Jim Harrison Harrison, Jim - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

Legends of the Fall 1979

The Woman Lit by Fireflies 1990

Julip 1994

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

Vance Bourjaily (essay date 1979)

(Short Story Criticism)

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 the method that will enable him to include so much in his novella without having it sound like a synopsis. The opening line establishes both the voice and the manner of the epic story-teller, who deals in great vistas and vast distances. The story will take us through 50 years in the lives of Col. William Ludlow, United States Army, Ret., who knew Custer and escaped Sitting Bull; Ludlow's wife, Isabel, who had an affair with John Reed; and their three sons—one of whom, Tristan, is the novella's main character.

Tristan's adventures include running guns, opium and whisky with his Cornish grandfather's schooner and avenging one brother's death by scalping Germans Indian-style; his surviving brother becomes a United States...

(The entire section is 899 words.)

Keith Opdahl (essay date 1979)

(Short Story Criticism)

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 16-year-old discovering them. Both somehow require the sexuality of gunplay—a weapon, invincible, squirting bullets at all who would do harm. "He lifted the Purdey twelve-gauge shotgun along his leg up through the parting in the robe and blew the two Irishmen into eternity."

And yet Harrison's style can be pretty decent, as you would expect from a man who has published four volumes of poetry. When three brothers ride off to enlist in World War I, for example, Harrison sets the scene.

By first light the wind blew hard against the yellowed aspens, the leaves skittering across the high pasture and burying themselves in a draw. When they forded their first river the leaves of the cottonwoods stripped by the wind caught in the eddies, pasting themselves against the rocks.

Harrison sees the weather and the countryside clearly. He too often doesn't see the characters, and particularly the women. In the first story, "Revenge," the wife who seduced Cochran is vague, which is unforgivable since it is love for her that drives the protagonist. Or is it? You would think, in any case, that Harrison's preference for event over character would make him careful in his plots, but not so. Cochran knows that the husband of his lover is a Mexican millionaire, for example, with gangster connections and the nickname "Shark"—not exactly the kind of man you would want to cuckold. But when the husband sends him an envelope with a one-way ticket to Madrid, Cochran is mystified. One way? Why one way? And why all this cash? "He examined the ticket several times thinking the return might have been left out by mistake." And when he is beaten up during the weekend tryst, Cochran takes it poorly. The husband has overreacted, he feels, and the wife must certainly agree. She has her lips sliced by a razor and is forced to serve the troops in a Mexican whorehouse for a month. These men!

The best of the stories, "The Man Who Gave Up His Name," suggests that Harrison has better fiction within him. The protagonist is a second-generation...

(The entire section is 1458 words.)

Vernon Scannell (essay date 1980)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 544 words.)

James W. Grinnell (essay date 1980)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1071 words.)

William H. Roberson (essay date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2223 words.)

Jim Harrison with Wendy Smith (interview date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2112 words.)

Joseph Coates (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1293 words.)

Judith Freeman (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Michiko Kakutani (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 886 words.)

Robert Houston (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Leah Rozen (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Alan Cheuse (essay date 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 937 words.)

Kelly Cherry (essay date 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

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 entire section is 879 words.)