Harrison, Jim (Vol. 143)
Jim Harrison 1937-
(Full name James Thomas Harrison; has also written under the name James Harrison) American novelist, poet, essayist, screenplay writer, illustrator, young adult writer, and critic.
The following entry provides an overview of Harrison's career through 2000. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 6, 14, 33, and 66.
Often considered a unique and experimental writer, Harrison has reworked many literary forms such as the memoir, the adventure story, historical fiction, romance, and poetry. Most of Harrison's works contain vivid images of the wilderness, hunting, fishing, and other outdoor activities. He frequently employs allusion and figurative language in his narratives which offer energetic and humorous accounts of displacement, violence, sexuality, and the destruction of the environment. Harrison's blend of rural colloquialisms, affinity for understatement, metaphysical speculations, and natural images have helped him to create thoroughly multidimensional stories and poems.
Born in 1937 in northern Michigan, in the rural town of Grayling, Harrison was raised surrounded by forests, rivers, and wildlife—images which abound in both his poetry and prose. He began writing poetry in college, and published his first poetry collection, Plain Song (1965), while studying for his Master of Arts degree at Michigan State University. He decided to write a novel during a period of immobility that occurred after he fall from a cliff while bird-hunting. That novel, Wolf: A False Memoir (1971), successfully launched his fiction writing career, but he did not gain significant financial success until the release of Legends of the Fall, a trio of novellas, in 1979. He continues to write poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, and also enjoys a busy career as a screenwriter. He maintains a residence in northern Michigan, at a farm located fifty miles north of Grayling, and owns a cabin in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where he retreats during warmer weather to write.
Harrison began his writing career as a poet. He has experimented with various poetic forms throughout his eleven poetry collections. In Locations (1968), his second volume of poetry, Harrison created his own versions of the suite, a lyrical form related to musical composition, and also created modified variations of the ghazal, a grouping of couplets first used in ancient Persia. Harrison received scant critical acclaim until the publication of his first work of fiction, Wolf. This story focuses on a disillusioned young man who abandons urban life in exchange for a less complex life in the woods of northern Michigan. Wolf addresses man's struggle for identity in modern American society. This theme is further explored in A Good Day to Die (1973) and Farmer (1975). Legends of the Fall contains novellas widely differing in terms of plot and subject matter, but all three works are bound by a common focus on revenge, obsession, sex, and violence. Warlock (1981) and Sundog (1984) also share a common theme; that of man's struggle with himself. Both stories focus on middle-aged men who overindulge in eating, drinking, and their relationships with women. Harrison's work is frequently compared to that of Ernest Hemingway, due to the abundance of outdoor imagery, strong male characters, vast physical appetites, and the emphasis on travel in both authors' work. Dalva (1988) marked a departure for Harrison, as the book turns away from the exploration of male concerns and instead focuses on a strong female character as the protagonist. Although Dalva possesses characteristics that are generally considered as “male” traits (such as having a love for the outdoors, exhibiting a strong bond with wildlife, and an affinity for sexual promiscuity), readers generally received Dalva as a well-drawn feminine protagonist. Harrison continued to create strong female voices in the title novellas from the collections The Woman Lit by Fireflies (1990) and Julip (1994). Harrison's novel The Road Home (1998) further develops the story of Dalva and her family.
Harrison's poetry has typically been favorably received and commentators frequently praise his poetic skills. Reaction to his novels and shorter fiction has been mixed. Some critics disparage Harrison's male protagonists for their adherence to antiquated codes of honor and exaggerated instances of machismo. His earlier novels and novellas primarily deal with male-centered issues, and his early audiences tended to be largely male. Many detractors consider much of his writing to be sexist. However, with the publication of Dalva, Harrison was lauded for his ability to write a compassionate story with a believable and strong female protagonist. Dalva expanded his readership to include both men and women, and signified a change in some critics' preconceived ideas about Harrison's work. While some find his verbiage to be clumsy, most reviewers agree that Harrison's success with the short story form derives from his strong poetic talents, which include an economy of language, apt phrasing, and structural experimentation. His considerable wit and self-deprecating attitude also contribute to a natural narrative style that has been widely acclaimed.
