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.