“Jim Harrison is a writer with immortality in him,” a Sunday Times of London reviewer once said, an assessment that would be repeated over and over — on book jackets and by his legion of admirers.
The author of more than 30 books, Harrison was a lifelong outdoorsman who gained wide renown after the publication, in his middle age, of his best-selling 1979 novella, “Legends of the Fall.” The story, which follows the journey of three brothers from Montana to Alberta to fight in the Canadian forces before the Americans’ entry into World War I, cemented the kind of storytelling for which Harrison was known: moral, dark and resplendent with descriptions of the natural world.
“His voice came from the American heartland and his deep and abiding love of the American landscape runs through his extraordinary body of work,” Grove Atlantic chief executive Morgan Entrekin said in a statement to the AP.
Harrison was a recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
He was the rare writer who excelled in both poetry and prose, earning comparisons to Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. Harrison began his career as a poet, but he started working on his first novel, “Wolf: A False Memoir,” while recovering from a bird-hunting injury. (He had fallen off a cliff.)
He also had credits in Hollywood, where as a screenwriter, Harrison befriended Orson Welles, Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson, who financed his writing of “Legends of the Fall” after his 1976 novel “Farmer” failed to sell well, according to the AP. Later, after “Legends of the Fall” became a movie starring Brad Pitt, there was one year in which Harrison made more money than the president of General Motors.
Born in Grayling, Mich., Harrison grew up among the natural landscapes that would shape his writing, learning to hunt and fish at age 4. Family friend Tom Bissell wrote in in Outside: “For Harrison, the natural world was not something to be cherished because it was pretty; rather the natural world was something to be howled at, gloriously, in the night.”
Two early events made him a writer, Harrison told Esquire in 2014. The first occurred when he was 7 years old and in a quarrel with a neighborhood girl. She pushed a broken glass bottle into his face, blinding him in his left eye.
“I probably wouldn’t have been a poet if I hadn’t lost my left eye when I was a boy,” Harrison told Esquire. “Afterward, I retreated to the natural world and never really came back, you know.”
Then, when he was 20, his father and sister were killed in a car accident. Their sudden deaths solidified his determination to write: “I thought, ‘If this can happen to people, you might as well do what you want — which is to be a writer. Don’t compromise at all, because there’s no point in it.'”
With a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in comparative literature from Michigan State University, Harrison believed firmly that good writing could be accomplished only through utter devotion. To young writers seeking guidance, he said, “I don’t have any time to talk to you unless you intend to give your entire life over to it, because it can’t be done otherwise.”
Yet tales of Harrison’s eclectic lifestyle outside writing accompanied many descriptions of his work. In an interview with the Paris Review in 1986, he recounted the years he spent doing manual labor, working as a block layer, carpenter and well-pit digger.
He was one of five children in a family that had little money, so Harrison did these jobs to sustain his writing. Attached to the thrill of exploration, he hitchhiked to California and New York, arriving in the latter with his favorite books, a typewriter his father gave him for his 16th birthday and his clothes all packed inside a cardboard box tied with rope.
Before Harrison’s first poetry collection, “Plain Song,” came out in 1965, he worked on a construction site. On one icy November day, he spent nine hours carting 1,200 cement blocks for 70 yards in a wheelbarrow, then unloading them.
“When I got home I was hungry and tired,” Harrison told the Paris Review, “and what I had to show for it was right around twenty-five dollars. But you got a lot of thinking done.”
These experiences formed a physical stature that recalled at once a beer salesman and a sumo wrestler. His stories followed men contending with wild, untouched areas of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula — virile subject matter that compelled some to characterize him as a “macho” writer.
It was a label that Harrison himself rejected.
“All I have to say about that macho thing goes back to the idea that my characters aren’t from the urban dream-coasts,” he told the Paris Review. “A man is not a foreman on a dam project because he wants to be macho.”
One of Harrison’s most acclaimed works, “Dalva,” is narrated by a female protagonist, a strong Nebraska woman who rides bareback through the plains in search of a child she’d given up for adoption.
Aside from writing and the outdoors, Harrison’s other great passion was food. Reporters who visited his cabin in Michigan were treated to veritable feasts conjured by him and his wife of more than 50 years, Linda King. His insatiable appetite produced plenty of writing fodder, including a legendary piece in the New Yorker — aptly titled “A Really Big Lunch” — that recounted him eating a 37-course meal. In 1992, he published a memoir called “The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand.”
Despite recent struggles with gout, shingles and diabetes, Harrison continued producing work into old age. His last book of poetry, “Dead Man’s Float,” was published in October. The collection and several of his later works were preoccupied with mortality.
Harrison’s wife died last fall. They are survived by two daughters.
In a commemorative post on Sunday, Grove Atlantic quoted his 2009 poem “Larson’s Holstein Bull”:
Death waits inside us for a door to open.Death is patient as a dead cat.Death is a doorknob made of fleshDeath is that angelic farm girl[…]Death steals everything except our stories.
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