Plain Song (poetry) 1965
Locations (poetry) 1968
Walking (poetry) 1969
Outlyer and Ghazals (poetry) 1971
*Wolf: A False Memoir (novel) 1971
A Good Day to Die (novel) 1973
Letters to Yesenin (poetry) 1973
Farmer (novel) 1975
Legends of the Fall (novellas) 1979
Returning to Earth (poetry) 1979
Warlock (novel) 1981
Selected and New Poems 1961–1981 (poetry) 1982
Sundog: The Story of an American Foreman, Robert Corvus Strang, as Told by Jim Harrison (novel) 1984
The Theory and Practice of Rivers (poetry) 1986
Dalva (novel) 1988
The Theory and Practice of Rivers and New Poems (poetry) 1989
The Woman Lit by Fireflies (novellas) 1990
Just before Dark (nonfiction) 1991
Julip (novellas) 1994
After Ikkyu and Other Poems (poetry) 1996
The Road Home (novel) 1998
The Shape of the Journey: New and Collected Poems (poetry) 1998
The Beast God Forgot to Invent (novel) 2000
The Boy Who Ran to the...
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SOURCE: “Wilfully Waffling,” in Times Literary Supplement, March 21, 1980, p. 326.
[In the following review, Scannell finds Legends of the Fall to be a horribly written book.]
“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...
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SOURCE: “Fantasist in the Shopping-Mall,” in Times Literary Supplement, January 15, 1982, p. 48.
[In the following review, Treadwell mentions that although Warlock is somewhat lacking in plot, it is ambitious and is salvaged by Harrison's incredible wit.]
Warlock is a comic novel which rests on the premise that beneath the slick and sophisticated surface of American life the old nature gods still exercise their capricious power. This fauns-in-the-shopping-mall territory has been explored before, by writers as various as John Cheever, Peter De Vries and John Irving, but the landscape is a rich one, and to it Jim Harrison has brought a fresh and original eye.
Johnny Lundgren, the novel's central character, is forty-two and lives in rural Northern Michigan with Diana, his glamorous second wife. He has worked as an executive for a family foundation but the revenue authorities have come to view these institutions as elaborate tax-avoidance schemes, and Lundgren has been unemployed for a year, living on his wife's earnings as a nurse. Lundgren leads an elaborate fantasy life centered on his private identity as “Warlock”, a secret name given him in boyhood during a cub-scout initiation ceremony. As the novel opens, he is emerging from a powerful and mysterious dream at the climax of which a voice from the earth has commanded him to change his future. He finds the idea a...
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SOURCE: “Myth and Reality in Jim Harrison's Warlock,” in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. 25, No. 3, Spring, 1984, pp. 147-53.
[In the following essay, Gilligan discusses Harrison's subtle and overt uses of mythology in Warlock.]
Jim Harrison's recent book, Warlock (1981), resists critical analysis because it is so obviously so many things at the same time. A sexy trip through the mythology of middle-age, it stops along the way to poke at art history (“The Great Gaugin would have had the girls back in his studio in a trice”) and at artists (“He dressed for a stroll, then endured the manic indecision of putting on and taking off the beret a dozen times”), at religion (“the god of the Brownian movement had stretched his loins otherwise”), at the social significance of food (“Many of the problems the world has had with Germany in the past century, he felt, could be traced to this leaden, fascistic diet”), and at American society (“nearly all of the huge institutions of the Midwest were not so much universities as jerrybuilt vocational centers providing bumwads for the economy”).1 And Harrison finds time to comment on the humanity of used-car salesmen, the insensitivity of large dogs, the weather patterns of northern Michigan, the brotherhood of cops and the brotherhood of crooks, the oddities of sexual inversions and perversions, the dangers and...
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SOURCE: “When Tough Guys Touch Middle Age,” in Washington Post Book World, June 17, 1984, p. 5.
[In the following review, Drabelle expresses disappointment in Sundog, asserting that Harrison's new style of story telling lacks the honesty of his earlier style.]
At about midpoint in his new novel [Sundog], Jim Harrison frames a simile of Virgilian beauty that sums up much of his work. In the Caribbean he used to watch the tide go out through a channel. “The sun-blasted shallow water yields up nearly everything it holds in a swimming, tumbling stream. … The rearrival on the incoming tide is much more gradual and ordered, a processional, much like the paradigm of our own early years, which appear so painfully slow when we live them. No one is ready, it seems, for the loss of control, the ineluctable character of acceleration that gathers around the later years.”
