Jim Harrison

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Jim Harrison (Writer)
Born James Harrison
(1937-12-11)December 11, 1937
Grayling, Michigan, U.S.
Died March 26, 2016(2016-03-26) (aged 78)
Patagonia, Arizona, U.S.
Occupation Novelist, poet, essayist
Alma mater Michigan State University (BA 1960, MA 1964)
Genre Fiction, non-fiction, poetry
Spouse Linda King Harrison (d. October 2, 2015)
Children 2 daughters: Jamie Potenberg and Anna Hjortsberg

James Harrison (December 11, 1937 – March 26, 2016) was an American writer known for his poetry, fiction, reviews, essays about the outdoors, and writings about food. He is best known for his 1979 novella Legends of the Fall. He has been called "a force of nature",[1] and his work has been compared to that of William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway.[2][3] Harrison's characters tend to be rural by birth and to have retained some qualities of their agrarian pioneer heritage which explains their sense of rugged intelligence and common sense. They attune themselves to both the natural and the civilized world, surrounded by excesses but determined to live their lives as well as possible.[4]


Harrison was born in Grayling, Michigan, to Winfield Sprague Harrison, a county agricultural agent, and Norma Olivia (Wahlgren) Harrison, both avid readers.[5] Harrison was born 18 months after oldest child John, with whom Jim was close. Jim's younger siblings are Judith and then Mary and David. He became blind in one eye after a childhood accident ("My left eye is blind and jogs like/a milky sparrow in its socket").[6][7] Harrison graduated from Haslett High School (Haslett, Michigan) in 1956. When he was 21, his father and his sister Judy died in an automobile accident.

In 1959, he married Linda King, with whom he had two daughters. He was educated at Michigan State University, where he received a B.A. (1960) and M.A. (1964) in comparative literature. After a short stint as assistant professor of English at Stony Brook University (1965–66), Harrison started working full-time as a writer. His awards include National Academy of Arts grants (1967, 1968, and 1969), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1969–70), the Spirit of the West Award from the Mountain & Plains Booksellers Association,[8] and election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters (2007).[9]

His work has appeared in many leading publications, including The New Yorker, Esquire, Sports Illustrated, Rolling Stone, Outside, Playboy, Men's Journal, and The New York Times Book Review. He has published several collections of novellas, two of which were eventually turned into films: Revenge (1990) and Legends of the Fall (1994).

Much of Harrison's writing is set in sparsely populated regions of North America and its West. Many stories are set in places such as Nebraska's Sand Hills, Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Montana's mountains, and along the Arizona–Mexico border.

Harrison lived in both Patagonia, Arizona, and Livingston, Montana.[10] On August 31, 2009, he was featured in an episode of Anthony Bourdain's television show No Reservations, which took place in and around Livingston.[11][12] He also appeared during season 7 of Bourdain's CNN series, Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, in an episode which first aired on May 15, 2016.

Harrison died of a heart attack on March 26, 2016.[13]

Prose works[edit]

Early career[edit]

Harrison said he became a novelist after he fell off a cliff while bird hunting. During his convalescence, his friend Thomas McGuane suggested he write a novel, and Wolf: A False Memoir (1971) was the result. It is the story of a man who tells his life story while searching for signs of a wolf in the northern Michigan wilderness. This was followed by A Good Day to Die (1973), an ecotage novel and statement about the decline of American ecological systems; and Farmer (1976), a Lolita-like account of a country school teacher and farmer coming to grips with middle age, his mother’s dying, and complications of human sexuality.

Harrison’s first novellas were published in 1979 under the title Legends of the Fall. The title novella is an epic story that spans fifty years and tells the tale of a father and three sons in the vast spaces of the northern Rocky Mountains around the time of World War I. The novella format would become an important part of both Harrison's future reputation and his output. Following Legends of the Fall, seven more collections of novellas would appear over the course of Harrison's lifetime: The Woman Lit by Fireflies (1990), Julip (1994), The Beast God Forgot to Invent (2000), The Summer He Didn’t Die (2005), The Farmer's Daughter (2009), The River Swimmer (2013), and finally The Ancient Minstrel (2016), the latter appearing just before Harrison's death in March of that year.

