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Jim Harrison is a contemporary American author whose literary reputation rests on his mastery of the novella—a mastery that became widely recognized after the publication of his trilogy Legends of the Fall. In addition to fiction, Harrison has made significant contributions to poetry, nonfiction, children’s literature, and screenwriting.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Growing up in Michigan
James “Jim” Harrison was born in Grayling, Michigan, on December 11, 1937, to Winfield Sprague Harrison, a country agricultural agent, and Norma Olivia Wahlgren Harrison. He was the second of five children born to the Harrisons. when he was three, Harrison’s family moved to the small town of Reed City, Michigan. In 1945, a playmate accidentally injured the young Harrison with a broken glass laboratory beaker, leaving him blind in one eye. The injury would later influence Harrison’s writing. As a child, Harrison spent a lot of time hunting, fishing, and hiking in the Michigan wilderness and eventually learned to find solace in nature. Four years after his injury, the Harrisons moved again, this time to Haslett, Michigan, so that they would be within commuting distance from Michigan State University.
Eclectic Experiences as a Teenager
During his teenage years, Harrison had an eclectic range of experiences that critics often note as being among the greatest influences on his writing. In 1951, at the age of fourteen, Harrison experienced a religious conversion at a Baptist revival and became active as a preacher at fundamentalist youth fellowships. Contrasting his conversion were his experiences hitchhiking around the United States to investigate the bohemian life. With only ninety dollars and the typewriter he was given for his seventeenth birthday, Harrison began his journey after his father gave him a ride to the highway. It was during this time that he worked as a busboy at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, and later visited New York City’s Greenwich Village.
Education in Comparative Literature
In 1956, Harrison enrolled at Michigan State University in East Lansing, only to drop out a year later. After a brief hiatus—which he spent living in New York, Boston, and San Francisco—he returned to M.S.U. in 1959. Harrison then married Linda May King on October 10 of that same year. He graduated with his bachelor’s degree in 1960 and enrolled in a master’s program, where he met and formed strong relationships with other writers, including Dan Gerber, Tom McGuane, and Robert Dattila. Also in 1960, the first of two daughters, Jamie Louise, was born.
Harrison’s education was interrupted a second time, in 1962, when his father and younger sister Jamie, both died in a car accident. He left Michigan to live with his brother in Boston and work as a book salesman. In 1965, he returned to Kingsley, Michigan, where he worked as a laborer and published three poems in Nation and five in Poetry. Aided by author Denise Levertov, Harrison was then able to publish his first poetry collection, Plain Song (1965). He finished his master’s thesis, ”The Natural History of Some Poem” in 1965, completing his master’s in comparative literature in 1966.
Teaching in New York
After finishing his graduate work, Harrison became an assistant to Herbert Wei-singer, who served as his mentor, He also accepted a position as an associate professor of English at the State University of New York in Stony Brook. While there, he published a limited-edition chapbook, Walking (1967), and the poetry collection Locations (1968). In addition, he organized a world poetry conference.
Return to Michigan
In 1969, Harrison and his family returned to Michigan and bought a farm. He then collaborated with Dan Gerber on a film about the timber wolf, and on a literary magazine entitled Sumac, which ceased publication several years later. Harrison received a Guggenheim fellowship that enabled him to continue publishing poetry after sustaining a severe back injury while hunting. During his recovery, Harrison wrote his first novel Wolf (1971). Shortly after its publication, Harrison and Gerber traveled to Moscow and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) on a literary pilgrimage. His second daughter, Anna Severin, was born in 1971.
Experience Screenwriting Builds Important Relationships
In 1975, Harrison wrote the screenplay A Good Day to Die and met Jack Nicholson on the set of Missouri Breaks. Nicholson financed Harrison’s writing during 1978, the year he wrote Legends of the Fall, one of Harrison’s most famous works and one that was eventually adapted for film in 1994. Harrison continued to work as a successful screenwriter until 1997.
Trilogy Establishes Harrison’s Literary Reputation
The success of Legends of the Fall established Harrison’s reputation as a significant figure in contemporary literature. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s he expanded his roster of published works to include more fiction, screenplays, and collections of his nonfiction journalism. It was during this period that E. P. Dutton published Dalva, which many critics argue is his best work of fiction. In 1990, the same year he published another successful work of fiction, The Woman Lit by Fireflies, Harrison was awarded the Mark Twain Award for distinguished contribution to Midwestern literature.
After producing many publications during the 1980s and 1990s, Harrison decided to write a memoir, Off to the Side. This, however, did not mark the end of Harrison’s career as a fiction writer. Since the publication of his memoir, Harrison has published novels, poetry, and various nonfiction collections at a rate that matches his earlier production.
In 2005, The Meijer Foundation purchased Harrison’s collected papers as a donation to the Grand Valley State University Special Collections, where they are now housed and updated annually. Harrison and his wife currently live in Arizona and Montana. In 2007, he published the popular novel Returning to Earth and was elected as a member of the Academy of Arts and Letters. His most recent publication is The English Major (2008), a novel.
Works in Literary Context
Harrison has written in a variety of genres throughout his literary career, including poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and children’s literature. In addition, he has collaborated with his daughter Jamie on Hollywood screenplays. Contributing most significantly to Harrison’s literary reputation is his mastery of the novella, which was widely recognized after the publication of trilogy Legends of the Fall. Influences on Harrison’s work include his childhood blinding in one eye, his experiences in the woods of north-central Michigan, his religious conversion as a teenager, and the time he spent hitchhiking to various American cities during the 1960s.
