Jim Harrison

Start Free Trial

Vernon Scannell (review date 21 March 1980)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 542

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 depth of thought and feeling which is in fact lamentably absent, as when, a few pages later he writes: “It's not necessary to know too much about the man who was wounded so badly because he was wounded badly enough to alter his course of life radically, somewhat in the manner that conversion, the sacrament of baptism, not the less an upheaval for being commonplace, alters the Christian, satori the Buddhist.” You have to be very goddamned bad to write that way.

Beneath the pretentious waffle of his first novella here, “Revenge”, is a crude tale of pathological violence and sex, a melange of sadism and mawkish slop, with a conclusion so preposterously melodramatic and sentimental that laughter almost defuses the nausea. But not quite. The second novella, “The Man Who Gave Up His Name”, is about a character called Nordstrom who attends dancing classes as part of his university education, becomes a wealthy businessman, marries, divorces and gives away most of his worldly possessions, kills a hoodlum who is trying to intimidate him and becomes a cook in a sea-food restaurant in Florida. I think Harrison is trying to con his readers into accepting this rubbish as some kind of allegory of thwarted ambition, of disillusionment with, or renunciation of, the things of this world. But the truth is that, like “Revenge” the story is a mishmash of brutality, sentimentality and absurd pretentiousness.

The last of the novellas, the title-story, is a little different in intention but no less painful to read. In the words of the blurb, “this tale of high adventure and romantic obsession ranges back to the 1870s and forward to 1977”. It reads like an inept treatment for a movie that mercifully never got made. Ill-written, trite, and maudlin, all three of these stories would seem to be products of a vulgar, dubiously illiterate and rather unpleasant mind.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 794

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.

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 806

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 original eye.

Johnny Lundgren, the novel's central character, is forty-two and lives in rural Northern Michigan with Diana, his glamorous second wife. He has worked as an executive for a family foundation but the revenue authorities have come to view these institutions as elaborate tax-avoidance schemes, and Lundgren has been unemployed for a year, living on his wife's earnings as a nurse. Lundgren leads an elaborate fantasy life centered on his private identity as “Warlock”, a secret name given him in boyhood during a cub-scout initiation ceremony. As the novel opens, he is emerging from a powerful and mysterious dream at the climax of which a voice from the earth has commanded him to change his future. He finds the idea a compelling one, but in spite of the magical and diabolical associations of his secret name, Lundgren-Warlock does not find it easy to take charge of his own destiny.

It is his wife, more intelligent and energetic than himself, who at length finds him a job with the sinister Dr Rabun, a millionaire inventor whose masterpiece is “an absurdly effective prosthetic device for men made impotent by severe diabetes and other biological rather than imaginary causes”, and whose weird balloon-like shoes may well hide cloven feet. Lundgren is to act as a sort of private detective, defending the far-flung outposts of Dr Rabun's financial empire from the depredations of swindlers and bloodsuckers, chief among whom are the doctor's hostile wife and homosexual son.

As a job for a fantasist this could hardly be bettered, and Lundgren sets out on the trail—the lone wanderer, master of his fate and captain of his soul. For a time, he's successful (though his successes depend more on chance encounters and coincidence than on his own enterprise) but as the novel reaches its climax, life turns bafflingly perverse. Nothing is as it appears to be, nothing has been as it seemed; life and the future won't be imposed upon, and the novel ends with Lundgren's acquiescence in his own bewilderment.

Warlock carries an epigraph from A Midsummer Night's Dream, the lines in which Bottom speaks of having had “a most rare vision … a dream past the wit of man to say what dream it was.” Like Bottom's, Lundgren's dream is misleading and only partially understood; misleading because the boundaries between dream and reality are blurred. Both Bottom and Lundgren become actors in a fatal tragedy of love which, by their own incompetence, they reduce to farce; both are fools with access to an instinctive wisdom denied to the wiser folk around them.

In wishing to change his future, Lundgren aspires to change the world. We are told that “on a mostly subconscious level he was vitally concerned with the world conforming to his idea of it.” This ambition allies him to another potent literary archetype, the Knight of La Mancha (Lundgren characteristically prefers his story in the Broadway-musical form his wife finds disgusting) who travels over the landscape in a doomed attempt to impose a set of crazy but noble ideals on recalcitrant everyday reality. Lundgren's dreams are less than chivalric, but they are generous and humane. There is nothing evil about Lundgren, and “Warlock” is at this level an inappropriate way for him to think of himself. But Harrison is a self-conscious writer and knows that “warlock” derives from the Old English wárloga which means, literally, “liar against the truth”, and thus gets at Lundgren's refusal (like Bottom's and Don Quixote's) to see his relationship with the rest of the world in an objective light. Out of this refusal comes comedy, but something deeper too.

Warlock is an ambitious novel, and it must be said that the plot is a bit too slight for the thematic weight it is expected to bear. What satisfies most, perhaps, is the author's vigorous and often acerbic wit. This comment on changing fashions in adolescent reading-matter is a representative example: “After all, the most obnoxious young people are those who read Thomas Wolfe and take that great burly oaf to heart. In the following generation Kahlil Gibran and Hermann Hesse were to cause fewer problems, albeit their brand of pap seemed to cause early senescence among the young.” Exactly so.

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 143

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.

Thomas Maher Gilligan (essay date Spring 1984)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3223

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 beret a dozen times”), at religion (“the god of the Brownian movement had stretched his loins otherwise”), at the social significance of food (“Many of the problems the world has had with Germany in the past century, he felt, could be traced to this leaden, fascistic diet”), and at American society (“nearly all of the huge institutions of the Midwest were not so much universities as jerrybuilt vocational centers providing bumwads for the economy”).1 And Harrison finds time to comment on the humanity of used-car salesmen, the insensitivity of large dogs, the weather patterns of northern Michigan, the brotherhood of cops and the brotherhood of crooks, the oddities of sexual inversions and perversions, the dangers and pleasures of recreational drugs, the utilitarian differences between BMW's and Subaru station wagons, the varied effects of exercise and meditation, and the courage of late night talk show hosts to say nothing of any value. Harrison chooses not to develop many of the motifs he introduces, and he introduces a great many more than I have listed; and that tantalizing tendency to underplay much of what he presents and the humorous, irreverent manner in which he presents so many of the undeveloped motifs suggest how we should read those that he chooses to develop at length.2 Kurt Vonnegut has, for years, gotten a great deal of mileage out of undeveloped motifs, recognizing that the attentive reader can fill in for himself most of the pedestrian fare that a less confident novelist would feel required to include.3 And Harrison, like Vonnegut, allows the small touches, the sharp but shallow thrusts, to set the tone of the novel and indicate how we are to view the large issues. We may find that ultimately the larger issues are not simply humorous and irreverent, but if we do not view, first, their humor and irreverence we may never understand what they really are. Take, for example, the pervasive references to classical and popular mythology.

Near the end of the book, as Johnny “Warlock” Lundgren patches up the problems of the previous pages, he joins his wife, Diana, on a nature walk, and as he kisses her he sees a motion in the bushes behind her that turns out to be his dog, but that elicits an important thought:

An idea entered his mind that nature walks would be more interesting if there were mythological guidebooks and you could find Toad and the great god Pan out in the forest.


And in a sense, Warlock is such a guidebook; but we have to be careful because Harrison is capable of lampooning even his most central themes. Consider the part of the fair Diana on which Warlock dwells the most:

For the first time in their seven years of marriage he did not stare at her beautiful bottom—oh gates of hell—when she got out of bed. And it wasn't that this particular bottom was framed by a foreshortened, satin slip nightie gotten mail order from Los Angeles; no, it was simply one of the best on earth, way up in that realm where comparisons are truly odious.