After publishing Warlock (1981) and Sundog (1984), Harrison published Dalva (1988), one of his best-known novels. It is a complex tale, set in rural Nebraska, of a woman’s search for the son she had given up for adoption and for the boy’s father, who also happened to be her half-brother. Throughout the narrative, Dalva invokes the memory of her pioneer great-grandfather John Wesley Northridge, an Andersonville survivor during the Civil War and naturalist, whose diaries vividly tell of the destruction of the Plains Indian way of life. Many of these characters are featured also in The Road Home (1998), a complex work using five narrators, including Dalva, her 30-year-old son Nelse, and her grandfather John Wesley Northridge II. Harrison has been described as trying to get at "the soul history of where you live" in this sequel to Dalva, in this case rural Nebraska in the latter half of the 20th century.[14]

By the time Harrison turned sixty years of age in 1998, he had published both a dozen works of fiction and another dozen volumes of poetry.

Later life and writings[edit]

In terms of his publishing career, Harrison's final eighteen years, after he turned sixty, would be nearly as productive as the preceding 30 years. After age sixty, he would publish another dozen works of fiction, at least six more volumes of poetry, a memoir Off to the Side, and The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand, a collection of his food essays which had first appeared in magazines, mostly in Esquire and Men's Journal.

Although he continued writing in the novella format, during these final years (1999-2016), Harrison would refocus his efforts on the longer novel form. In the 2000s, Harrison published two of the most ambitious novels, setting them in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula: True North (2004) and its sequel Returning to Earth (2007). True North examines the costs to a timber and mining family torn apart by alcoholism and the moral recklessness of a war-damaged father. The novel contains two stories: that of the monstrous father and that of the son’s trying to atone for his father’s evil and, ultimately, reconciling with his family’s history.

Returning to Earth (2007) revisits the characters and setting of True North (2004) thirty years later. The story has four narrators: Donald, a mixed-blood Indian, now middle-aged and dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease; Donald’s wife Cynthia, whom he rescued as a teen from the ruins of her family; Cynthia’s brother David (the central character of True North); and K, Cynthia's nephew and Donald’s soul mate. Ultimately, the extended family helps Donald end his life at the place of his choosing, and then draw on the powers of love and commitment to reconcile loss and heal wounds borne for generations.

Harrison’s The English Major (2008), is a road novel about a 60-year-old former high school English teacher and farmer from Michigan who, after a divorce and the sale of his farm, heads westward on a mind-clearing road trip. Along the way he falls into an affair with a former student, reconnects with his big-shot son in San Francisco, confers on questions of life and lust with an old doctor friend, and undertakes a project to rename all the states and their state birds.[15]

Harrison wrote two darkly comic detective novels, The Great Leader: A Faux Mystery (Grove Press, 2012) and The Big Seven (Grove Press, 2015), both focused on protagonist Detective Sunderson. The Great Leader: A Faux Mystery was positively reviewed in The New York Times, with critic Pete Dexter calling Harrison's writing "very close to magic."[16]


Although he is best known as a fiction writer, Harrison called his poetry "the true bones of my life." In fact, he published more books of poetry than novels. And it is as a poet that Publishers Weekly called him "an untrammeled renegade genius."[17] In all, he published eighteen books of poetry. "Mozart of the Prairie" is what Terry McDonell, writing in The New Yorker, called Harrison, adding "through all the years, and the novels and novellas and films that came with them, he (Harrison) remained a poet, his life syncopated with contrapuntal complexities and the chromatic cadences of rural landscapes."[18]

The Shape of the Journey: New and Collected Poems,[19] is a sweeping review of his first eight books of poetry. In addition, it includes an introduction by Harrison, several previously uncollected poems, and "Geo-Bestiary," a thirty-four-part suite rooted in Harrison's legendary passion for food, sex, poetry, and the natural world. In the Introduction, Harrison writes:

