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Death of an American Legend: Remembering Jim Harrison

NY Times

It was Jim Harrison who wrote, ‘Death steals everything except our stories.’

Jim Harrison, consummate sportsman and author of such classic works as “Legends of the Fall” and “The Road Home” died this Easter weekend at his home in Patagonia, Ariz. at the age of 78.

Novelist and lifelong friend of Harrison, Philip Caputo was one of the first to be called to the authors home following his death. “We found him on the floor of his study, where he’d fallen from his chair, apparently from a heart attack,” Caputo wrote. “He’d died a poet’s death, literally with a pen in his hand, while writing a new poem.”

Author Jim Harrison. Courtesy of Grove Atlantic.
Grove Atlantic.

A man of letters, essayist, poet and novelist, his death marks the passing of one the world’s great talents. Harrison lived all 78 years of his life on his own terms, filling it with a love of family, fine wine, fine food, and the company of bird dogs. A lifelong outdoorsmen, few authors have written with such a passion for the natural world, what Harrison called “a living fabric of existence.”

“Barring love, I’ll take my life in large doses alone–rivers, forests, fish, grouse, mountains. Dogs.”  – Jim Harrison, Wolf, A False Memoir

While he considered himself first and foremost a poet, most know him from his fiction and through his essays on food, travel and sport that have been published in magazines as diverse as Esquire and Field and Stream.

Jim Harrison at his farm in Michigan, 1969. Photo by John Schulz
John Schulz

Harrison was born in 1937 in Grayling Michigan, the son of hardnosed Scandinavians making a living for themselves in the north country of the Upper Peninsula. At the age of seven, he lost the vision in his left eye when a neighbor girl shoved a broken bottle in his face. During his later high school years, he spent a fair amount of time hitchhiking his way around the country, developing a love of poetry and fiction. In 1965, following his education at Michigan State University, he served as a assistant professor of English in 1965 at Stony Brook University.

After publishing books of his poetry, and at the urging of close friend Thomas McGuane, Harrison took to writing fiction during a period of convalescence following a fall of a cliff during a bird hunting trip. Wolf: A False Memoir was published in 1971. Wolf tells the story of a man searching for signs of a wolf in a northern Michigan Wilderness. Two more novels followed, A Good Day to Die in 1973 and Farmer in 1976.

It was with the publication of Harrison’s first book of novellas, Legends of the Fall, in 1979 that brought him literary acclaim and his first financial success as a author. Although a short story of only 90 some pages, the title novella tells the history of the Ludlow family and is set in the vast spaces of Montana during World War I. It is a story of epic landscapes, tragic loss and profound beauty and violence. In 1994, Harrison adapted the story for a film of the same name that was directed by Edward Zwick and starred Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins and Aiden Quinn.

Throughout his over 40 years of writing, Harrison was often likened to Ernest Hemingway, a comparison that he didn’t particularly seem fond of. It’s understandable though, that faced with this one eyed bear of a man, a New York literary critic might fall back on the association due to Harrison’s upbringing in Michigan, his love of fishing and bird hunting and the masculine nature of his writing. In truth, Harrison seemed less like Hemingway and more like a Hemingway character, a wildman screaming in the wilderness, full of passion and a lust for life that could never really be quenched.

Portrait by Andy Anderson
Portrait by Andy Anderson

The themes he wrote about (masculinity, sex, violence, alcohol, and food) aren’t new, but under less skilled hands have often devolved into near parody of the truth. Maybe that’s why Harrisons work is so damn good and more important now than ever. In a cultural landscape where political correctness and sameness have taken hold, Harrison’s writing speaks to a facet of our humanity that we are increasingly denying ourselves, one where our more primal desires define us as human but also bind us to the animal world that we are undeniably a part of. Harrison’s writing is firmly anchored in the natural world, a place where life eats life. You don’t just read the words Harrison puts on the page, rather you’re forced to chew them, to consume them.

Perhaps more than any other author, his work speaks so clearly to outdoorsman because he was one of us, and one of the few that could put into words the complex relationship between man and the wild places man travels in and through. In Harrison’s book “Sundog,” the main character Robert Corvus Strang exits the story by floating himself down a Michigan river, following a fat and happy Labrador retriever named Miss. I have no insights into Harrison’s view on the afterlife, but this seems like a good way to spend eternity.

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