Growing old is one of Harrison's preoccupations, and few other Americans write so perceptively about middle-aged men. His protagonists tend to have outsized appetites for food, drink, and sex; waistlines slackening for the last, irretrievable time; and chronic insomnia. Even so, there is a charming courtesy about them. Still earnest, they pursue an accommodation with decline, seek the Tao of Pushing Fifty.
Sundog features two such men, Harrison himself, who serves as narrator, and...
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SOURCE: “Call of the Wild,” in New Statesman, August 23, 1985, p. 28.
[In the following excerpt, Deveson questions the hero-worshipping aspects contained in Sundog.]
Here, in one week, are two novels each of which is an exercise in a very American kind of hero-worship involving swimming at night in the icy waters of Wisconsin and the northern Michigan wilderness. In Jim Harrison's Sundog the narrator, a professional writer, travels beyond the Straits of Mackinac to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to seek out a man who is not only eccentric and remarkable but is clearly needed by the self-disguised writer as a superman before whom to demean himself. The narrator has been challenged: ‘You might try writing about someone who actually does something.’
Well, Strang, the man of action, has preached at tent meetings, has built huge dams in the jungles of Africa and Latin America, has left wives and mistresses and prostitutes scattered around the globe and dispenses casual macho erudition about machines, rivers, concrete, tropical diseases, fish, ‘wholeness, harmony and radiance’. His beautiful Costa Rican ‘daughter’ slinks around his remote log house wearing a minuscule bikini, practicing her dancing and arousing the lust and envy of the over-eating, voyeuristic, womanless ‘I’.
Strang suffers from epileptic seizures; he has taken Amerindian...
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SOURCE: “Epic America in a Woman's Quest,” in New York Times, March 9, 1988, p. C25
[In the following favorable review of Dalva, Kakutani compliments Harrison's narrative abilities.]
Nearly a decade ago, Jim Harrison wrote “Legends of the Fall,” a fluently orchestrated novella, whose brief pages opened out to disclose epic vistas: Through one family's fortunes, a full half-century of American history stood revealed. Now, after several novels that proved either less ambitious (Warlock) or less persuasive (Sundog), Mr. Harrison has returned to some of the themes and narrative methods that served him so well in “Legends.”
In his latest novel, Dalva, he attempts to give us a mythic portrait of America—from the Indian wars of the last century through the confusions of Vietnam and the cynicism of the 1980's—by chronicling the life and memories of a single woman. Through the prism of her experience, we see refracted the events that shaped five generations of her pioneer family; and through their adventures, the fierce (and often bloody) forces that helped transform the wild innocence of this continent into the country we know today.
As she almost immediately informs us, Dalva received her unusual name after her parents listened to—and fell in love with—a Portuguese song called “Estrella Dalva” or “Morning Star.” And the...
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SOURCE: “The Literary Seductions of a Macho Woman,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 10, 1988, p. 12.
[In the following review, Jones-Davis praises Harrison's novel Dalva for being a compassionate story with well-drawn characters.]
Dalva has kept a light burning in her heart for a dead husband of less than a day; for her father lost in Korea, and most of all, it seems, for the Sioux nation driven out of their rich Nebraska grasslands a century ago. She comes from a family strangely at home among the dead. She's inherited a farmhouse from a beloved grandfather that is more than adjacent to a gardenlike cemetery full of ancestors; in the house itself, death maintains a terrifying, literal presence.
Jim Harrison's new novel, Dalva, is not a story of the supernatural, but it is a tale about ghosts, haunting, about the continuing presence of those departed from this world. It is also the story of a remarkably modern woman's search for her son relinquished at his birth. At the same time, it is the saga of a fascinating, eccentric pioneer befriended by the beleaguered native peoples of the Plains at the time that their world is closing in on them.
I've never read another Harrison novel, but I've spoken with several men—writer John Nichols among them—who are passionate fans of his work. His books that are repeatedly recommended are Legends of...
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SOURCE: “PW Interviews: Jim Harrison,” in Publishers Weekly, August 3, 1990, pp. 59-60.
[In the following interview, Smith delves into Harrison's past to discuss his published works and screenplays.]
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, out this month from Houghton Mifflin/Seymour Lawrence (Fiction Forecasts, June 1), “being known locally as three months of bad sledding.”
The initial reason Harrison decided to return to the Midwest 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...
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SOURCE: “The Macho Chronicles,” in New York Times Book Review, May 22, 1994, p. 41.
[In the following review, Agee describes the three novellas contained in Julip and the prevalent themes that the stories share.]
