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.