Study Guide

Jim Harrison

Jim Harrison Biography

Biography (Poets and Poetry in America)

James Thomas Harrison was born in Grayling, Michigan, in 1937, to Winfield Sprague Harrison, a county agricultural agent, and Norma Olivia (Wahlgren) Harrison, and has spent much of his life in and around northern Michigan. He lost sight in his left eye when a child. Harrison received a B.A. (1960) and M.A. (1965) in comparative literature from Michigan State University. His father and sister died in an automobile accident when he was twenty-one years old. In 1959, he married Linda King; the couple would have two daughters. He became an assistant professor of English at State University of New York, Stony Brook (1965-1966), but he realized he was not suited for an academic career, moved back to Michigan, and became a freelance writer. His poetry gained favorable reviews, but he did not gain commercial success until Legends of the Fall was published.

As the allusions that pepper Harrison’s writing make clear, he is a prodigious reader, and although he writes about Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, he considers himself an internationalist. He peoples his writings with figures drawn from his German and Swedish ancestral lines and incorporates elements from Native American culture and Zen Buddhism. His love of hunting, fishing, and food are also evident. Harrison bought and moved to a farmhouse near Montana’s Paradise Valley and began dividing his time between Montana and his winter home in Patagonia, Arizona, near the border with Mexico.

Jim Harrison Biography (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

James Thomas Harrison was born in Grayling, a small rural community in northern Michigan, in 1937. It was there that he developed his love for the outdoors. At age thirteen, he moved to Lansing, Michigan, when his father took a position at Michigan State University.

Growing up in a family of voracious readers (his father enjoyed William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and Erskine Caldwell) proved beneficial to Harrison’s decision at an early age to become a writer. At age nineteen, he left home for New York, where he intended to write poetry and live the life of a bohemian.

Later, he returned to Michigan and received a B.A. from Michigan State University in 1960 and an M.A. in 1964. Shortly thereafter, he took a position as assistant professor of English at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and taught there for one year.

After leaving his position at Stony Brook, Harrison returned to Michigan to take up writing full time. Grants, fellowships, and articles for magazines like Sports Illustrated kept Harrison going until the 1979 publication of Legends of the Fall, his first commercially successful book. The film rights for the book’s three novellas eventually led to Harrison’s career as a screenwriter and the popular film adaptation of the Legends of the Fall by screenwriters Susan Shilliday and Bill Witliff in 1995. Harrison’s film work and the literary strength of books like The Woman Lit by Fireflies (1990) and The Road Home (1998) have made him a widely read and critically acclaimed author.

Jim Harrison Biography (Survey of Novels and Novellas)

James Thomas Harrison was born December 11, 1937, in Grayling, Michigan; soon after his birth, his family moved to Reed City and then to Haslett, near the Michigan State University (MSU) campus, when Harrison was twelve. While he has repeatedly stated that his childhood was unremarkable, he clearly assimilated the spirit of the land and people found in northern Michigan and was deeply affected by the emotional bonds that held his family together. Perhaps because so much of this land has been ravaged by development, northern Michigan, and certainly its Upper Peninsula, has come to constitute Harrison’s version of William Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County, peopled by figures drawn from his German and Swedish ancestral lines along with the Finns and Chippewa who populate the Upper Peninsula.

After a short period of enrollment at MSU in 1956, Harrison dropped out. Convinced that “you couldn’t be an artist in Michigan,” he made a number of treks to New York City, San Francisco, and Boston in search of the “right setting” in which to write; not surprisingly, these forays, described in Wolf, were unsuccessful. Inevitably, he returned to MSU; he received his B.A. in English in 1960, enrolled in graduate school, and made two key lifelong friendships with writers Thomas McGuane and Dan Gerber. McGuane persuaded Harrison to diversify his work by pursuing long fiction. McGuane also connected him with actor Jack Nicholson, who funded...

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Jim Harrison Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Though his writing has been generally well received since he published Plain Song, Jim Thomas Harrison has remained on the fringes of American letters by choosing to avoid the literary circles of New York City and rejecting academia in order to focus specifically on his craft. The son of Winfield and Olivia (Wahlgren) and the brother of four siblings, he was born in northern Michigan, a place full of the lakes, rivers, swamps, and woods that would define the geography of his poetry and prose. From Grayling, his family moved to Reed City, Michigan, near the Manistee National Forest, where he spent most of his childhood.

During his youth, Harrison developed a love for hunting and fishing, which pervaded his life. Born into a farming culture, his father was a state agricultural agent who specialized in soil conservation. It is said that his father had categorical knowledge of Michigan’s flora, fauna, farmland, and watersheds, which may have taught Harrison to understand at an early age humans’ connection to nature. His parents encouraged him to read, and he began writing poetry on a typewriter that his father gave him. From Reed City, his family moved to Haslett, Michigan, near Lansing. He began writing seriously at the age of sixteen, when he also started to travel, mainly by hitchhiking, to New York City, Boston, Chicago, the western states, and San Francisco, a cycle that he would continue well into his twenties.

After high school, he attended Michigan State University (MSU). Although he did not always feel comfortable in the formal environment of the classroom, he became a lifelong student of world literature, among many other subjects, during his college years. He graduated in 1960 with a bachelor of arts degree, and after a few years of wandering physically and intellectually, he received his master’s degree in comparative literature in 1965. His master’s thesis, titled “A Natural History of Some Poems,” revolves around the discussion of the origins of his own poetry from the collection Plain Song. In this he borrows from Sigmund Freud, stating that the act of writing a poem is a primary process, meaning that it as natural as any human act. Therefore, poetry is not an art that should have been elevated from the concerns of common people. Harrison also explains the purpose of a poet’s use of persona, which is to transform a personal experience in order to explore the possibilities of its aesthetic and psychological significance. Persona becomes a key factor in his poetry and his career as a novelist, as even the most learned readers have trouble separating him from his characters.

In 1959 he married Linda King, with whom he raised two daughters. After Harrison earned his master’s degree, his mentor at MSU, Professor Herbert Weisinger, took him to the State University of New York at Stony Brook. There he taught for almost two years, starting in 1965. However, he found teaching unfulfilling and disruptive to his writing, and in 1967, he and Linda moved back to Michigan, where they rented a farmhouse in the Leelanau Peninsula in northern Michigan. They would live there the rest of the century. In 1968 Harrison began a literary journal called the Sumac Reader with poet and lifelong friend Dan Gerber. Based in Fremont, Michigan, the Sumac Reader published works by an impressive array of established poets, along with writers who would go on to have outstanding and prolific careers: Diane Wakoski, Charles Simic, Hayden Carruth, Barbara Drake, Adrienne Rich, Gary Snyder, Galway Kinnell, Carl Rakosi, Denise Levertov, and many more.

In addition to many formative experiences in the 1960’s, Harrison’s writing career...

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