Harrison, Jim 1937-
(Born James Thomas Harrison; also writes as James Harrison) American short story writer, poet, novelist, scriptwriter, and critic.
Known for his strong sense of the outdoors, Harrison's short fiction is written in a variety of styles and forms, including adventure stories, historically-based fiction, and accounts of spiritual quests. He frequently employs allusion and figurative language in short narratives that offer energetic and humorous explorations of displacement, brutality, and the destruction of the environment. His rural roots, his tendency toward understatement, his gift of compression, and the theme of violence in much of his work have inevitably led to comparisons with Ernest Hemingway.
Born in Grayling, a rural town in northern Michigan, Harrison grew up amidst forests, rivers, and wildlife, images of which figure largely in his prose and poetry. He began writing poetry in college, and published his first collection, Plain Song, while studying for his Master's degree at Michigan State University. Harrison received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1968 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1969; these awards allowed him to write full time. He has continued to live at his farm in northern Michigan while composing poetry, novels, short fiction, and commentary published in various periodicals, including a column for Esquire magazine.
Harrison received both critical and popular acclaim for Legends of the Fall, a collection of three novellas. Although differing in plot and subject matter, these pieces are bound by a common focus on obsession, revenge, and violence. The novellas comprising The Woman Lit by Fireflies are distinguished by their disparate depictions of characters undergoing a midlife crisis. In the title story, an unhappy, middle-aged woman named Clare escapes from a rest stop into a corn field while travelling across Iowa with her husband. Her newfound freedom is tempered by a lonely, rainy night fraught with self-evaluation, self-discovery, and the onslaught of a migraine headache. In Julip, Harrison's third collection, the three novellas concentrate on the war between the sexes. In the title story, a strong young woman eventually frees her brother from jail after an arduous adventure with three ex-lovers. Critics lauded Harrison's creation of a complex, heroic female protagonist and noted the complementary nature of the stories contained in the volume.
Some commentators deride Harrison's protagonists for their adherence to antiquated codes of honor, asserting it often results in unrealistic, exaggerated instances of machismo. Critics usually concur that Harrison's success as a short fiction writer derives from his poetic talents, including his economic language, apt phrasing, and structural experimentation. Joseph Coates maintains that Harrison's "combination of poetic attentiveness to detail with the exemplary commonplaceness of the life he has continued to lead gives his work a genuine mythopoeic quality that is rare, if not unique, among contemporary American writers."
Legends of the Fall 1979
The Woman Lit by Fireflies 1990
Other Major Works
Plain Song (poetry) 1965
Locations (poetry) 1968
Outlyer and Ghazals (poetry) 1971
Wolf: A False Memoir (novel) 1971
A Good Day to Die (novel) 1973
Letters to Yesinin (poetry) 1973
Farmer (novel) 1976
Returning to Earth (poetry) 1977
Warlock (novel) 1981
Selected & New Poems 1961-1981 (poetry) 1982
Sundog (novel) 1984
Dalva (novel) 1988
Theory and Practice of Rivers and New Poems (poetry) 1989
Just before Dark (nonfiction) 1991
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SOURCE: "Three Novellas: Violent Means," in The New York Times Book Review, June 17, 1979, pp. 14, 27.
[Bourjaily is an American novelist and critic. In the following review of Legends of the Fall, he notes the effective manner in which Harrison establishes "credibility" in creating a sense of epic legend within the short story format.]
Writing novellas presents a problem easier to describe than to solve. What is needed is the intensity, steady focus and single mood of a short story, along with the full statement made in a novel, where the reader should sense that everything that matters has been said.
In "Legends of the Fall," the title piece and best of Jim Harrison's collection of three novellas—and it seems fair to rank them good, better and best—the usual way of combining intensity and breadth is discarded with engaging recklessness. In place of a single point of view and a restriction of time, place, number of scenes and characters, Mr. Harrison delivers, in 87 pages, a complete twogeneration family saga, set chiefly in Montana but with a cast large enough to populate episodes in Canada, France, Boston, Saratoga, San Francisco, Mexico, Havana, Mombasa and Singapore.
