Jim Harrison Harrison, Jim (Vol. 143) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Plain Song (poetry) 1965

Locations (poetry) 1968

Walking (poetry) 1969

Outlyer and Ghazals (poetry) 1971

*Wolf: A False Memoir (novel) 1971

A Good Day to Die (novel) 1973

Letters to Yesenin (poetry) 1973

Farmer (novel) 1975

Legends of the Fall (novellas) 1979

Returning to Earth (poetry) 1979

Warlock (novel) 1981

Selected and New Poems 1961–1981 (poetry) 1982

Sundog: The Story of an American Foreman, Robert Corvus Strang, as Told by Jim Harrison (novel) 1984

The Theory and Practice of Rivers (poetry) 1986

Dalva (novel) 1988

The Theory and Practice of Rivers and New Poems (poetry) 1989

The Woman Lit by Fireflies (novellas) 1990

Just before Dark (nonfiction) 1991

Julip (novellas) 1994

After Ikkyu and Other Poems (poetry) 1996

The Road Home (novel) 1998

The Shape of the Journey: New and Collected Poems (poetry) 1998

The Beast God Forgot to Invent (novel) 2000

The Boy Who Ran to the Woods (juvenilia) 2000

*This work was made into the film Wolf (1994), with the screenplay written by Harrison and Wesley Strick.

Vernon Scannell (review date 21 March 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Wilfully Waffling,” in Times Literary Supplement, March 21, 1980, p. 326.

[In the following review, Scannell finds Legends of the Fall to be a horribly written book.]

“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 write that way.”

It is perhaps worth quoting the opening sentence of the first of the stories, “Revenge”: “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.” What Harrison wishes to say is clear enough—though it took me two or three readings to be quite sure—but the manner of its saying is extraordinarily clumsy, and indeed an elephantine clumsiness is a feature of this author's style. It seems that he is resolved not to say anything directly, and his painful circumlocutions and torturing of syntax are not so much evidence of the writer's “intolerable wrestle with words and meanings” as a self-conscious attempt to claim a...

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T. O. Treadwell (review date 15 January 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Fantasist in the Shopping-Mall,” in Times Literary Supplement, January 15, 1982, p. 48.

[In the following review, Treadwell mentions that although Warlock is somewhat lacking in plot, it is ambitious and is salvaged by Harrison's incredible wit.]

Warlock is a comic novel which rests on the premise that beneath the slick and sophisticated surface of American life the old nature gods still exercise their capricious power. This fauns-in-the-shopping-mall territory has been explored before, by writers as various as John Cheever, Peter De Vries and John Irving, but the landscape is a rich one, and to it Jim Harrison has brought a fresh and...

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Thomas Maher Gilligan (essay date Spring 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Myth and Reality in Jim Harrison's Warlock,” in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. 25, No. 3, Spring, 1984, pp. 147-53.

[In the following essay, Gilligan discusses Harrison's subtle and overt uses of mythology in Warlock.]

Jim Harrison's recent book, Warlock (1981), resists critical analysis because it is so obviously so many things at the same time. A sexy trip through the mythology of middle-age, it stops along the way to poke at art history (“The Great Gaugin would have had the girls back in his studio in a trice”) and at artists (“He dressed for a stroll, then endured the manic indecision of putting on and taking off the...

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Dennis Drabelle (review date 17 June 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “When Tough Guys Touch Middle Age,” in Washington Post Book World, June 17, 1984, p. 5.

[In the following review, Drabelle expresses disappointment in Sundog, asserting that Harrison's new style of story telling lacks the honesty of his earlier style.]

At about midpoint in his new novel [Sundog], Jim Harrison frames a simile of Virgilian beauty that sums up much of his work. In the Caribbean he used to watch the tide go out through a channel. “The sun-blasted shallow water yields up nearly everything it holds in a swimming, tumbling stream. … The rearrival on the incoming tide is much more gradual and ordered, a processional, much like the...

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Richard Deveson (review date 23 August 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Call of the Wild,” in New Statesman, August 23, 1985, p. 28.

[In the following excerpt, Deveson questions the hero-worshipping aspects contained in Sundog.]

Here, in one week, are two novels each of which is an exercise in a very American kind of hero-worship involving swimming at night in the icy waters of Wisconsin and the northern Michigan wilderness. In Jim Harrison's Sundog the narrator, a professional writer, travels beyond the Straits of Mackinac to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to seek out a man who is not only eccentric and remarkable but is clearly needed by the self-disguised writer as a superman before whom to demean himself. The...

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Michiko Kakutani (review date 9 March 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Epic America in a Woman's Quest,” in New York Times, March 9, 1988, p. C25

[In the following favorable review of Dalva, Kakutani compliments Harrison's narrative abilities.]

Nearly a decade ago, Jim Harrison wrote “Legends of the Fall,” a fluently orchestrated novella, whose brief pages opened out to disclose epic vistas: Through one family's fortunes, a full half-century of American history stood revealed. Now, after several novels that proved either less ambitious (Warlock) or less persuasive (Sundog), Mr. Harrison has returned to some of the themes and narrative methods that served him so well in “Legends.”


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Georgia Jones-Davis (review date 10 April 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Literary Seductions of a Macho Woman,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 10, 1988, p. 12.

[In the following review, Jones-Davis praises Harrison's novel Dalva for being a compassionate story with well-drawn characters.]

Dalva has kept a light burning in her heart for a dead husband of less than a day; for her father lost in Korea, and most of all, it seems, for the Sioux nation driven out of their rich Nebraska grasslands a century ago. She comes from a family strangely at home among the dead. She's inherited a farmhouse from a beloved grandfather that is more than adjacent to a gardenlike cemetery full of ancestors; in the house itself,...