And again:

Those few who have seen her bending over nude to fetch her clothes are likely to remember it on their deathbed (sic) in their respective retirement colonies in Florida, Arizona, California.


Diana, pardon my pointing it out, was the Roman goddess of the moon.

And this sort of comic mythology pervades the book. Warlock drives Diana to work, a “Hermes” briefcase between them to deliver to her the message that he would seriously look for a job that day. His avante garde artist friend, Garth, builds “a huge painted plaster contraption called The New Leda that shows a swan doing what the title implies, “with Ralph Garth there in a railroad engineer's cap, and a can to oil the flanges” (31). Dr. Rabun is a “tall, knobby, saturnine figure,” (76) and when Warlock gets to know him they become “cronies” (111). Warlock sleeps with Aurora who proves much better than her name (after the Roman goddess of the dawn) might imply. He sleeps with Laura who, as Housman might have said, “withers,” for him, “quicker than a rose.” And he sleeps with Lucette, whose name is a diminutive of Lucinda, one of the names associated with the goddess Diana, indicating the girl is a poor substitute for the moon-goddess waiting at home. Laura, by the way, emphasizes her own connection with Diana and the whole series of classical allusions when she writes, in her put-on letter of farewell to Warlock, that she will recall the moments he shared with her when they “became one with the moon” (214). These references are funny rather than serious, and clever to the extent that tracing the connection of one mythological element after another becomes a game. And were they not funny, Harrison would be hard-pressed to justify including them because they are so unlikely, and a reader would be hard-pressed to justify picking them out because they are so obscure. The oblique references to mythology that occur in every important scene in the book become delightful, and necessarily deflating to the melodramatic seriousness with which Warlock views his situation.

Living his life on the strength of a dream, Warlock attributes real-world significance to the workings of the unconscious mind. He is an intellectual dabbler who sees little beyond surface values, and who rarely pursues an answer that does not appear to him quickly. As a child, we are told, “he always confused reality with realty, staring in silent confusion from the back of their two-tone '47 Chevy, as his father drove past a realty office” (72). As an adult, the dream on which he restructures his future could mean anything. He finds himself dead on the kitchen floor. But Diana deflates the significance of the dream immediately: “There's nothing on the kitchen floor but the tipped over garbage can. I think it's fair to presume the garbage can isn't you.” Eventually Harrison allows the deflation to take a mock-classic form:

If a Greek chorus had been present they would have been chanting, in effect: “Woe, a dream is not a map or manual, stupid. Woe, run to the church or psychiatrist. Head for the bar and your favorite beverage, kneel before womankind. Do not separate yourself. Join the army, get a job, help others. Do not act upon this dark secret. Woe, etc.”


But Warlock does act upon this dark dream-secret, ignoring both the pragmatic Diana and the advice of a mentor named Vergil—Vergil Schmidt, as it turns out—who tells him,

You don't live in the actual world. You live in a far inferior world where you dissipate all your energies making the world conform to your wishes.


And Vergil is right. Warlock, always willing to cross cultural boundaries in his fantastic reveries, becomes, at various times, a grail-knight crossing the Rubicon (119), an image of “Cain or Ishmael, at full roam” (142), and a hero “at the awesome crossroads” where he must “continue the quest or turn his back on it” an image from “the revived memory of a college mythology course” (144). And, of course, all of the postures are absurd, as Warlock almost allows himself to realize at times. And they seem all designed, however unconsciously on his part, to hide from him the reality of middle-age. The book spans exactly one calendar year in the life of a man turning forty-three, unable to cope with getting older, still dissipating his energies precisely as the sage Vergil had warned.

Warlock's attempts to cope with the continuing process of aging are childish in themselves and therefore indicative of his inability to grow significantly as a person. After posing for himself the sophomoric philosophical question, “How can the self measure the self?” a remnant from an old college ethics class, and recalling, in response to that question, the shallowness of a convention of wood stove dealers he had once attended where he had seen the depths of their shallowness (a seminar on the philosophy of woodburning pales next to a memory of his grandfather who “cut wood to keep the house warm because it was cold outside” (51), Warlock shows his own incredible capacity for shallowness by making a list of rules to govern his life-change:

Number One: Eat Sparingly

Number Two: Avoid Adultery

Number Three: Do Your Best in Everything

Number Four: Get in First Rate Shape.


But even these simple (-minded?) rules show Warlock to be a fool: each carries with it a deflation. “He thrummed the growing ring of lard around his waist. Writing this first rule made him feel thinner” (52). The second rule elicits lustful thoughts of Patty, “the Unemployment Office cheerleader,” and Harrison makes sure we see the point: “It seemed the act of making a coda defiled the spirit of the coda” (53). The third rule reminds Warlock that he is “fast becoming quite the cook” (54), even though we've seen him boil turkey soup down into something that resembles turkey gravy and fill a rutabaga with it, and even though on the following page we are introduced to ox-tail vegetable soup in which he “used perhaps a teaspoon of freshly grated horseradish in each of his bowls” (55). As he considers how to get in first rate shape, he falls asleep.

But the most pointed indication of Warlock's inability to deal in a reasonable manner with his growing older is his obsession with the life (but significantly not the art) of “the great Gaugin.”4 Certainly Gaugin's story can inspire the aging middle-class, those Norman Mailer once termed “the wad” and that Thoreau melodramatically said “lead lives of quiet desperation.” But Gaugin's story can only reasonably inspire a man to develop his own talent, which Warlock fails to do even as he becomes a financial success; and besides, the Gaugin story is so well-known that it has become, itself, a myth—cliché-ridden, oversimplified, and even a bit foolish, especially for a grown man to pattern his life on.

As readers, we will fail to grasp this book unless we recognize that Warlock's success has virtually nothing to do with himself. Pushed into a created job so that Rabun and Diana will be less inhibited, he stumbles upon (or more correctly is stumbled upon by—even the initial stumbling isn't Warlock's doing) a young forest ranger who shows him how Rabun's trees have been pilfered and thereby wins Warlock a large reward, paid in cash and confidence. Warlock stumbles across (his experience allows him to do his own stumbling), “quite by accident,” Gloria Rabun's gallery in Miami and Ted Rabun's charter boat in Key West, and as a result of meeting them both he makes a great deal of money by simply revealing what he knows about Rabun; and what he knows is simply that Rabun told him to get him out of town and away from Diana. Had he fallen for Ralph Garth's obvious ploys to get him away from Diana for a while, Warlock would have looked like a fool. The fact that he fell for Rabun's ploy instead and lucked into a great deal of money makes him no less a fool. In the only instance we see in which Warlock does not stumble upon what success he has, his inability as an investigator is made clear:

The case was simple: an audit had revealed a pathetically obvious kickback scheme where far too much was being paid for the raw lumber to make the shipping pallets.


But the case, it turns out, was not so simple—Warlock was. As the clearheaded Cletis points out to him after they have set-up and caught the crooked buyer, Warlock has failed to look any deeper than the surface:

“How do you know the plant manager wasn't involved? Or the accountants? That poor little shit will spend the holidays in jail taking a fall for the others. Use your head.”


Warlock's success depends upon luck, circumstance, ultimately coincidence. And Harrison realizes that coincidence, while it certainly occurs in the real world, is an element of fiction. Harrison even allows Warlock himself to understand what coincidence is, as he stumbles upon Mrs. Laura Fardel, who has been injured in Rabun's spa and who is suing:

The name Fardel lit up like a forty watt bulb as he made the drinks, then exploded in the manner of an unpunctured baked potato in a hot oven. Oh my god! His mind raced back to the coincidences found in Dr. Zhivago that last spring of graduate school. …

And Warlock shows his tendency to live according to the patterns he has studied:

… the palms became linden trees, the lowering tropical sun shown on the Baltic outside St. Petersburg, rather than the Atlantic off Palm Beach. Laura looked like Julie Christie, only better.