"This book is the portion of my life that means the most to me....in poetry our motives are utterly similar to those who made cave paintings or petroglyphs, so that studying your own work of the past is to ruminate over artifacts, each one a signal, a remnant of a knot of perceptions that brings back to life who and what you were at that time, the past texture of what has to be termed as your ‘soul life.’" Poetry suffused everything Harrison wrote. "It’s totally uncontrollable," he said. "You don’t have any idea when its going to emerge, and when it’s not going to emerge. I’ve never stopped writing it....You can put off a novel for a while but you can’t not write a poem because that particular muse is not very cooperative." [20]

In his own work. Harrison was influenced by predecessors as diverse as the Russian modernist Sergei Yesenin (Letters to Yesenin,[21] 1973), Zen literary traditions (After Ikkyu and Other Poems, 1996), and the American-English traditions of nature-writing (Saving Daylight,[22] 2006), leading back to Wordsworth. In his 2011 collection of poetry is Songs of Unreason[23] (Copper Canyon Press, 2011) Harrison uses interconnected suites, brief lyrics, and rollicking narratives to explore what it means to inhabit the world in atavistic, primitive, and totemistic ways.

Braided Creek[24] (Copper Canyon Press, 2003) is a poetic correspondence between Harrison and Ted Kooser. Longtime friends, they corresponded for a number of years in terms of short wakas or haikus and were both thrilled to subsequently publish a book where the reader did not know who actually wrote each poem.

Harrison's final book of poetry, Dead Man's Float,[25] was published in early 2016 by Copper Canyon Press shortly before his death. In it, Harrison confronts aging and death, taking a "flinty and psalmist look at mortality and wonder."[26]

As one of America's literary icons, Harrison could have published his poetry anywhere. However, after 1998 he chose small independent literary presses because, as he said in an interview:

"The problem is that big publishers in New York don't know how to publish poetry. There's no tradition in poetry, and no response to it. So, with my heart's work I'm not going to New York and discuss a manuscript of poems … Poetry doesn't belong - as far as I am concerned - in these major houses, because there's no attentiveness to production, design, there's no attentiveness to editing. They just: Here it is and they flop it out and they forget a day later that they even published it."[27]

Regarding his most beloved art-form, he wrote: "Poetry, at its best, is the language your soul would speak if you could teach your soul to speak." [28]

Harrison biographies and interviews[edit]

In 2009, University of Nebraska Press published Jim Harrison: A Comprehensive Bibliography, 1964-2008, an illustrated guide to Harrison’s published works, edited by Gregg Orr and Beef Torrey, with an introduction by Robert DeMott, which contains more than 1600 citations of writing by and about Harrison.[29] Many of Harrison’s papers are housed at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.[2]

Harrison was interviewed in 2004 in Paris by François Busnel and asked how he explained the success of his novel, "True North" in the United States where his previous books were not successful. Harrison replied, "The age, undoubtedly! Or a proof that America loves France, since it is said often over there that I am the most French of the American writers."[30]

Many of Harrison's interviews between 1976 and 1999 are collected in the book, Conversations with Jim Harrison, edited by Robert DeMott, published by the University Press of Mississippi, 2002.[31] Harrison discusses his poetry in an extensive interview in Five Points Magazine.[32]

Film work[edit]

Harrison's work on films and in the screenplay format began with his book Legends of the Fall, when he sold the film rights for all three stories in the book and became involved in writing the screenplay for the film with the same title. It was directed by Edward Zwick and starred Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins, and Aidan Quinn; it won the 1995 Academy Award for cinematography.[33] Jim Harrison had a writing credit for the film.

Other films he has scripted or co-written include Cold Feet (1989), with Keith Carradine, Tom Waits and Rip Torn; Revenge (1990), starring Kevin Costner. For his work on the screenplay for Wolf (1994, starring Jack Nicholson) Harrison, along with co-writer Wesley Strick, shared the Saturn Award for Best Writing.




