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...