"Legends of the Fall" begins: "Late in October 1914 three brothers rode from Choteau, Montana to Calgary, Alberta to enlist in the Great War. . . ." In that sentence, Mr. Harrison discloses...
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SOURCE: "Junk Food," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 229, No. 1, July 7, 1979, pp. 23-4.
[Keith Opdahl is an American critic and author. In the following review of Legends of the Fall, he praises stylistic aspects of Harrison's novellas but challenges his depiction of the plight of the American male.]
It's as though William Butler Yeats had written a scenario for Sam Peckinpah. Or as though James Dickey had done a Western—though Dickey wraps the violence in Deliverance in a context that attempts to explain and redeem it, while Jim Harrison gives the pure, raw, macho daydream. Harrison's three long stories are full of silent men and lovely women who desire to be ravaged. The bad guys are nightmare figures with names like "Slats" who just won't listen to reason. You have to zap them hard.
What is it about these purely evil characters? Do we turn to them because of their simplicity? Some atavistic belief in evil? In Dickey's novel the middle-class men are forced to become violent, and the memory of their classy cars and tiled kitchens makes the brutal state of nature shocking. So this is what happens when you drop out of Rotary! But in Harrison such contrasts melt away. The violence is a norm a daydream, a fantasy of male power that we could call adolescent if it weren't so clearly middle-aged. The 40-year-old with his waning powers must be as anxious as the...
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SOURCE: "Wilfully Waffling," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4017, March 21, 1980, p. 326.
[In the following review, Scannell presents a negative assessment of Legends of the Fall.]
"Legends of the Fall" is the title story of a volume containing three novellas by Jim Harrison who, the blurb tells us, "has already won literary acclaim in the States for his poetry and novels". The jacket also carries some extracts from admiring American reviewers of the book, including these words from that notable arbiter of literary excellence, Playboy: "These three novellas are so good and so well crafted, it's a little scary . . . You have to be very goddamned good to write that way."
It is perhaps worth quoting the opening sentence of the first of the stories "Revenge": "You could not tell if you were a bird descending (and there was a bird descending, a vulture) if the naked man was dead or alive." What Harrison wishes to say is clear enough—though it took me two or three readings to be quite sure—but the manner of its saying is extraordinarily clumsy, and indeed an elephantine clumsiness is a feature of this author's style. It seems that he is resolved not to say anything directly, and his painful circumlocutions and torturing of syntax are not so much evidence of the writer's "intolerable wrestle with words and meanings" as a self-conscious attempt to claim a depth of thought and...
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SOURCE: A review of Legends of the Fall, in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 17, No. 4, Fall, 1980, pp. 504-06.
[In the following laudatory review, Grinnell provides a thematic analysis of Legends of the Fall.]
Jim Harrison writes with that clear precision of an experienced hunter who, with a razor sharp knife, can not only field dress a deer but also can skin the hide and membrane from the carcass and leave only venison and bones from what was, a few short hours before, an alive and graceful animal.
I begin with this image intentionally for it typifies both the style and substance of Harrison's prose in the three lengthy stories that constitute Legends of the Fall. These three stories are not for the faint of heart, for there is much death and violence here. Harrison's prose is what Sam Peckinpah's films are to cinema, only better. His writing is rather like that dressed-out deer, raw meat and bones—not fat and tallow. His fiction is almost pure narrative with virtually no dialogue.
The first story in the collection, "Revenge," speaks of a retired air-force officer, Cochran, who has been beaten and left for dead in a Mexican desert after having had an affair with the wife of a ruthless and wealthy Mexican friend. Though affluent, the characters are drawn (and sometimes nearly quartered) against a milieu of Darwinian starkness—only the crafty and tough...