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Wendy Smith with Jim Harrison (interview date 3 August 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “PW Interviews: Jim Harrison,” in Publishers Weekly, August 3, 1990, pp. 59-60.

[In the following interview, Smith delves into Harrison's past to discuss his published works and screenplays.]

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...

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Jonis Agee (review date 22 May 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Macho Chronicles,” in New York Times Book Review, May 22, 1994, p. 41.

[In the following review, Agee describes the three novellas contained in Julip and the prevalent themes that the stories share.]

More than any other writer today, Jim Harrison has been saddled by the critics with Hemingway's ghost. While it is true that Mr. Harrison's best work depicts, as did Hemingway's, individuals facing the uncertainty of the future with sheer will in a natural setting, his new collection of novellas, Julip, recasts such myths of male initiation and redemption. Finally, Mr. Harrison has exorcised the ghost and, in the process, established himself...

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Kelly Cherry (review date 14 August 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “At Home in the World,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 14, 1994, p. 8.

[In the following review, Cherry finds that the novellas contained in Julip, are beautifully written and fit well together as a collection.]

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 hand and take us on three different paths through the world.

In the title novella, we experience the world among...

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Alexander Harrison (review date 25 November 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Seeking New Frontiers,” in Times Literary Supplement, November 25, 1994, p. 20.

[In the following review, Harrison analyzes the prevalent themes of sex, wildlife, nature, and escapism in Julip.]

The novella is an unfashionable and indeterminate form: is it a short novel or a long short story? What can a writer do with it, that cannot be achieved more concisely or completely in its shorter or longer cousin? The answer, in Jim Harrison's Julip, is a tremendous amount. The book consists of three sections, “Julip”, “The Seven Ounce Man” and “The Beige Dolorosa”, which are linked by the shared concerns of the main characters—sex, animals...

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Joseph Bednarik with Jim Harrison (interview date 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Conversation with Jim Harrison” in Northwest Review, Vol. 33, No. 2, 1995, pp. 106-18.

[In the following interview, Harrison and Bednarik discuss topics such as Harrison's poetry, his love of nature, and his philosophical outlook on life.]

Depending on whom you ask, Jim Harrison is a poet writing novels, a novelist writing screenplays, a gourmand writing passionate articles about red wine and garlic, or an amateur naturalist practicing Zen.

In late April, 1994, Harrison set foot in San Francisco as part of a reading tour for Julip, his latest trilogy of novellas. The morning after his “fandango” (as he called it) we were due...

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Gerald Locklin (review date Winter 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Julip, in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 33, No. 1, Winter, 1996, pp. 126-27.

[In the following review, Locklin praises Harrison's collection of novellas Julip, giving special praise to the novella entitled “The Beige Dolorosa.”]

I loved the movie version of Jim Harrison's novella, “Legends of the Fall”, and I knew many Eastern critics would not. The novella is a good length for adaptation, and Harrison is as comfortable with the form—this is his third volume of three—as anyone writing today, but one of the last tacitly condoned biases is that of the East against the West, and it flourishes ironically among those who would...

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Scott Veale (review date 3 January 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Eat Drink Man Woman,” in New York Times Book Review, January 3, 1999, p. 15.

[In the following review, Veale favorably reviews The Shape of the Journey: New and Collected Poems, stating that Harrison's poetry is graceful and in tune with nature.]

Jim Harrison is best known for his novels and essays, but in the introduction to The Shape of the Journey: New and Collected Poems he maintains that poetry “is the portion of my life that means the most to me.” In fact, Harrison has published nearly as many books of poetry as prose, from the youthfully expansive Plain Song (1965) to the Zen-inflected After Ikkyu (1996). This large...

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Lee Oser (review date Autumn 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Shape of the Journey: New and Collected Poems, in World Literature Today, Vol. 73, No. 4, Autumn, 1999, p. 742.

[In the following review, Oser describes his mixed feelings about Harrison's The Shape of the Journey: New and Collected Poems. While he admires Harrison's wit and “warts and all” mentality, he finds fault with Harrison's technique and tendency to rant.]

As a whopping book by an American poet, Jim Harrison's Shape of the Journey comes in the tradition of Leaves of Grass and The Cantos. In other words, you get the whole man here, blotches and brilliance, bathed in a kind of epic grandeur. And what...

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James J. McClintock (essay date Winter 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Jim Harrison, Soul-Maker,” in Midwest Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 2, Winter, 2000, pp. 191-207.

[In the following essay, McClintock gives examples of the influences of psychologist James Hillman and poet John Keats on Harrison's writing.]

The jackets on Jim Harrison's books used to note that he lives in northern Michigan and “is a keen fisherman” and “bird hunter.” They don't now, not even for a work like his collection of essays, Just Before Dark (1991), a third of which is devoted to outdoor sport. The change is wise because Harrison's novels, novellas, poems, and essays have never been merely neo-realist narratives about adventurous men;...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Abbott, Raymond. “Savages and Sioux.” New York Times Book Review (12 June 1988): 28.

Abbott explains his dislike for the political views contained in Dalva.

Americana. A review of The Passing: Perspectives of Rural America, by Ferrol Sams and Jim Harrison. Americana 16, No. 6 (January-February 1989): 14.

Provides an overview of the blending of illustrations and stories in The Passing: Perspectives of Rural America.

Beatty, Jack. “Double, Double, Toil and Trouble.” Washington Post Book World (29 November 1981): 4.

In this review, Beatty...

(The entire section is 283 words.)