills he developed writing poetry were transferred to his fiction; talks about the sometimes negative influence of university writing programs, his reputation as a macho writer, his interest in the novella form, and his work as a screenwriter.Lorenz, Paul H. “Rethinking Machismo: Jim Harrison’s Legends of the Fall.” Publication of the Arkansas Philological Association 15 (1989): 41-52. A concise explanation showing what function macho characters serve in Legends of the Fall and Revenge. Lorenz explains his interpretation of the cowboy macho mentality, detailing the actions of various characters to prove Harrison’s intent, which is to represent the failure of this mentality in civilization. The “mythic cowboy hero” is but a myth and cannot be revived, according to Lorenz’s interpretation, and any attempt by these characters to “blaze a solitary path through a senseless world [only] leads to unhappiness, banishment, and death.” Bibliography.McClintock, James I. “Dalva: Jim Harrison’s ‘Twin Sister.’” The Journal of Men’s Studies (Spring, 1998): 319-331. A post-Jungian perspective of Dalva exploring the feminine side of masculinity as influenced by psychologist James Hillman. Harrison’s previous works usually portrayed men struggling with external and internal environments, but this book, and this study, reveal women’s consciousness through the author’s alignment as a “sister” to Dalva.Mesic, Penelope. “Riders on the Storm.” Chicago Magazine (January, 1995): 31-32. Interview with Harrison about his views on Legends of the Fall facing Hollywood attention as a subject for a feature film. Interesting comments by Harrison on his challenges to keep the film and novella cohesive and his newly found personal attraction to the story.Morgan, Thais E. Men Writing the Feminine: Literature, Theory, and the Question of Genders. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994. A collection of essays that explores questions about gender and writing from a wide range of theoretical perspectives, including psychoanalysis, semiotics, deconstruction, feminism, postmodernism, and discourse analysis. A good insight to Harrison’s style.Reed, Julia. “After Seven Acclaimed Novels, Jim Harrison Is Finding It Harder to Elude Fame.” Vogue 179 (September, 1989): 502. A brief biographical sketch, commenting on Harrison’s shunning of publishing hype and promotion. Discusses Harrison’s screenplays; argues that the strength of his writing lies in his hypnotic use of language, his romantic and compelling characters, and his ability to reveal the human need to be close to nature.Reilly, Edward C. Jim Harrison. New York: Twayne, 1996. In this book of Harrison criticism, Reilly discusses the ways in which Harrison uses fiction as a medium for social commentary, among other topics.Roberson, William H. “‘A Good Day to Live’; The Prose Works of Jim Harrison.” Great Lakes Review: A Journal of Midwest Culture 8-9 (1983): 29-37. Roberson’s reviewlike treatment of selected prose is an overview of basic themes in Harrison’s fiction. He disputes the notion that Harrison is writing “macho fiction” by providing a clear analysis to the contrary. Includes notes.Rohrkemper, John. “‘Natty Bumppo Wants Tobacco’: Jim Harrison’s Wilderness.” Great Lakes Review: A Journal of Midwest Culture 8 (1983): 20-28. Rohrkemper suggests that Harrison’s poetic treatment of nature is closer to a “dark romantic” such as Herman Melville than it is to an Emmersonian transcendentalist outlook. Rohrkemper asserts that Harrison’s fiction is based on the tradition of his “literary parents and grandparents,” the modernists, but with one significant twist: The modernists show the “pristine beauty of nature first, and then nature spoiled,” while Harrison shows how nature exists in spite of human influence. Notes.Smith, Patrick A. The True Bones of My Life. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2002. With this collection of essays, Smith explores Harrison’s fiction in terms of such ideas as the American myth, the American Dream, postmodernism, and the importance of place. Includes several photographs, an index, a critical bibliography, and a bibliography of Harrison’s work that lists many of his published essays.Taylor, Henry. “Next to Last Things.” Poetry 176, no 2 (May, 2000): 96-106. As part of an omnibus review, Taylor applies his considerable critical skills to an appreciation of Harrison’s The Shape of the Journey.Veale, Scott. “Eat Drink Man Woman.” The New York Times Book Review (January 3, 1999): 15. In this brief review of The Shape of the Journey, Veale finds this collection to have “a meandering feeling.” He praises Harrison’s grounding in the natural world, especially in those poems set in rural Michigan. He also values Harrison’s colloquial style.
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