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SOURCE: "'A Good Day to Live', The Prose Works of Jim Harrison," in Great Lakes Review, Central Michigan University, Vol. 8, No. 2, Fall, 1982, pp. 29-37.
[In the following excerpt, Roberson examines the themes and characters of Legends of the Fall.]
The basic theme in Harrison's prose is the individual's attempt to come to terms with, and to survive in, contemporary society. Modern life is depicted as shapeless. Society inevitably provides no stability or security for the individual. He must create his own sense of meaning and belonging by finding something to personally place his faith in, an event or belief that will give his life form. Harrison's characters are wanters and dreamers, existing on the edge of failure, their dreams perverted by the reality of contemporary society, but possessing an ability to survive. The support that is lacking in society, but is necessary for their survival, is often found in nature or natural or primitive activities—rituals. In the general sickness and confusion of modern life, stability and a joy of living are derived from physical pleasures and an immersion into the natural world. Central to the characters' attempt to live with purpose is their understanding that death offers nothing: "one first realizes one is alive and that like all other living creatures one has a beginning, a middle and a terribly certain end." Death in Harrison's work emphasizes life. Life is...
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SOURCE: An interview in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 237, No. 31, August 3, 1990, pp. 59-60.
[In the following interview, Harrison discusses his writing career and the major themes and characters of his work.]
Though he spent brief periods in New York and Boston during his restless youth and though his riotous visits to Key West, Fla., and Hollywood with his friend Tom McGuane have been the subject of numerous journalistic accounts, Jim Harrison's home has always been in northern Michigan. He and his wife, Linda, live on a farm about 50 miles as the crow flies from Grayling, where he grew up. It's only a short drive from their house to Lake Michigan, across which lies the Upper Peninsula, even more rural and remote, where Harrison has a cabin he retreats to in the warmer weather—"Summer," wisecracks a character in his new book, The Woman Lit by Fireflies, . . . "being known locally as three months of bad sledding."
The initial reason Harrison decided to return to the Mid-west was financial. "After my first book was published [the poetry collection Plain Song, in 1965] we had nearly 15 years where I averaged only 10 grand a year," he says candidly. "I needed a place with a low overhead."
But there was more to it than that; when Legends of the Fall, a trio of novellas released in 1979, added a measure of economic security to his already...
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SOURCE: "Bedrock Americana," in Chicago Tribune, August 12, 1990, p. 1, 4.
[In the following review, Coates examines the plots, characters, and themes of The Woman Lit by Fireflies.]
For almost the last 20 years, Jim Harrison has been developing into one of our finest novelists, even though he declines to live what late 20th Century America considers to be a writer's life, which these days usually revolves around the universities with their MFA programs and teaching jobs.
Harrison remains essentially the same man who spent years "at manual labor as a block layer, a carpenter, a digger of well pits," as he indicated in a Paris Review interview a few years ago, and he believes "that rural, almost white-trash element . . . stood me in good stead as an artist, in the great variety of life it forced me into. . . ." He legitimately has the kind of resumé that writers used to display on the jacket, of their first novels: Mr. So-and-So has worked as a bartender, bricklayer, census-taker and member of a magazine subscription crew.
As a result, Harrison writes the kind of bedrock Americana that Hemingway might have turned out if he had come home from the Great War, moved up in Michigan and stayed there, with occasional side trips to Key West, Idaho and other points west. He is a poet who wrote his first eccentric novel (Wolf) during the enforced ennui of being in...
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SOURCE: "Women's Intimations," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 19, 1990, pp. 1, 5.
[Freeman is an American novelist and critic. In the following essay, she provides a positive assessment of The Woman Lit by Fireflies.]
Having now published six novels, seven books of poetry and two collections of novellas, Jim Harrison has reached a wonderful place in his writing. There was always great strength to his novels and stories, a compelling sense of movement and character, prose marked by clarity and beautifully eclectic erudition, ribaldry and humor. Set in the West and Midwest, his stories feature rebel characters, outsiders living close to nature, dissolute in their appetite for alcohol and women but guided by a strong conscience and a penchant for honesty.