  • Wolf: A False Memoir (1971)
  • A Good Day to Die (1973)
  • Farmer (1976)
  • Warlock (1981)
  • Sundog: The Story of an American Foreman, Robert Corvus Strang (1984)
  • Dalva (1988)
  • The Road Home (1998)
  • True North (2004)
  • Returning To Earth (2007)
  • The English Major (2008)
  • The Great Leader (2011)
  • Brown Dog (2013) – (gathers the five novellas published about the character 'Brown Dog' and adds a new one as a coda)[[34]
  • The Big Seven (2015)

Novella trilogies[edit]

NOTE: the exception here being The River Swimmer (listed below) which is not a trilogy; note that Brown Dog (listed above) is an anthology of all the "Brown Dog" novellas

  • Legends of the Fall (Three novellas: "Revenge," "The Man Who Gave Up His Name," and "Legends of the Fall") (1979)
  • The Woman Lit By Fireflies (Three novellas: "Brown Dog," "Sunset Limited," and "The Woman Lit by Fireflies") (1990)
  • Julip (Three novellas: "Julip," "The Seven-Ounce Man," and "The Beige Dolorosa") (1994)
  • The Beast God Forgot to Invent (Three novellas: "The Beast God Forgot to Invent," "Westward Ho," and "I Forgot to Go to Spain") (2000)
  • The Summer He Didn't Die (Three novellas: "The Summer He Didn't Die," "Republican Wives," and "Tracking") (2005)
  • The Farmer's Daughter (Three novellas: "The Farmer's Daughter," "Brown Dog Redux," and "The Games of Night") (2009)
  • The River Swimmer (Two novellas: "The Land of Unlikeness" and "The River Swimmer") (2013)
  • The Ancient Minstrel (Three novellas: "The Ancient Minstrel," "Eggs," and "The Case of the Howling Buddhas") (2016)


  • Just Before Dark: Collected Nonfiction (1991)
  • The Raw and the Cooked (1992) Dim Gray Bar Press ltd ed
  • The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand' (2001)
  • Off to the Side: A Memoir (2002)
  • A Really Big Lunch: Meditations on Food and Life from the Roving Gourmand (2017)

Children's literature[edit]

  • The Boy Who Ran to the Woods (Illustrated by Tom Pohrt) (2000)


  • Plain Song (W.W. Norton, 1965)
  • Walking (1967)
  • Locations (W.W. Norton, 1968)
  • Outlyer and Ghazals (Simon and Schuster, 1971)
  • Letters to Yesenin (Sumac, 1973)
  • Returning to Earth (Court Street Chapbook Series) (Ithaca Street, 1977)
  • Selected and New Poems, 1961-1981 (Drawings by Russell Chatham) (Houghton Mifflin, 1981)
  • Natural World: A Bestiary (1982)
  • The Theory & Practice of Rivers (Winn, 1986)
  • The Theory & Practice of Rivers and New Poems (Clark City, 1989)
  • After Ikkyu and Other Poems (Shambhala, 1996)
  • The Shape of the Journey: New and Collected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 1998)
  • Braided Creek: A Conversation in Poetry (with Ted Kooser) (Copper Canyon Press, 2003)
  • Livingston Suite (Illustrated by Greg Keeler) (2005)
  • Saving Daylight (Copper Canyon Press, 2006)
  • In Search of Small Gods (Copper Canyon Press, 2009)
  • Songs of Unreason (Copper Canyon Press, 2011)
  • Dead Man's Float (Copper Canyon Press, 2016)




  • Wolf (1994)


  • Here is Something Beautiful (announced)
  • La grande librairie (2009-2015)
  • Café littéraire (2010)
  • The Practice of the Wild (2010)
  • Amérique, notre histoire (2006)
  • Le cercle de minuit (1995)