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 waitresses because “women still beat the hell out of men to be...
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SOURCE: “At Home in the World,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 14, 1994, p. 8.
[In the following review, Cherry finds that the novellas contained in Julip, are beautifully written and fit well together as a collection.]
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 involuntarily filled out her life to its limits, moment by moment, with a rare emotional energy.” She is determined to have...
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SOURCE: “Seeking New Frontiers,” in Times Literary Supplement, November 25, 1994, p. 20.
[In the following review, Harrison analyzes the prevalent themes of sex, wildlife, nature, and escapism in Julip.]
The novella is an unfashionable and indeterminate form: is it a short novel or a long short story? What can a writer do with it, that cannot be achieved more concisely or completely in its shorter or longer cousin? The answer, in Jim Harrison's Julip, is a tremendous amount. The book consists of three sections, “Julip”, “The Seven Ounce Man” and “The Beige Dolorosa”, which are linked by the shared concerns of the main characters—sex, animals and escape—and by the inversions which Harrison subtly brings about. The eponymous heroine of the first story has three lovers all in their fifties. Bobby, Julip's brother, one year younger than her at twenty-one, has inflicted minor injuries on them with a gun. He is imprisoned in Raiford, obviously mad, and Julip must secure the consent of her lovers to move him to a psychiatric hospital, rather than prison, until he is better.
“The Beige Dolorosa”, the third story, finds fifty-year-old Philip Caulkins, a disgraced English professor, working as a cowpoke in Arizona. He gets mixed up with Magdalena, a tempestuously sexy young woman, and ends up alone in Mexico, the back of his truck full of statues of the Virgin Mary,...
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SOURCE: “A Conversation with Jim Harrison” in Northwest Review, Vol. 33, No. 2, 1995, pp. 106-18.
[In the following interview, Harrison and Bednarik discuss topics such as Harrison's poetry, his love of nature, and his philosophical outlook on life.]
Depending on whom you ask, Jim Harrison is a poet writing novels, a novelist writing screenplays, a gourmand writing passionate articles about red wine and garlic, or an amateur naturalist practicing Zen.
In late April, 1994, Harrison set foot in San Francisco as part of a reading tour for Julip, his latest trilogy of novellas. The morning after his “fandango” (as he called it) we were due to meet in his hotel room. A privacy please sign was hanging from the doorknob, but since we had an appointment I knocked. Harrison opened to a room accented by American Spirit cigarette smoke, a tray of dirty breakfast dishes, and the metallic rumble of trolley cars. “The trolley's a little noisy but I got to like the trolley.”
When we talked earlier that week, I suggested he visit the San Francisco Public Library to see the permanent murals painted by Gottardo Piazzoni, the grandfather of Russell Chatham—the landscape painter who provides the cover art for all of Harrison's books.
[Bednarik:] Did you get a chance to see the Piazzoni murals?
[Harrison:] No I...
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SOURCE: A review of Julip, in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 33, No. 1, Winter, 1996, pp. 126-27.
[In the following review, Locklin praises Harrison's collection of novellas Julip, giving special praise to the novella entitled “The Beige Dolorosa.”]
I loved the movie version of Jim Harrison's novella, “Legends of the Fall”, and I knew many Eastern critics would not. The novella is a good length for adaptation, and Harrison is as comfortable with the form—this is his third volume of three—as anyone writing today, but one of the last tacitly condoned biases is that of the East against the West, and it flourishes ironically among those who would be most at pain to dissociate themselves from the more conventional prejudices. Harrison still investigates frontier (and erstwhile transcendentalist) categories such as self-reliance, honor, courage, masculinity, and womanhood, whereas the very word manhood evokes derision in many circles today. The less ideological common moviegoer, however, responded deeply to the film's archetypes.
But there are many sides to the stories Harrison spins. “Julip,” for instance, depicts the absurd lengths to which traditional male values may be taken and that it often falls to a capable woman to unravel the complications created by men. Julip's addled brother has landed himself behind bars after a botched attempt to avenge her...
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SOURCE: “Eat Drink Man Woman,” in New York Times Book Review, January 3, 1999, p. 15.
[In the following review, Veale favorably reviews The Shape of the Journey: New and Collected Poems, stating that Harrison's poetry is graceful and in tune with nature.]