But such posturing, while funny, is vaguely pathetic, and it is meant to be both funny and pathetic because Harrison is aware that he is writing fiction and he wants us to recognize all the way through that only in fiction does the coincidental tie together so nicely at the end.

In the beginning of the book he shows us the absence of any novelistic connection between real-world events. Warlock was born, we are told, “December 11, 1937, at 12:11:37 A.M., the same time that a piece of meteorite killed an elephant in distant Tanzania, Hitler brushed his teeth with some vigor, Einstein yawned.” But when Harrison wants Warlock to find out about Diana's affair with Rabun, the coincidences within a single paragraph recall Dickens at his worst:

He called Clete because he somehow wanted to talk to Hudley, which wasn't possible. Clete said it was urgent that he call Patty. … Clete was a roamer, running into Patty at the selfsame bowling alley. Warlock contacted Patty and … was informed that her mother was Dr. Rabun's cleaning woman, and this selfsame Rabun was having a long-standing affair with Warlock's wife, Diana.


And the point of such obviously coincidental occurrences is precisely that fiction is not reality.

In one spot only, but in one spot undeniably, Harrison intrudes upon the narrative and admits to the non-reality of the novel. At the beginning of the eighth chapter he writes:

Who was this man? Or who is this man? As he is still very much alive and doing quite well. His wife Diana is also doing very well though she has an uncomfortably close call with death by gunshot wound in the confines of our story.


At the end of Tom Jones, or Pride and Prejudice, we can find such indications of how the story progresses beyond its own boundaries, but Fielding and Austen were well aware that they were writing for a readership that looked at their work as non-reality because the concept of realism as we know it had not yet been developed and they were not concerned with causing readers to suspend, as Coleridge put it, their tendency to disbelieve. The twentieth century reader, with a background of realism, looks to suspend his tendency to disbelieve and when he does, he becomes emotionally caught in a fictional story of which he can dismiss the reality when he is finished reading. The unique addition to literary art to come out of the mid-to-late twentieth century is the realization that the reader can receive a more powerful emotional jolt if he is not led to believe in the reality of the narrative but is made aware of the mechanics of the artwork as we are aware of the brush strokes in a painting or the chisel marks in a piece of sculpture.5

And ultimately, Warlock admits the unreality of its own mythological base. On the penultimate page, as Warlock walks through the potentially mythological forest with his ex-moon goddess wife, whose neck is emphasized now rather than her lunar regions, we are told that he was offered, and he refused, a new assignment. The tracking down of a rich-kid runaway who had joined, of course, the Moonies. A movement in the bushes turns out to be only Hadley, the dog, and the “mythological guidebooks” mentioned earlier would help very little anyway since Warlock's experience with Diana's field-study manuals have indicated to him that “nothing out in nature … resembled anything in the guidebooks.” And, although Warlock's recognition of the difference between Myth and reality may not be complete by the end of the book (since he does, in the final paragraph, consider again the possibility of hearing the piping of Pan), when the horn blows once more, indicating that Diana has found the car, that Pan is a fantasy, that Warlock has been misdirected, and that reality is not structured along the guidelines of myth, or of any art form, we, along with him, have “no real reason to doubt it” (262).


  1. Jim Harrison, Warlock (New York: Delacorte, 1981), pp. 22, 187, 211, 122, and 126. All subsequent reference to Warlock will be to this edition and will be included within the text.

  2. Harrison's best work, prior to Warlock, may well have been the novella entitled “Legends of the Fall”, which is so spare in spots that it resembles a plot outline but which succeeds, within eighty pages, in establishing the sort of multigenerational family biography to which James Michener might devote a thousand.

  3. Consider the Kilgore Trout novels mentioned in Slaughterhouse-Five, (New York, 1969) The Gutless Wonder, for instance, allows Vonnegut to comment on man's greater concern for his immediate well-being than for the well-being of the race in general. The central figure of the book is reported to be a robot with bad breath who drops jellied gasoline on people for a living, and who is not accepted socially until he does something about his breath.

  4. See, for example, pp. 21, 73, 87, 127, 179, 194, and 202.

  5. This concept has been of central importance in the work of many of our most important writers. In addition to Vonnegut, who in Slaughterhouse-Five becomes a character in what he admits all along is a novel about real experience, consider how Joseph Heller plays around with time sequence in Catch-22 (New York, 1961) and how John Fowles shifts tense and person in Daniel Martin (Boston, 1977). Interestingly enough, the movies have recently taken to using the technique. The film version of Fowles' novel The French Lieutenant's Woman presents two parallel stories, one of which involves the supposed real lives of the actors who are playing roles in the other, thus emphasizing the non-reality of both stories. Of course, the stage has always admitted to being illusory by allowing even those characters who have died during the play to answer a curtain call. Heller, incidentally, tried to upset that tradition as well in We Bombed in New Haven (New York, 1967), in which actors supposedly do die for real.

Dennis Drabelle (review date 17 June 1984)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 754

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 paradigm of our own early years, which appear so painfully slow when we live them. No one is ready, it seems, for the loss of control, the ineluctable character of acceleration that gathers around the later years.”

Growing old is one of Harrison's preoccupations, and few other Americans write so perceptively about middle-aged men. His protagonists tend to have outsized appetites for food, drink, and sex; waistlines slackening for the last, irretrievable time; and chronic insomnia. Even so, there is a charming courtesy about them. Still earnest, they pursue an accommodation with decline, seek the Tao of Pushing Fifty.

Sundog features two such men, Harrison himself, who serves as narrator, and Robert Corvus Strang, a builder of dams, now holed up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula for recuperation. A sufferer from epilepsy since he was struck by lightning as a boy, Strang met disaster while on location in the Venezuelan highlands. When he ran out of the medicine that controls his seizures, he resorted to a substitute recommended by local Indians. Atop the dam-in-progress, he blacked out and fell 300 feet into the river. Back home he is reduced to crawling around the woods to regain his strength.

Harrison shows up to interview Strang for a projected feature article. But his concentration is fitful, and there are so many interruptions by visiting children and ex-wives that his story unfolds like a reluctant century plant. Somewhere along the line Harrison scraps the notion of an article in favor of a nonfiction novel. Oppressed by the tedium of recovery, Strang summons the strength to cut it short.

In addition to that tidal simile, Sundog contains several apercus worth copying into a commonplace book. One of them offers the cleverest explanation I've heard as to why we're becoming a bicoastal people. Lust for food, Harrison muses, “is, after all, the sublimated reason why many of us leave the Midwest in the first place. … For a young poet from the Midwest, the discovery of garlic can be as poignant as the discovery of Rimbaud and Federico Garcia Lorca. Art without sensuality dwindles into the Episcopalian.” The characters are vivid and amusing—especially Emmeline, Strang's robust first wife—and, as always, Harrison's prose is a precision instrument.

Yet overall Sundog disappoints. One reason is that it sounds idolatrous. Harrison and Strang are so much the same Rabelaisian type that the book lacks tension. Strang's profession bears the seeds of conflict—these days many Americans look upon dams as environmental Edsels—but Harrison throws them away: inasmuch as Strang sticks to poverty-stricken regions of Third World countries, he builds only good dams. The result is that he and Harrison tend to echo each other, and the novel takes on a testimonial air.

The other shortcoming has to do with originality. Legends of the Fall, Harrison's 1979 trio of novellas, was an inverted tour de force. Here was a gifted contemporary writer breaking off chunks of mythic American material (two of the three tales concern revenge wrought in distant Western precincts) and not tarting them up or clowning around with them. Unlike, say, John Barth in The Sot-Weed Factor or Thomas Berger in Little Big Man, Harrison told his brutal, lilting stories with an old-fashioned straight face. And such was the power of his plotting and the purity of his language that he achieved a reviving triumph.

