Jim Harrison
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Literary Arts

Jim Harrison

Past Event: Monday, March 3, 1997

To date, Harrison’s books include six novels, three novella collections, nine volumes of poetry, and a collection of nonfiction essays. If his work is sometimes dark, violent, and unsettling, it can also be subtle, playful, and affirming. For every character unraveling in crisis, there are those saved by their fortitude and resilience. Large themes and powerful feelings remain his province, an impulse he sheds light on in the introductory notes to After Ikkyu (1996), a collection of Zen-inspired poetry: “I’m a poet and we tend to err on the side that life is more than it appears rather than less.”

Jim Harrison’s quest to become a writer brings to mind the trials and romantic aspirations of a Harrison protagonist. Born in Grayling, Michigan, in 1937, he sewed his connections to the land through hunting and fishing as a child. At age seven, a friend accidentally wounded him with a piece of glass that left him blinded in his left eye. Afterward, he became increasingly attentive to nature: “I’d turn for solace to rivers, rain, trees, birds, lakes, animals,” he explained.

In his mid-teens, Harrison determined to be a writer, and left home at nineteen to live the artistic life: “Our family had no money—there were five children—and I accumulated ninety dollars and my dad gave me a ride out to the highway. I had my favorite books and the typewriter he’d given me for my seventeenth birthday—one of those twenty-buck used typewriters—and my clothes, all in a cardboard box tied with a rope, and I was going off to life in ‘Green-witch’ Village. I was going to be a Bohemian!”

Harrison resided in stints on the eastern seaboard and in Michigan, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Michigan State in 1960 and 1965. Also in 1960, he married Linda King. Writing short stories and poems all the while, he published his first volume of poetry, Plain Song, in 1965. A year of teaching at Stony Brook in New York convinced him he was “temperamentally unsuited” to the profession, as he has put it. Harrison, his wife, and their baby daughter (they would later have a second daughter) returned to Michigan in 1966, where Harrison scratched together a living for the family through freelance journalism and hand labor.

Harrison’s poetry caught the attention of major reviewers, such as M.L. Rosenthal, who declared, “This is poetry worth loving, hating, and fighting over.” He wrote his first novel, Wolf (1971), while laid up from a fall off a cliff while hunting. A few years down the road, distressed by the low sales of his lovely, lyrical third novel, Farmer (1976), Harrison lapsed into a clinical depression. (In a 1990 essay, “Midrange Road Kill,” Harrison courageously recalls having had five such “whoppers.”) Commercial success came with his trilogy Legends of the Fall (1979) and the sale of film rights to each novella.

Just when one too many critics had pigeonholed Harrison for regional male tough-mindedness, he proved his larger talent by expanding his range of voices in Dalva (1988), a story of a woman of Sioux heritage searching for the son she gave up for adoption. Harrison continued conjuring up highly resonant female characters in his next two novella collections, The Woman Lit By Fireflies (1990) and Julip (1994).

Michigan roots now deeply established, Harrison and his wife live on a farm in Leelanau County in the northern part of the state. To write, he often retreats to a remote cabin on the Upper Peninsula. Both Jim and Linda Harrison share a passion for fine cooking, a subject he has written about for publications such as Esquire. Of the link between his art and cooking, Harrison explains: “I think it’s all one piece. When you bear down that hard on one thing—on your fiction or your poetry—then you have to have something like cooking, bird hunting, or fishing that offers a commensurate and restorative joy.”

Excerpt from Julip (1994)
Suddenly Julip remembered the bear and began weeping in earnest. It was when she was four. The bear hung around their farm in Wisconsin and her dad used to catch fish and put them out on a stump for the bear to eat. They would watch from the porch of the farmhouse except for her mother. The bear stopped by every evening just before dark for a snack, whether it was a fish or a lesser meal. Her dad said the bear was young, maybe a year and a half old, and probably only recently had left the company of its mother. Julip’s mother was sensibly angry about a bear so close to the house, and her father said this summer was it, and they wouldn’t feed the bear the next year when it would be too big anyway. Her dad said it was now about sixty pounds, the size of a fourth grader in school.

The best thing was when the bear came out of the alder swale and flounced around the stump as if it were dancing. Then one July evening it was still very hot and Bobby was on the couch because he had a fever. Her dad was supposedly off looking for a lost setter but probably was at the tavern, her mother said, and there was nothing on the stump for the bear. The twilights are long that far north and it was after ten-thirty when Julip heard a rifle shot out near the mailbox on the gravel road. She went to the open window where she had dead June bugs lined up in a row in hopes they’d fly off again. There were two more shots and she saw car lights and a spotlight out on the road, then the car took off in a shatter of gravel. There was just enough light for her to see the bear dragging itself down the driveway, dragging itself quickly by the main strength of its forelegs and making a howling sound, which trailed off in gurgles before the howling would begin again. Julip ran downstairs and Bobby was screaming, too, with their mother restraining him on the couch. She yelled, ‘Don’t you dare,’ but Julip grabbed the flashlight and went out on the porch, shining the light on the bear’s face. The light made the bear’s eyes as red as the blood coming out of its mouth. In the kennels in back the dogs were all howling like wolves. The bear crawled under the porch and Julip rushed down the porch steps and knelt shining the light on the bear, who had crawled to the far corner, the dirt matting on its bloody hide.

Now her mother was at the door yelling for her so she went up the steps and tried to calm Bobby down so her mother could call on the phone. Her mother couldn’t find her dad at three different bars so she called the game warden, then she turned on the radio real loud so they wouldn’t hear the bear but they could still hear it over the symphony on the public radio station. Then the bear stopped squalling and her mother turned down the volume, and then the game warden came and dragged the bear out, and Julip didn’t get to watch that part though she saw him lift it into the back of his pickup. He came into the house and washed up in the kitchen and she heard him say to her mother, ‘Poor little girl,’ meaning the bear. Julip somehow thought the bear was a boy. At dawn she looked out the window and her dad was asleep in the car.

Selected Work
The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand (2001)
After Ikkyu and Other Poems (1996)
Julip (1994)
Just Before Dark: Collected Nonfiction (1991)
The Woman Lit By Fireflies (1990)
The Theory and Practice of Rivers and New Poems (1989)
Dalva (1988)
Legends of the Fall (1979)
Farmer (1976)
Wolf: A False Memoir (1971)

Salon.com interview with Harrison
New York Times featured author
Harrison home page