Jim Harrison is best known for his novels and essays, but in the introduction to The Shape of the Journey: New and Collected Poems he maintains that poetry “is the portion of my life that means the most to me.” In fact, Harrison has published nearly as many books of poetry as prose, from the youthfully expansive Plain Song (1965) to the Zen-inflected After Ikkyu (1996). This large collection, which also includes a new grab bag of nature verse and prose poems called “Geo-Bestiary,” has a meandering feel, although Harrison's concerns—aging, women, eating and drinking, hunting, the craft of writing and above all the spirit and rhythms of the natural world—are remarkably constant, as are his intentions: “In our poetry we want to rub our nose hard / into whatever is before it; to purge / these dreams of pictures, photos, phantom people.” His voice is obsessively unaffected and colloquial, which is surprising for someone so quick to acknowledge his lifelong debt to poets as diverse as Apollinaire, Rimbaud, Li Po and Keats, and who experiments with Buddhist-inspired verse and obscure poetic forms like ghazels....
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SOURCE: A review of The Shape of the Journey: New and Collected Poems, in World Literature Today, Vol. 73, No. 4, Autumn, 1999, p. 742.
[In the following review, Oser describes his mixed feelings about Harrison's The Shape of the Journey: New and Collected Poems. While he admires Harrison's wit and “warts and all” mentality, he finds fault with Harrison's technique and tendency to rant.]
As a whopping book by an American poet, Jim Harrison's Shape of the Journey comes in the tradition of Leaves of Grass and The Cantos. In other words, you get the whole man here, blotches and brilliance, bathed in a kind of epic grandeur. And what Pound said of Whitman, we can generally say for Harrison: “He is America. … He is disgusting. He is an exceedingly nauseating pill, but he accomplishes his mission. … He is a genius because he has a vision of what he is and of his function.” Whitman and Pound and Harrison are not only heirs of the ages; they are rebels against American Calvinism.
I respect any author who can mine his world for gold. Still, my response to this collection is ambivalence. It was probably a hankering after completeness that led Harrison to include his first, very voting book, 1965's Plain Song. For this reader, the influence of Robert Bly on the early Harrison dates him—like an echoey sound-effect on a 1960s record....
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SOURCE: “Jim Harrison, Soul-Maker,” in Midwest Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 2, Winter, 2000, pp. 191-207.
[In the following essay, McClintock gives examples of the influences of psychologist James Hillman and poet John Keats on Harrison's writing.]
The jackets on Jim Harrison's books used to note that he lives in northern Michigan and “is a keen fisherman” and “bird hunter.” They don't now, not even for a work like his collection of essays, Just Before Dark (1991), a third of which is devoted to outdoor sport. The change is wise because Harrison's novels, novellas, poems, and essays have never been merely neo-realist narratives about adventurous men; nevertheless, they have been unfairly criticized for being macho derivatives of Hemingway. That criticism has diminished since Dalva (1988), “The Woman Lit By Fireflies” (1990), and “Julip” (1994), all narratives of women's lives.
Harrison's works, in fact, have always been as much about the interior life of men—and, now, of women—as the external life of action. Harrison has consistently explored the workings of imagination, the nature of consciousness, and the mystery of personality, developing his art in the service of what post-Jungian psychologist James Hillman, and before him the poet John Keats, called “soul-making.” Hillman, an American who spent nearly twenty years at the Jung Institute in...
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Abbott, Raymond. “Savages and Sioux.” New York Times Book Review (12 June 1988): 28.
Abbott explains his dislike for the political views contained in Dalva.
Americana. A review of The Passing: Perspectives of Rural America, by Ferrol Sams and Jim Harrison. Americana 16, No. 6 (January-February 1989): 14.
Provides an overview of the blending of illustrations and stories in The Passing: Perspectives of Rural America.
Beatty, Jack. “Double, Double, Toil and Trouble.” Washington Post Book World (29 November 1981): 4.
In this review, Beatty states that although Harrison's earlier novels may be worthy of praise, Warlock is poorly written.
Harrison, Jim with Kay Bonetti. “An Interview with Jim Harrison.” Missouri Review 8, No. 3 (1985): 65-86.
In this interview, Bonetti and Harrison discuss the autobiographical aspects of Harrison's novels and the thought processes that go into the creation of his stories.
Jerome, John. “Caution: Men Writing.” Washington Post Book World (28 July 1991): 6.
In this review, Jerome compares and contrasts Harrison's Just Before Dark and Andre Dubus' Broken Vessels.
Kauffmann, Stanley. “Stanley Kauffmann on...
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