Sundog, in contrast, is a conventionally fragmented product—even, with its new-journalistic trappings, a trendy one. The book's very design smacks of up-to-the-minute self-consciousness. The reader has to contend with several typefaces: one for scene-setting passages, a second for Harrison's taped comments, a third for Strang's transcribed reminiscences. Instead of the bold-faced vigor driving Legends of the Fall, we have three types of ambiguity. I'm not suggesting that Harrison keep reworking the same material—only that he think again about discarding what seemed a fresh and distinctive approach to storytelling.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 283


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 states that although Harrison's earlier novels may be worthy of praise, Warlock is poorly written.

Harrison, Jim with Kay Bonetti. “An Interview with Jim Harrison.” Missouri Review 8, No. 3 (1985): 65-86.

In this interview, Bonetti and Harrison discuss the autobiographical aspects of Harrison's novels and the thought processes that go into the creation of his stories.

Jerome, John. “Caution: Men Writing.” Washington Post Book World (28 July 1991): 6.

In this review, Jerome compares and contrasts Harrison's Just Before Dark and Andre Dubus' Broken Vessels.

Kauffmann, Stanley. “Stanley Kauffmann on Films: Under Western Skies.” In New Republic 212, No. 1 (2 January 1995): 26-27.

Discusses the plot and flaws of director Edward Zwick's adaptation of “Legends of the Fall” to film.

McNamee, Thomas. “O Pioneers!” New York Times Book Review (8 November 1998): 11.

In this review, McNamee finds The Road Home to be a superbly written novel with many intricate layers.

Reed, Julia. An essay on Jim Harrison. Vogue 179, No. 9 (September 1989): 502, 506, 510.

In this essay, Reed explores Harrison's past and discusses his current writing projects.

Additional coverage of Harrison's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 8, 51, and 79; Contemporary Novelists; Contemporary Poets; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, Vol. 82; and Short Story Criticism, Vol. 19.

Richard Deveson (review date 23 August 1985)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 377

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 narrator has been challenged: ‘You might try writing about someone who actually does something.’

Well, Strang, the man of action, has preached at tent meetings, has built huge dams in the jungles of Africa and Latin America, has left wives and mistresses and prostitutes scattered around the globe and dispenses casual macho erudition about machines, rivers, concrete, tropical diseases, fish, ‘wholeness, harmony and radiance’. His beautiful Costa Rican ‘daughter’ slinks around his remote log house wearing a minuscule bikini, practicing her dancing and arousing the lust and envy of the over-eating, voyeuristic, womanless ‘I’.

Strang suffers from epileptic seizures; he has taken Amerindian ground-root potions; he has been crippled in a fall from a dam in Venezuela; he is the son of his sister and an illegitimate blood relation of the narrator (an alter ego with a vengeance). Despite these handicaps, he manages finally to give a castrating ex-wife the slip by disappearing into the frozen waters, either to continue his unconquerable freedom elsewhere or to come to rest on the bed of Lake Superior, reunited (by the good offices of some pantheistic frontier mysticism) with the Wholeness of which he has always been a part in any case.

Nature is nearly at the centre of this novel, which creates powerful impressions of swamps and creeks, timber and rain, mosquitoes and blackflies, pink fog and the northern lights. But the book's real core is the narrator's hero-worship of Strang, and this is never properly subjected to scrutiny. Why is there an American need for supermen who stalk the wilderness? Why does Harrison seem at pains to avoid asking the question?

Michiko Kakutani (review date 9 March 1988)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 985

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.”

In his latest novel, Dalva, he attempts to give us a mythic portrait of America—from the Indian wars of the last century through the confusions of Vietnam and the cynicism of the 1980's—by chronicling the life and memories of a single woman. Through the prism of her experience, we see refracted the events that shaped five generations of her pioneer family; and through their adventures, the fierce (and often bloody) forces that helped transform the wild innocence of this continent into the country we know today.

As she almost immediately informs us, Dalva received her unusual name after her parents listened to—and fell in love with—a Portuguese song called “Estrella Dalva” or “Morning Star.” And the name, with all its romantic connotations, proves a fitting one for a woman who would spend her life wandering America and the world, searching for something or someone to fill the hole in her heart, left when she was 16, and ceded both the boy she loved and their child to the demands of society and decorum.

In the years since, Dalva has ventured beyond the bounds of her family's hermetic, Edenic world—there, in the beautiful, desolate back country of the northern Midwest. She has had dozens of affairs, she has traveled to France and England, Mexico and Brazil, but always she has returned to America—to New York or Los Angeles or to “areas so remote that my friends in those cities found them laughable.”

When we first meet Dalva, it's 1986, and she's living in Santa Monica, Calif.—at 45, still an impulsive, willful girl, reluctant to compromise her feelings or edit her thoughts, and increasingly obsessed with finding her son, whom she gave up for adoption some 30 years earlier. The baby was the product of a passionate romance with a young cowboy named Duane, a half-Sioux teen-ager who turns out to have been her half-brother. Duane, Dalva now knows, is dead—having committed suicide after being wounded in Vietnam; their child may or may not be alive.

In searching for her lost son, Dalva joins forces with one of her lovers, a professor named Michael who wants to use her family's papers as the basis for a scholarly study about “the advent of farming in the Great Plains and the final solution of the Indian question.” And as the two of them proceed with their research, we are slowly, inexorably, drawn back into the past.

We meet Duane, the product of a brief fling between Dalva's father and a young Sioux woman—an angry, sullen teen-ager, said to have “secret powers,” who “could beat up the toughest men, ride his horse at night while standing on it, and talk with wild animals.” We meet Dalva's father—a sketchily drawn fellow, who's killed in Korea and abruptly disappears from this story; her uncle Paul, a kind and compassionate man, disguised as an adventurer out of The Treasure of the Sierre Madre; and her grandfather, a rich old man, who thinks nothing of spending $10,000 on a horse but regards a car as “nothing more than a vulgar convenience.”

Haunting the lives of all these characters is the indomitable figure of great-grandfather Northridge, a strange, solitary man, trained as a missionary and a botanist, and sent west to the Great Plains “to help the native population, the Indians, to make the inevitable transition from warriors to tillers of the soil.” In the waning days of the 19th century, Northridge grows skeptical of his mission—a front, as it were, for the naked appropriation of the Indians' land. Instead, he earns the trust of the Sioux, becomes a student of their language and dialects, and in the shadow of the showdown with Custer, begins to be troubled by intimations of their doom.

We receive Northridge's story—like that of his great-granddaughter Dalva—in bits and pieces, from his journals, and from reminiscences delivered by members of his family. Meanwhile, Mr. Harrison is busily cutting back and forth between the past and present, weaving in information about Dalva's current life and her relationship with Michael the professor. Some of this information is extraneous and needlessly melodramatic. A gruesome case of child abuse and rape, handled by Dalva in her capacity as a social worker; a messy seduction scene between Michael and an underage girl that results in a bloody fistfight with her father—such events have a contrived, sensationalistic air about them, and they also serve to distract us from Dalva's real story.

When Mr. Harrison sticks to this narrative thread, however, his storytelling instincts are nearly flawless. Whereas the characters in Sundog devolved into blunt, easy-to-read symbols, the people in Dalva emerge as full-blooded individuals, who almost incidentally embody much of the innocence, carelessness and urgency that played so large a part in the settling of this country. Best of all, perhaps, are Mr. Harrison's descriptions of the land—the untamed deserts, plains, forests and arroyos of what was once the Western frontier. Unlike many nature writers, he adamantly refuses to sentimentalize the landscape, but instead takes it on its own terms, delineating—in tough, but rhapsodic language—both the physical beauty and danger of those empty spaces, and its effect on the people (the Sioux, and other Indian tribes, as well as the farmers) who lived there and made it their home.