  1. ^ ""Returning to Earth" – In grief, giving family wings". The Seattle Times. January 5, 2007. Archived from the original on December 20, 2010. 
  2. ^ a b "Jim Harrison Biography". jrank.org. Net Industries. Retrieved January 21, 2012. 
  3. ^ Anthony Bourdain has written: "The lazy and the foolish compare him to Hemingway, which is a terrible injustice as Jim is both a better writer and a better man." Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook (2011), Ecco, p. 165.
  4. ^ The Bloomsbury Review, January/February 1999
  5. ^ Harrison, Jim; DeMott, Robert J. (2002). Conversations with Jim Harrison. Jackson: Univ. Press of Mississippi. ISBN 978-1-57806-456-4.  page xxi.
  6. ^ Sketch for a Job-Application Blank
  7. ^ Harrison, Jim. "Searchers by Jim Harrison | The Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor". Writersalmanac.publicradio.org. Retrieved January 21, 2012. 
  8. ^ Reading the West Book Awards
  9. ^ "Jim Harrison, author of ‘Legends of the Fall’ and other books, dies at 78" washingtonpost.com
  10. ^ Alter, Alexandra (July 10, 2009). "Indoors With a Poet of the Outdoors". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved August 13, 2011. 
  11. ^ "Episodes : Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations". Travel Channel. February 28, 2011. Retrieved January 21, 2012. 
  12. ^ "Big Sky … Thick Jungle … Zero Tolerance (and Diane Saves The Day) « Anthony Bourdain". Anthony-bourdain-blog.travelchannel.com. Retrieved January 21, 2012. 
  13. ^ Jim Harrison, Poet, Novelist and Essayist, Is Dead at 78 nytimes.com
  14. ^ Phipps, T.W. "Image matters to Jim Harrison", Book, Oct/Nov 1998
  15. ^ McGrath, Charles (January 25, 2007). "Pleasures of the Hard-Worn Life". The New York Times. 
  16. ^ Dexter, Pete (September 30, 2011). "Jim Harrison Stalks a Cult Leader". The New York Times. Retrieved March 27, 2016. 
  17. ^ https://www.amazon.com/Shape-Journey-New-Collected-Poems/dp/1556591497
  18. ^ http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/jim-harrison-mozart-of-the-prairie
  19. ^ https://www.coppercanyonpress.org/pages/browse/book.asp?bg={AE5CC8AA-6B8E-42FE-B4FF-43A58430284B}
  20. ^ Book, October/November 1998
  21. ^ https://www.coppercanyonpress.org/pages/browse/book.asp?bg={0418197D-6B7B-4A23-9096-16AE816FBECD}
  22. ^ https://www.coppercanyonpress.org/pages/browse/book.asp?bg={F192C269-FB87-4A8D-8AFB-B5FD097531D6}
  23. ^ Coppercanyonpress.org
  24. ^ https://www.coppercanyonpress.org/pages/browse/book.asp?bg={307251BC-8B7B-4774-97F4-72B7ED8E8568}
  25. ^ https://www.coppercanyonpress.org/pages/browse/book.asp?bg={2153813B-9A69-4E95-A727-183CD20BA598}
  26. ^ http://www.latimes.com/books/la-ca-jc-jim-harrison-20151220-story.html
  27. ^ http://www.webdelsol.com/Five_Points/issues/v6n2/harrison.html
  28. ^ https://www.coppercanyonpress.org/pages/browse/author.asp?ag={F35F57A4-3EE5-41EF-A251-3987DE97632B}
  29. ^ "Jim Harrison - University of Nebraska Press". Nebraskapress.unl.edu. Retrieved January 21, 2012. 
  30. ^ ""Entretien avec Jim Harrison" – Interview with Jim Harrison". L'Express, article in French previously published in its literary brand "Lire Magazine". October 1, 2004. 
  31. ^ https://www.amazon.com/Conversations-Jim-Harrison-Literary/dp/1578064562
  32. ^ "Five Points". Webdelsol.com. Retrieved January 21, 2012. 
  33. ^ "67th Academy Awards Winners | Oscar Legacy | Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences". Oscars.org. March 27, 1995. Retrieved January 21, 2012. 
  34. ^ Ulin, David L. (2013) "In Jim Harrison's 'Brown Dog,' novellas trace the arc of a life" latimes.com

External links[edit]