With his last two books, something else has graced the work, a tender, almost androgynous understanding of the human condition, which allows him to write convincingly in either a male or female voice, widening even further the range of his work.
This was most evident in Dalva, published two years ago—a novel written largely from the perspective of a woman who is searching for the son she gave up for adoption 20 years earlier. In Dalva, Harrison wrote: "Most women have intimations of a higher fidelity to the spirit and to a love beyond human weakness and imperfection." In a sense, it is to that...
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SOURCE: "The Shapes and Textures of 3 Lives," in The New York Times, August 28, 1990, p. C16.
[In the following review, Kakutani offers a thematic analysis of the three novellas comprising The Woman Lit by Fireflies.]
Although they have almost nothing else in common, the three protagonists in Jim Harrison's new collection of novellas [The Woman Lit by Fireflies] are all at turning points in their lives. Having somehow managed to reach middle age without too many bouts of introspection, they suddenly find themselves forced—by circumstance or self-doubt—to reassess their lives, and the reader is invited to listen in on their efforts to come to terms with the past. Each of the stories is told, with varying degrees of effectiveness, in a series of dreamlike flashbacks and flash-forwards that cut back and forth in time. Each is meant to convey the shape and texture of a life caught in medias res.
The title character of the first tale, "Brown Dog," will be instantly familiar to readers of the author's earlier books. Brown Dog, or B. D., as he is called by some of his pals, is another one of those macho men of the wilderness who are fond of solitude, alcohol and women (in more or less that order). . . .
As he has done so many times before, Mr. Harrison conjures up life in the Michigan wilderness in strong, authoritative prose, and he proves equally adept at...
(The entire section is 886 words.)
SOURCE: "Love for the Proper Outlaw," in The New York Times Book Review, September 16, 1990, p. 13.
[In the following favorable review of The Woman Lit by Fireflies, Houston explores stylistic and thematic aspects of the three novellas.]
A dozen years ago, Jim Harrison published a collection called Legends of the Fall, which may well be the best set of novellas to appear in this country during the last quarter-century. But if [The Woman Lit By Fireflies,] which also consists of three novellas, doesn't move at the breakneck speed of its predecessor, there's no cause for Harrison fans to become alarmed. No writer who tries to extend his range, as good writers must, can allow himself to repeat effects only because they worked well the first time around. The Woman Lit by Fireflies demonstrates, in fact, a powerful talent in search of its limits.
All three novellas explore, to varying extents, a familiar Harrison theme, which is summed up in a line one of his characters remembers from a Robert Duncan poem: "Foremost we admire the outlaw / who has the strength of his own / lawfulness."
In the first story, a rogue tale called "Brown Dog," the narrator is literally an outlaw, if only a petty one—a fellow called B. D., shortened from the nickname Brown Dog, which was given to him by his Chippewa neighbors in Michigan's Upper Peninsula when he was a...
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SOURCE: A review of The Woman Lit by Fireflies, in People Weekly, Vol. 34, No. 17, October 29, 1990, p. 36-7.
[Below, Rozen offers a mixed review of The Woman Lit by Fireflies.]
Jim Harrison writes like a tough guy with a soft heart. His novels and short stories are about men and women living, as best they can, by antiquated codes of honor they often must adapt to modern life. In Harrison's better works, including A Good Day to Die, Legends of the Fall and Dalva, he combines rigorous prose and a romantic streak. When he misses, he can come across like a winner in a bad-Hemingway contest.
Both Harrisons are on display in this book, which contains three extended short stories. Each depicts people hoping to come to terms with, and then move beyond, the past. "Brown Dog" is a raucous, funny and, in the end, moving tale of a ne'er-do-well in Michigan who tries to make his fortune by selling the frozen corpse of an Indian he finds in Lake Superior. "Sunset Limited" is about a group of ex-college radicals trying to save a jailed buddy in Mexico. The title story is about a middle-aged woman who leaves her longtime husband.