Georgia Jones-Davis (review date 10 April 1988)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1395

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, death maintains a terrifying, literal presence.

Jim Harrison's new novel, Dalva, is not a story of the supernatural, but it is a tale about ghosts, haunting, about the continuing presence of those departed from this world. It is also the story of a remarkably modern woman's search for her son relinquished at his birth. At the same time, it is the saga of a fascinating, eccentric pioneer befriended by the beleaguered native peoples of the Plains at the time that their world is closing in on them.

I've never read another Harrison novel, but I've spoken with several men—writer John Nichols among them—who are passionate fans of his work. His books that are repeatedly recommended are Legends of the Fall and A Good Day to Die. No woman I know has expressed an interest in Harrison. So Dalva may be an important departure for this Michigan writer so associated with the outdoors, with what might be termed “macho,” since the central figure here is a woman. He could win a whole now readership. He certainly deserves it.

Harrison is not a very neat, linear storyteller. Like a photographer, he's interested in the angles. He works in vignettes, in half-formed, half-finished episodes. (Reading Harrison is a little bit like eavesdropping on a couple of people engaged in a conversation in an elevator who step out at the very point where their exchange becomes gossipy—the doors close and those of us left inside never get to hear who did what to whom.) Dalva has a sister, for instance, Ruth, a wealthy divorcee in her 40s who is messing around with a priest that she's trying to get to impregnate her. What we are allowed to listen in on is lurid and humorous, but we are cut off, finally, with no sense of what actually drives Ruth to such extreme behavior.

Harrison gives us fleeting, fragmented portraits. Even his main characters slip in and out of focus as frequently as they make entrances and exits. Some of his most colorful, vivid characters make the briefest of appearances: the restless Uncle Paul (with his multigenerational seraglio of Mexican mistresses)—a wonderful naturalist and writer. We are privy to a sample of his writing in one instance, and then, never read another written word of Paul's innermost thoughts; a taciturn, gentle cowboy selling puppies who becomes a lover of Dalva's, then sort of drifts off; an elderly Sioux woman, Rachel, whose greatest treat is a short road trip and whose candy-pink, dime-store scarf signifies for Dalva the extreme poverty the Sioux have been reduced to.

Duane Stone Horse, Dalva's lover-husband, is the central romantic figure here. His presence is felt by the very fact of his absence. Duane's spirit hovers everywhere over the story, guiding Dalva like a guardian angel. He's leading her home.

The poetic love story between Dalva and Duane is only one-third of the three points of view that Harrison exercises here. Dalva narrates parts one and three. Part two comes to us via professor Michael—more about him later. The third story line comes to us through journal entries about the frontier adventures of Dalva's amazing ancestor, Northridge.

At 45, Dalva's been married once—for less than a whole day—(a strange and tragic sequence) but has essentially remained a single woman who has been on the move most of her life She grows up the daughter of a well-to-do, Nebraska farming family of mixed Anglo and Sioux blood. The name Dalva is derived from a Brazilian samba: “Estrella Dalva,” Portuguese for morning as in Morning Star. Morning, of course, also brings to mind “mourning.”

Dalva wanders through the Southwest; travels abroad; drifts to New York, where she lands a job with a sleazy documentary film maker; she winds up employed as a social worker in Santa Monica, which is where we find her when the novel opens.

There's something profoundly troubling about the ocean for Dalva. It remains a great, unfathomable thing in her life, associated with mystery and loss. The coasts represent a physical and psychic edge to her. How she has lived her life in New York, or Los Angeles, reflects this—nothing seems wholesome or particularly healthy in either environment. Earth is her anchor. After Dalva undergoes a personal tragedy involving the ocean in Florida, her Uncle Paul brings her back to the Baja coast, as much desert as it is seashore, where she psychically heals. Later, when she departs Los Angeles to return to Nebraska, Dalva camps in the Arizona desert alone; she strips naked in front of the fire and meditates in what might approximate a Native American ritual of purification, a homecoming of sorts.

Water also signifies baptism and it is the baptism of the adolescent Dalva that literally plunges her into a passionate union with Duane, a wild, moody, half-Sioux boy her grandfather mysteriously brings to the farm.

Dalva's reunion with Duane in Florida many years later contains some of the finest writing in the book—intense, dreamlike, nightmarish. It vibrates with a psychedelic-like intensity, so surreal and eerie a sequence of events it is.

Along with contemporary events, the history of Dalva's family in Nebraska unfolds in vivid, sometimes shocking and always moving journal entrees made by the pioneer Northridge, the great-grandfather of Dalva. He comes West driven by the desire to convert the Indians to Christianity (a longing that dissolves with his increased familiarity with the native tribes) and to plant trees. Word passes tribe to tribe about this nutty, lone, white man who goes around planting things, talking to trees, talking to the elements. The Indians hear that the whites themselves think Northridge is a little crazy. At one of his first encounters with the Sioux, he is told: “‘You are too strange to kill.’” He fraternizes with warriors whose names Dalva loves to roll off her tongue, names that haunt the entire narrative: Joe White Coyote, Daniel Blue Horse, Kills a Hundred, He Dog, Crazy Horse. Eventually Northridge converts to the ways of the Sioux, even as they are hunted, massacred and cornered.

The Northridge journals hold the key to tenure for history professor Michael, who shares certain qualities with other Harrison characters I've been told about. He has a passion for fine food and a predilection for excessive drinking. He is both intelligently introspective and at the same time cynical about his chosen line of work, about how he has lived his whole life. One gets a handle on him more so than on any other character in the book. Michael—with all his foibles and frustrating ways—is presented with unflinching clarity.

Michael's research permits him to become a house guest at Dalva's Nebraska homestead, a situation that leads to sometimes sadly comical misadventures. While Dalva is at home on horseback, out in nature, among farm animals, urbanite Michael couldn't be more out of his element. His first hike ends up a disaster: He gets lost and wakes up from a nap surrounded by snakes.

Michael and Dalva have made a pact: She'll let him be the first outsider to have access to a protected, personal history, and he will help her locate her son. They have been occasional lovers, but Michael knows he will never possess this intimidating, self-possessed woman of means.

Harrison beautifully conveys Dalva's essential femininity despite his character's qualities that are undeniably androgynous, perhaps even masculine: a comfort in the outdoors, a reticent and independent nature, even her sad and undeniable promiscuity. Dalva asserts that she has never been seduced—has always, subtly, done the seducing of lovers herself.

A novel of considerable ambiguity and hard-edged compassion, Harrison's Dalva may well seduce you too.

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2116

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 the Upper Peninsula, even more rural and remote, where Harrison has a cabin he retreats to in the warmer weather—“Summer,” wisecracks a character in his new book, The Woman Lit by Fireflies, out this month from Houghton Mifflin/Seymour Lawrence (Fiction Forecasts, June 1), “being known locally as three months of bad sledding.”

The initial reason Harrison decided to return to the Midwest was financial. “After my first book was published [the poetry collection Plain Song, in 1965] we had nearly 15 years where I averaged only 10 grand a year,” he says candidly. “I needed a place with a low overhead.”

But there was more to it than that; when Legends of the Fall, a trio of novellas released in 1979, added a measure of economic security to his already established critical reputation, he chose to remain in Michigan. “Ever since I was seven and had my eye put out, I'd turn for solace to rivers, rain, trees, birds, lakes, animals,” he explains. “If things are terrible beyond conception and I walk for 25 miles in the forest, they tend to go away for a while. Whereas if I lived in Manhattan I couldn't escape them.”

