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.
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.
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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