Jim Harrison Harrison, Jim (Vol. 14) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Harrison, Jim 1937–

Harrison is an American poet and novelist. He is generally considered a poet of the natural world. Sensory images play an important role in his richly descriptive poetry, which is usually set in his native northern Michigan. (See also CLC, Vol. 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

Parkman Howe

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A midlife crisis, as in Oedipus's case, may be distressing; on the other hand, one may discover that an adolescent trauma has simply been delayed several decades.

Take, for example, Joseph, the school teaching hero of Jim Harrison's novel of rural Michigan, "Farmer." Joseph has been teaching 20 years in one of those small farming towns where one's private life and the talk of the town tend to be the same. Joseph has also been courting fellow teacher Rosealee since she was widowed by the Korean War. He has always had plans to marry, but the advent of gorgeous, citified Catherine in Joseph's senior class one September postpones that decision for another academic year.

Melodrama? Undoubtedly Harrison draws hollow distinctions between downtown Catherine and hometown Rosealee. But what annoys a reader most about the farmer's discoveries (marriage is a trap, women always scheme against men's tranquility) is that Harrison manages little ironic distance: Joseph's tribulations are treated with teenage seriousness.

The book does have descriptive passages, nonetheless, which flare up appealingly behind the ghost figures, such as the almost indiscernable, relentless coming on of seasons in upstate Michigan. These are the book's true touches.

Parkman Howe, "Two Novels Accent Self-Discovery," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1977 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), January 27, 1977, p. 23.∗

Hayden Carruth

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[A couple of years ago] Letters to Yesinin, a minor masterpiece, was hardly noticed; it was minor because its mood was so thoroughly bleak that probably it could appeal to only a minor segment of sensibility. But it was magnificently written, and I hope somehow it will still find its proper audience. Harrison's new book, Returning to Earth, seems not quite so successful—perhaps because it is more low-keyed—but still notable. It is a loose sequence of poems and aperçus in which the poet gradually moves away from despair toward a tentative, tenuous acceptance of the natural world, his own world of farm and woodland in northern Michigan. Still, the old pain is dominant—alcoholism, a blind eye, sexual disillusionment, the wrack of the land. "At nineteen I began to degenerate," he writes, meaning, among other things, that then he discovered the degeneration of the world…. It is hard-boiled poetry, some of the best of its kind, and one is not surprised to know that Harrison has written very tough novels and many magazine pieces about sports and outdoor life. His poetic vision is at the heart of it all. To stay alive now is primitivism. And that is the hard best that we can know. (p. 87)

Hayden Carruth, "The Passionate Few," in Harper's (copyright © 1978 by Harper's Magazine; all rights reserved; reprinted from the June, 1978 issue by special permission). Vol. 256, No. 1537, June, 1978, pp. 86-9.∗

Vance Bourjaily

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 two-generation family saga….

The opening line establishes both the voice and the manner of the epic storyteller, who deals in great vistas and vast distances….

There are tragedies, accidental and inflicted, a vendetta against Tristan [the protagonist] by Irish mobsters, insanity—enough melodrama for a thousand-page novel. Yet in a novel, these events might seem too many and too much. In "Legends of the Fall," the steady, singing, epic voice assures and reassures us that we are hearing—as the title claims—legend, not reality. In compression, unexpectedly, lies credibility.

In "Revenge," where Mr. Harrison tries to expand dramatically upon events, he is less successful—although, like "Legends of the Fall," this story begins auspiciously: "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." Here is one author who knows how to word an invitation. (p. 14)

The time span of the story, a tale of violence...

(The entire section is 497 words.)

Keith Opdahl

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 [in Legends of the Fall] 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….

The violence [in Legends of the Fall] is a norm, a daydream, a fantasy of male power that we could call adolescent if it weren't so clearly middle-aged….

And yet Harrison's style can be pretty decent, as you would expect from a man who has published four volumes of poetry. (p. 23)

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….

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 Norwegian named Nordstrom who is emotionally reticent. He is also an American who has found our dream empty, and a somewhat clumsy man who is too sincere, too diligent not to act once he has seen through the sham…. Nordstrom is a moving figure. At 40, divorced, he dances alone in his apartment, trying to get in touch with himself. A cliché? Perhaps, though Harrison has caught something both recognizable and fresh. Nordstrom is too innocent, too efficient, not to seek health.

At the very least, he points to a peculiar result of our melting pot, for when the stiff-lipped children of Northern European immigrants see a Latin mama hugging and crying and loving in the movies, they don't shrug it off, regretting their ancestors didn't use more garlic. They feel cold, deprived, emotionally stunted, or so Harrison suggests. And in this story they do something about it, for Harrison finds his point of departure in the emotional sterility that so many other writers take as their shaping revelation….

This too is fantasy, of course, but it is honest and revealing. Harrison's style is right, too, for it consists mostly of summary, as though we looked from a distance, with a tone that catches the large perspective and mute struggle of the character himself.

But this style cannot redeem the title story,… for it is the crudest fantasy...

(The entire section is 1161 words.)

Anne V. Kish

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Legends of the Fall] is a trilogy of tough, masculine stories reminiscent of Hemingway in terseness of style, sardonic philosophy, and even in heroes who are not too far removed from the much over-used and abused "grace-under pressure" code….

These are three good stories each with a neat epilogue that adds a sense of completeness to the story, each involving fascinatingly rare characters whose singlemindedness, if not their particular brand of grace under pressure, is to be admired.

From the viewpoint of fictional technique, "Revenge" seems the most nearly perfect, not only because the action is limited in time to the few months between the assault and the vengeance, but because the subject matter is confined to the single major thread of revenge. "The Man Who Gave Up His Name" spreads itself a little thinly over twenty years. "Legends of the Fall," which promises the most by virtue of its hero's "supernatural constitution," actually suffers the most simply because it should have been a novel. There is too much time covered, there are too many actions, too many involvements to be squeezed into 81 pages. It should be a trilogy in itself.

Anne V. Kish, "Fiction: 'Legends of the Fall'," in Best Sellers (copyright © 1979 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), Vol. 39, No. 6, September, 1979, p. 197.