He steers clear of urban literary life for the same reason he has steadfastly turned down academic jobs. “I had this whole heroic notion of being a novelist,” he says. “I wanted to be a writer in the old sense of staying on the outside. I can live for about a year on the proceeds from the first draft of a screenplay, which sometimes takes only six weeks, and I think that's more fun than hanging around some fucking college town for 10 months waiting for summer vacation.”

Like his characters, the author is blunt and outspoken, with an earthy sense of humor and a boundless supply of charm that take the sting out of his sallies. When he's said something especially outrageous, he glances slyly at PW, inviting us to share his enjoyment of how wicked he is. Yet he also sprinkles his conversation with quotes from Yeats, Camus, Santayana and Wittgenstein—Harrison is a complex man, by no means the macho figure some critics have taken him for.

This complexity can be seen in his work, both in the poetry collected in such volumes as Returning to Earth and, most recently, The Theory and Practice of Rivers, and in the series of novels and novellas for which he is best known, including A Good Day to Die, Warlock, Sundog, the remarkable Dalva—in which he definitively refuted the claim that he couldn't create believable women—and his latest. Though Harrison writes of such contemporary subjects as the rape of the natural landscape and the search for a meaning beyond materialism, none of his books can be reduced to a simple, one-sentence thesis. There is a mystery at the heart of each, a sense that beneath his beautiful, deceptively simple language lie deeper truths that can only be hinted at with words.

All of his ideas, he says, come to him in the form of images. The heroine of the title story in The Woman Lit by Fireflies first appeared as “a lady of about 49 climbing a fence behind a Welcome Center in tennis shoes. I had been thinking about Clare for years, worrying about her—you make somebody up and then you worry if she's going to be okay. I usually think about a novella or a novel for three or four years; all these images collect—Wallace Stevens said that images tend to collect in pools in your brain—and then when it's no longer bearable not to write it down, I start writing.”

“The images emerge from dreams, or the period at 5:30 in the morning between sleeping and waking when you have that single durable image, like ‘Nordstrom had taken to dancing alone’ [the opening line of “The Man Who Gave Up His Name” in Legends of the Fall], which totally concentrates the character. I think you try not to figure out what they mean at that point, because what you're trying to do in fiction is reinvent the form; I want every fictional experience I have to be new. Once it gets didactic, than I say, Well, why not just write an essay? You don't create something so that people can draw conclusions, but to enlarge them, just as you have been enlarged by the experience of making it up. Art should be a process of discovery, or it's boring.”

Harrison's own life has been a process of discovery. At age 16, in 1954, he decided he wanted to be a writer and headed for New York City, where he stumbled on “what I at the time called Green-wich Village,” he says, pronouncing it like the color and laughing. “That's when I knew I wanted to be a bohemian; I wanted to meet a girl with black hair and a black turtleneck—and I did! Then I lived in Boston when I was 19; I went up there because I'd heard Boston was America's St. Petersburg, and my biggest enthusiasm in my teens was for Russian literature.” He managed to squeeze in an education around his voyages, graduating from Michigan State in 1960, the same year he got married.

“I started out as a prose writer,” he says. “Prose, poetry, I never separated them. But in your first notebook stage you tend toward poetry, because it's easier at that age. I tried to write prose, but I was never any good at the short story.” In his mid-20s, while living in Cambridge, Mass., with his wife and baby daughter, “I discovered the Grolier Bookstore, where I used to hang out with other poets. I'd written some poems and sent them to Denise Levertov, who was the only poet I'd ever met. My friends at Grolier had mixed feelings when I arrived one Saturday with my first contract for a book of poems—that wasn't supposed to happen for a long time!”

But the proceeds from poetry weren't sufficient to keep Harrison in the East after a year at Stony Brook convinced him he wasn't cut out to be a teacher. By 1966 he and his family were settled in Michigan. It was nearly five years before he made another try at prose, prompted by his friend and fellow Michigan State grad, novelist Tom McGuane. “I fell off a cliff bird-hunting and hurt my back. Tom said—he barely remembers this—‘Well, you're not doing anything else, so why not write a novel?’ I thought, Yeah, that's the ticket, and so I wrote Wolf; I had a Guggenheim, which made it easier. I sent my only copy to my brother, who was the science librarian at Yale, because I didn't want to pay to have it copied, but I sent it away two days before the mail strike, and it was lost. He went down to the main post office and finally dug it up. I had a book of poems [Outlyer and Ghazals, 1971] coming out with Simon & Schuster at the time, and they took the novel too, so I started out with a bang.”

Alix Nelson at S & S was the first in a long line of nurturing women editors for Harrison. He speaks warmly of Pat Irving at Viking, who published his third novel, Farmer, and Pat Ryan, “who saved my neck, because she would give me assignments to write outdoor pieces for Sports Illustrated, and they paid well enough for us to live up here for several months.”

The period after Farmer was published in 1976 was a difficult one, however. “It sold only a couple thousand copies—it sold 10 times as many copies last year as when it came out—and it was a terrible disappointment. I thought, If this is the best I can do, and it's utterly and totally rejected, then I don't know where I'm even supposed to be. There didn't seem to be any room for what I wanted to do; what I valued most, no one in the literary community valued. I went into a long clinical depression, but I gradually recovered.”

Professional salvation came in the form of Seymour Lawrence, then affiliated with Delacorte, who made Legends of the Fall Harrison's first commercially successful book. “I had written these three novellas, and my agent at the time said, ‘No one's going to publish these; they're not short stories and they're not novels.’ I thought, Sam Lawrence has a good record for taking literary writers and giving them a shot, so I sent them to him. Then Clay Felker did the whole of “Legends of the Fall” and three-quarters of “Revenge” [the third novella] in Esquire.

If Legends didn't exactly make Harrison rich, it did make him much more widely known; the sale of film rights to all three novellas enabled him to buy land in Michigan and launched the screenwriting career that now allows him to attend to his real writing with a minimum of distractions. Since that book, Harrison has followed Lawrence from house to house. “Sam's mostly a publisher and a very acute reader,” he says. “The kind of author he wants is someone who knows his stuff.”

For the line work every novel needs, the author has relied on his eldest daughter, who reads his manuscripts before anyone else, and two editors associated with Lawrence. “Leslie Wells edited Dalva at Dutton, and she is so pointed. I tend to organize something dramatic and then back away from it, and she can always see it. The first sexual scene between Duane and Dalva was too emotional for me to write, and both Leslie and my daughter said, ‘Hey, let's let'em really do it!’ Now there's a wonderful girl who works for Sam, Camille Hykes, who's a good editor too.” His financial negotiations are handled by “my Sicilian agent, Bob Dattila, which obviously means ‘from Attila’—so he has always been my main protector!”

In recent years, Harrison's ride on what he describes as “this shuddering elevator that is the writer's life” has been relatively smooth. Though he considers poetry and fiction his primary work, he doesn't disdain the movies. “I'll keep writing screenplays even if I don't need the money, because I want to write one really good one. You can't write novels all the time, and I'm intrigued by the screenplay form.” He is polite about the recent film made from “Revenge,” starring Kevin Costner. “John Huston wanted to direct it 12 years ago, with Jack Nicholson, and Warner Brothers turned him down. It was disappointing to me at the time, but when they finally made it, it was almost a real good movie—almost. It did well in California, the South and the Midwest, but not in New York. I doubt your average yuppie would think much of somebody dying for love—it would be out of the question.”

There's a certain combativeness in Harrison's attitude toward the New York literary establishment but, he says, “it would be pompous of me to feel ignored when all nine of my books are in print. It's just that the nature of my books isn't by and large the kind of thing that interests Upper East Side New Yorkers.