"Sunset" is the real problem. It reads like a screenplay, or rather, like the byproduct of Harrison's taking one too many meetings with Hollywood story executives (maybe in connection with "Revenge," the turkey with Kevin Costner...
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SOURCE: "Jim Harrison's Misfits: A Fatherless Woman, an Upper Peninsula Rogue and a Victimized Academic," in Chicago Tribune, May 8, 1994, p. 5.
[In the following mixed review of the three novellas comprising Julip, Cheuse praises the engaging qualities of "Julip" and "The Seven-Ounce Man" but deems "The Beige Dolorosa" disappointing.]
It's a rare thing when it works, but Jim Harrison wants to have it both ways—to write successfully as a novelist and a poet—and he does. Six novels and three collections of novellas, counting this new book, eight volumes of poetry and a collection of nonfiction in the last few decades add up to one of the most interesting and entertaining bodies of work by any writer of his generation.
Looking back at Harrison's fiction, one sees some books still burning brightly while others have sputtered out. Along with the novels Sundog and Dalva, the novellas in Legends of the Fall, particularly the title work, show off a writer at the height of his powers. Legends of the Fall is at once an epical gesture toward our great romance with the West and an acutely modern critique of those same myths—again, Harrison wants it both ways. This intense and engaging story breaks a lot of the rules of narrative (so much exposition, so little time) even as it makes new space in the imagination for the realms of manhood and sorrow....
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SOURCE: "The Macho Chronicles," in The New York Times Book Review, May 22, 1994, p. 41.
[Agee is an American novelist and critic. In the following essay, he offers a laudatory review of Julip, in particular commending the characterization and narrative voice in the three novellas.]
More than any other writer today, Jim Harrison has been saddled by the critics with Hemingway's ghost. While it is true that Mr. Harrison's best work depicts, as did Hemingway's, individuals facing the uncertainty of the future with sheer will in a natural setting, his new collection of novellas, Julip, recasts such myths of male initiation and redemption. Finally, Mr. Harrison has exorcised the ghost and, in the process, established himself as a genuinely comic writer.
All three novellas are set in American landscapes traditionally used as testing grounds for men: the fishing waters of the South, the hunting woods of the North and the cattle ranches of the West. But, as Mr. Harrison comically demonstrates, the mythology of maleness often fails; appropriately enough, it is a woman, Julip, in the novella that bears her name, who comes most decisively to wisdom.
The hero of the second novella, "The Seven-Ounce Man," isn't fooled by any myth of nature, either, and, while he doesn't mind hard physical labor, he has to have his weekly forays to the local bar, cavorting with the...
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SOURCE: "At Home in the World," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 14, 1994, p. 8.
[Cherry is an American poet, fiction writer, and essayist. In the following, she favorably reviews Julip, characterizing the three novellas in the collection as a triptych whose "motifs and references recur, patterning a book as artistically whole as it is emotionally revivifying. "]
How life gets into art is mysterious and miraculous. A writer shapes some fictional clay, breathes a few words and then—maybe!—the clay stands up and goes for a walk. Jim Harrison's new book, Julip, performs this amazing act of creation three times, in three novellas that seize us by the hand and take us on three different paths through the world.
In the title novella, we experience the world among women; in "The Seven-Ounce Man" we experience a Native American world; and in "The Beige Dolorosa" we visit a largely Latino world. What is surpassingly wonderful is that all three fictional experiences are so lively. Rollicking and sad, hilarious and startlingly sweet, smart and never cynical, these are stories that remind us no life should be overlooked or taken for granted.
In the first novella "Julip," a young woman who trains dogs and keeps three older men on a tighter leash than they know, is not "particularly pretty or classically handsome" but "vivid, immediate, and [has] almost...
(The entire section is 879 words.)