The Natural World: A Regional Perspective
Much of Harrison’s fiction depicts life in remote areas of the Northern United States—Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the mountains of Montana, and Nebraska’s sand hills. For example, like much of his work, Return to Earth is set in Michigan where the terrain is rugged and the climate extreme. In it, the characters are inextricably linked to their environment. In other works, Harrison becomes involved with regional Native American history. In the title piece of Legends of the Fall, for example, Harrison emphasizes soul history, which indicates that the transgressions of American settlers and the U.S. government against Native American populations are still felt in the present day. Interwoven with his other themes are the of human relationships and the author’s perspective on food, wine, and sex in the human experience.
Works in Critical Context
Harrison is seen by many as a regional writer and is often compared to other regionalist authors. In the words of Heller McAlpin of the The San Francisco Chronicle, ”His writing bears earthy whiffs of wild morels and morals and of booze and botany, as well as hints of William Faulkner, Louise Erdrich, Herman Melville and Norman Maclean.” Harrison has also been compared to Ernest Hemming-way for his ”tales of strong men living an embittered life.” Such comparisons formed the basis of some harsh reviews of his first three novels, with some critics dismissing him as a writer fixated on the myth of the macho male. However, after the success of Legends of the Fall, many of Harrison’s works have enjoyed a positive reception with critics, with many praising the honesty of his prose and ability to explore the needs of the human soul. Will Blythe, in the New York Times Book Review, comments: ”[Harrison’s] books … are as grounded as Thoreau’s in the particulars of American place—its rivers and thickets, its highways and taverns.” ”Harrison’s language seems to come straight from America’s center of gravity, the core of the country where people still live by a code and think for themselves.. ..After 25 books Harrison is… closing in on the status of a national treasure,” writes Anthony Brandt of National Geographic Adventure.
Dalva has been widely regarded as Harrison’s best novel. Jonathan Yardley, in an appreciative review in Washington Post Book World, commented that the novel was ”moving, interesting and satisfying. It is his his most ambitious work to date; he fulfills this ambition to a degree that, if there is any such thing as literary justice, should bring him a substantial and appreciative readership.” Harrison’s fellow novelist Louise Erdrich expressed a similarly positive response to the novel in her Chicago Tribune review. She described Dalva as ”big-hearted, an unabashedly romantic love story, a grim chronicle of changing time, an elegantly crafted set of imaginary diaries, a work of humor and a unified lament.” Erdrich also expressed her admiration for the language and characterization in the novel, as well as the fact that it is full of interesting information, ”advice on wine, horses, and observations on desert flora and fauna, birds, and the work of Edward Curtis.” In the Times Literary Supplement, John Clute had a less enthusiastic response to the novel, but found it nonetheless worth reading. He acknowledged that Dalva was an attempt by Morrison to widen his subject-matter, and commented that although it ”might not seem a markedly convincing attempt to broaden this palette . . . there are moments of insight and pleasure throughout its considerable length which make the effort worthwhile.”
The English Major
Alan Cheuse of the Chicago Tribune describes The English Major as ”a bawdy and engaging new novel” and pitches it to nearly everyone: ”Wives, daughters of America, for your reading Papa, this ribald, questing, utterly charming and Zen-serious novel about being male, 60 and (well, almost) alone, is the book of the year.” Similarly, Tim McNulty of The Seattle Times offers high praise for one of Harrison’s latest bestsellers, ”After a long and idiosyncratic literary career, Harrison the storyteller is still at the top of his game.” Carol Schneck of Schuler Books and Music found the climax of the novel ”both exhilarating and terrifying” and the book ”charming from start to finish!”
- McDemott, Robert J. Conversations with Jim Harrison. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 2002.
- Reilly, Edward C. Jim Harrison. New York: Twayne, 1996.
- Smith, Patrick A. The True Bones of My Life: Essays on the Eiction of Jim Harrison. East Lansing, Mich.: Michigan State University Press, 2002.
- Burger, Frederick. ”Macho Writer: He Despises the Term, the Man They Call the New Hemingway.” Philadelphia Inquirer (July 23, 1980).
- Clute, John. ”Elegiac Heirs.” Times Literary Supplement. No. 4486 (March 24, 1990): 299.
- Davis, Todd F., and Kenneth Womak. ”Embracing the Fall: Wilderness as Spiritual Transformation in the Novels of Jim Harrison.” Western American Literature (Summer 2003).
- Erdrich, Louise. Review of Dalva. Chicago Tribune—Books (March 20, 1988): 1.
- Golden, Michael. ”The Next Great American Writer.” Smoke Signals (White Line Issue, 1981).
- Jones, Allen M. ”Six Short Essays About Jim Harrison.” A Profile in Poetry (July 16, 2006).
- Love, Keith. ”Literary Voice in the Wilderness.” Los Angeles Times (April 12,1988).
- McGrath, Charles. ”Pleasures of a Hard-Worn Life.” New York Times (July 25, 2007).
- Roberson, William. ”’Macho Mistake’: The Misrepresentation of Jim Harrison’s Fiction.” Critique (Summer 1988).
- Roelofs, Ted. ”A Stranger in His Own Land.” Grand Rapids Press (October 11, 1998).
- Rohrkemper, John. ”Natty Bumpo Wants Tobacco: Jim Harrison’s Wildness.” The Great Lakes Review (1983).
- Siegal, Eric. ”A New Voice from the North Country: A Portrait of a Prodigal Poet Who Came Home to Michigan.” Detroit Eree Press (April 16, 1972).
- Yardley, Jonathan. ”A Lonely Heart in the Heartland.” Washington Post Book World (March 6, 1988): 3.
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