“I like grit, I like love and death, I'm tired of irony. As we know from the Russians, a lot of good fiction is sentimental. I had this argument in Hollywood; I said, ‘You guys out here in Glitzville don't realize that life is Dickensian.’ Everywhere you look people are deeply totemistic without knowing it: they have their lucky objects and secret feelings from childhood. The trouble in New York is, urban novelists don't want to give people the dimensions they deserve.

“The novelist who refuses sentiment refuses the full spectrum of human behavior, and then he just dries up. Irony is always scratching your tired ass, whatever way you look at it. I would rather give full vent to all human loves and disappointments, and take a chance on being corny, than die a smartass.”

Jonis Agee (review date 22 May 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1389

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 as a genuinely comic writer.

All three novellas are set in American landscapes traditionally used as testing grounds for men: the fishing waters of the South, the hunting woods of the North and the cattle ranches of the West. But, as Mr. Harrison comically demonstrates, the mythology of maleness often fails; appropriately enough, it is a woman, Julip, in the novella that bears her name, who comes most decisively to wisdom.

The hero of the second novella, “The Seven-Ounce Man,” isn't fooled by any myth of nature, either, and, while he doesn't mind hard physical labor, he has to have his weekly forays to the local bar, cavorting with the waitresses because “women still beat the hell out of men to be around.” He heads to the wilds of Los Angeles as soon as he gets a chance. In the final story, “The Beige Dolorosa,” a professor is able to discard his intellectual baggage when he stops mythologizing, escaping delivery into yet another form of macho doom simply by walking away.

In the perennial war between the sexes that underlies each of the novellas in this book, it is the women who have successfully negotiated the dark waters of strife; they wait on the shore while the men remain at sea, distracted by, or lost or entrenched in, a kind of suspended animation, the result of their failure to achieve any formal or significant end to their rituals of male initiation. These women range from crones to young seductresses, and they're mostly struggling against laughter at the absurdity of living with men.

In the novella “Julip,” the main character's brother, Bobby, is the only man who tires of the game; in a heroic gesture, he tries to right an assault on his sister's womanhood in one fell swoop, by taking a gun to three of those who have tarnished her. It's a gesture worthy of Faulkner's Quentin Compson, but time has eroded its tragic potential; here the action is reduced to a ritual leg-wounding of a group of over-the-hill alcoholics, referred to as “the Boys,” who are sitting ducks when Bobby ambushes them on a fishing trip.

Unlike the characters in Hemingway's world, no one in the novella dies from such nonsense—because, Mr. Harrison suggests, nothing much is really at stake. “These men develop an unbalanced affection for … outdoorsmen,” he explains, because they “appear to be less abstract and venal (untrue)” and “are leading a more manly life than can be led in a law office or brokerage house.” The “Boys” have already forfeited their manhood, their identities. They are permanently doomed to an annual repetition of their initiation out in the wilderness, laboriously shoring up their innocence and manhood with pretty young women like Julip for housekeepers.

However, in the novella's casual reference to those who have killed themselves after serving as “house frauleins, or lust slaves,” we glimpse the dark wreckage that lurks behind the facade of these seemingly happy-go-lucky good ol' boys. Despite their professional achievements, they know they are failures in the greater scheme of things, that they will constantly fall on the lesser side of male endeavor. Women end up the witnesses to and casualties of such slavery to male myths, while at the same time they are seen as reservoirs of power, redemption and damnation.

It is Julip who understands her own experience well enough to use it as the launching point for gaining wisdom, for taking care of the business of freeing her brother and establishing a life for herself that preserves what she loves best: her hunting dogs and the time she spends in the wilderness training them. In her quest to understand the truth about the death of her father, about the shootings that her brother is jailed for, about her own fall into the world of love and loss, Julip takes on comic and often truly heroic stature. By freeing herself from male mythology, she can use it to manipulate and control the “Boys” around her, who remain its slave. “Julip dressed in a sleeveless blouse, white shorts tight across her bottom, and sandals, putting a dab of lavender scent on her neck. The outfit and scent tended to send all of them into a hormonal trance.”

The second novella, “The Seven-Ounce Man,” revisits a picaresque hero called Brown Dog, about whom Mr. Harrison has written before. Although he's as much the romantic and sentimentalist as the other men in this book, Brown Dog possesses enough wit to laugh at himself, to remain open and curious about the convolutions of human endeavor. By refusing to be locked into a single pattern, ritual or myth—including that offered by the American Indian family friend who gives him a cabin and work—Brown Dog remains true to himself. “There didn't seem to be a philosophical or theological palliative,” he notes early on, considering his lack of money and love. But after he finally sleeps with his childhood sweetheart, he realizes that “it can be a blessed event when a dream dies.”

A collector of wisdom (“even gravy couldn't help fruitcake”), Brown Dog is light and mobile, seen by others as “a goof … a long-lost retarded brother” not about to be circumscribed by traditions, cultures, systems of belief. “He liked a genuinely empty future.” Instead, in appropriately canine fashion, he wanders from one place to another, sampling the scents, lapping at the tastes, taking rewards and woundings in equal stride and with equal grace. Not surprisingly, he's an eminently likable character.

There is a development of ideas from one novella to another in this book, and it comes full circle in the third novella, “The Beige Dolorosa.” Phillip Caulkins, a middle-aged professor, has been driven out of academia, ostensibly by political correctness, but actually by his failure to relinquish old forms, by his attraction to the mythic female and by his near-fatal marriage to reason. In retirement from love, he has adopted a sort of neurasthenic posture, forced by his passivity to live off the kindness of strangers on an isolated Arizona ranch.

Unable even to cook, he lives for a while like some enervated drunk until women and circumstance force him out of his shell-shocked remorse and self-pity, back into the world of work and self-awareness. He begins his recovery by undertaking to rename all the birds of North America, a grandiose intellectual gesture, but soon gives up and submits to the simple pleasures of repairing barbed-wire fencing, rediscovering his lost sexuality—and recovering his life itself. Finally he recognizes what's at stake: “What I want to know is if I don't find freedom in this life, when will I find it?”

What makes these novellas work best is the authority of Mr. Harrison's voice, expressed via a curiously old-fashioned, ironic yet earnest narrator who acts as a kind of moral and ethical guide through the shorthand of the sharp cinematic moments of the plots. “She was born mean, captious, sullen,” this narrator observes at one point, “with occasional small dirty windows of charm.”

In the novellas of Julip Jim Harrison suggests that what is suspect in our lives are the grand gestures we invent, the sentimental versions of reality we refuse to discard. The puniness of our lives, which Hemingway could only accept by creating yet another myth, is really, in Mr. Harrison's view, an opportunity for making do, for creating out of nothing something that is authentic and individual. As his characters discover, there's no reason to see life as tragic. Julip's father wasn't a suicide, as she was led to believe; he passed out drunk in a public park and was run over. It was just a stupid accident, not a fatal, romantic gesture.

Kelly Cherry (review date 14 August 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 819

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 women; in “The Seven-Ounce Man” we experience a Native American world; and in “The Beige Dolorosa” we visit a largely Latino world. What is surpassingly wonderful is that all three fictional experiences are so lively. Rollicking and sad, hilarious and startlingly sweet smart and never cynical, these are stories that remind us no life should be overlooked or taken for granted.

In the first novella “Julip,” a young woman who trains dogs and keeps three older men on a tighter leash than they know, is not “particularly pretty or classically handsome” but “vivid, immediate, and [has] almost involuntarily filled out her life to its limits, moment by moment, with a rare emotional energy.” She is determined to have her brother, Bobby, moved from prison—where he is doing 7-to-10 for shooting and wounding three lovers—to a mental hospital.

To do this, she must visit various people, including the lovers, a photographer, a painter and a writer, referred to collectively as “the Boys.” The Boys, despite being middle-aged and successful, are boys. “When camera, paintbrush, and pen were put aside, they were right out there in la-la land with the Bloomingdale's teenyboppers.” They are “unquestionably kind and generous,” but desire—a nameless desire, a vague American hankering for something different, something better or else simply more—has permanently befuddled them, and apparently they eye Julip as a possible fulfillment of that desire. Julip is smart, and how she accomplishes her mission and leaves the Boys behind is the witty trajectory of this fast-moving narrative.

“The Seven-Ounce Man” continues the adventures of Brown Dog, who previously appeared in Harrison's The Woman Lit by Fireflies. Brown Dog might be described as a first-rate underachiever. He's a hormone-addled happy-go-lucky sometime pulp-cutter in Michigan's Upper Peninsula whose most recent run-in with the law revolves around the illicit transportation of a fossilized Indian corpse. His intention had been to protect a Native graveyard from scientific excavation. Brown Dog is always well-intentioned—to the extent that he is capable of intention. Mostly, he lives from day to day, and it is his innate knack for relishing each day in turn that wins a reader to his side. Wanted by assorted law officers, social workers, journalists, relatives and girlfriends' boyfriends and husbands, he never fails to appreciate “a big nature day.” Brown Dog, although not an Indian, nevertheless feels honor-bound to risk all to defend the burial site, and ends up becoming part of the Wild Wild Midwest Show—a concept that still makes me laugh out loud.

The last narrative gives us Phillip Caulkins, a 50-year-old divorced professor whose career has been overturned by a charge of sexual harassment. Where this story might have bogged down in academic discourse or in recycled satirical potshots, Harrison offers a touching portrait of a man reinventing himself. Caulkins' daughter sets him up on her in-laws' ranch in southeast Arizona.

There, he reviews his life until he begins to be aware of the new life he is leading—outdoors, riding horses, mending fences. Not to mention rediscovering sex and tangling with drug smugglers. “I meant to get rid of my personality which insisted on maintaining a world that no longer existed. … I must reshape myself to fully inhabit the earth.” He also has a dream in which he is told to attach new names to the birds, because “so many of the current names of birds are humiliating and vulgar. … The thrasher is now called the ‘beige dolorosa,’ which is reminiscent of a musical phrase in Mozart, one that makes your heart pulse with mystery, as does the bird.”

It is the “otherness” of birds that intrigues and attracts Caulkins, as it is, one suspects, the otherness of these characters that has intrigued the author. I can imagine a reader who might be offended at the author's excursions into ethnic and sexual territories that are not his home place, but I cannot imagine taking such a reader seriously. There is no slumming among sub-cultures here. Like Caulkins, one may feel “at home, whether I deserved to or not.”

These three novellas work beautifully together, composing a true triptych whose panels complete and comment upon one another. Motifs and references recur, patterning a book as artistically whole as it is emotionally revivifying.

Alexander Harrison (review date 25 November 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 685

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 and escape—and by the inversions which Harrison subtly brings about. The eponymous heroine of the first story has three lovers all in their fifties. Bobby, Julip's brother, one year younger than her at twenty-one, has inflicted minor injuries on them with a gun. He is imprisoned in Raiford, obviously mad, and Julip must secure the consent of her lovers to move him to a psychiatric hospital, rather than prison, until he is better.

“The Beige Dolorosa”, the third story, finds fifty-year-old Philip Caulkins, a disgraced English professor, working as a cowpoke in Arizona. He gets mixed up with Magdalena, a tempestuously sexy young woman, and ends up alone in Mexico, the back of his truck full of statues of the Virgin Mary, all of them chock-full of rich-smelling Mexican weed.

If, as is apparent, Julip and Caulkins have their share of problems, Brown Dog, the hero of “The Seven Ounce Man”, suffers and overcomes on a higher plane. He has never had a social security number and is being sought by the police for his hapless involvement in a plan to save a Hopewell burial site from excavation. He has no Indian blood despite his name, and his involvement with native American activists seems foisted on him by the media. He would rather get drunk and screw around. “The Seven Ounce Man” is dark, hilarious and poignant, and when Brown Dog ends up heading west with a Canadian Mohawk on the run from the government, there is a sense of wonder and possibility.

It would be wrong to say that these characters are alienated. It is true that they draw solace from the country as well as alcohol and drugs, but it is largely through their relationship with animals that their humanity is manifested. Julip and Brown Dog are both dignified and rendered inadequate by this relationship: Julip religiously writes a diary about the dogs she meets and trains, and discusses her animal dreams with psychiatrists; Brown Dog seeks the bear medicine which his aged friend and malefactor, Delmore Short Bear, brings to life for him.

Dealings with animals and birds, in his case, are initially more arcane. However, his mission comes to him in a Technicolor dream, and it is “to rename the birds of North America [to] publish a new guidebook”. The quest becomes meaningless when Mona, his horse, leads him up a narrow gully. There, birds of all colours and sounds stupefy him. At the story's start, fresh from his disgrace at the university, he can hear nothing but the pulsing of his own blood. By the end, he hears the birds and believes that the “future was acceptable rather than promising”. However, he concludes, “it was certainly my choice.”

Perhaps the strength of the novella form is that, freed from the expectations and complexities of the long novel, it demands a proper resolution. Jim Harrison is a writer of exceptional humanity, and he has written a book with a broad range of settings, about a broad range of characters who live and will go on living.

Writers such as Bret Easton Ellis are fond of suggesting that the world is coming to an end—in Los Angeles, a place of grotesque and inhuman difficulty, where blankness and confusion are the only measures of character. Harrison has no time for moribund old frontiers. He prefers to write of wild states—Michigan, Arizona and Wisconsin—new frontiers, where action and change are not only possible, but within reach.

Joseph Bednarik with Jim Harrison (interview date 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4261

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 to meet in his hotel room. A privacy please sign was hanging from the doorknob, but since we had an appointment I knocked. Harrison opened to a room accented by American Spirit cigarette smoke, a tray of dirty breakfast dishes, and the metallic rumble of trolley cars. “The trolley's a little noisy but I got to like the trolley.”

When we talked earlier that week, I suggested he visit the San Francisco Public Library to see the permanent murals painted by Gottardo Piazzoni, the grandfather of Russell Chatham—the landscape painter who provides the cover art for all of Harrison's books.

[Bednarik:] Did you get a chance to see the Piazzoni murals?

[Harrison:] No I didn't. I visited with Barry Gifford and he took me out to the track. He's a racetrack tout. He knows everybody there so we went way up on the roof on this sunny afternoon. He's good friends with the official timer for California racetracks so we sat in the timer's shack. It was just beautiful. The whole bay, the whole world is out there. We stayed for five races. It's what I used to think of as a “Brautigan afternoon.” You know, you wake up with a hang-over and Richard says, “We must start today with a meatloaf.” So we go to a cafeteria and have meatloaf. Well Barry is such a track sophisticate he says stuff like “Jesus, I'm going to baseball this bet.” It's all that racetrack slang. And I of course just sit there listening to it because I like the sound of it, but I hadn't the foggiest fucking notion what was going on. But people traditionally have always been that way about horses. I know several people whose lives were literally saved by horses. McGuane, for example, raising and training cutting horses. He does it all himself. It's very moving to watch—like I train bird dogs.

Is that where the dog training information for Julip comes?

Yes. I didn't really mean that when I wrote it, not consciously. It seems Julip survives these men and survives everything because she has this very specific skill in relationship with animals. It's a tremendous focus for her life, like in our darkest times we always have our poetry.

The line in Julip that stands out is that the three rounders, as you called them, were “still flipping books of poems open at random, hoping for secrets.”

I had to speak at Sam Lawrence's memorial service in New York and I was flipping through books again. Stephen Mitchell's translation of the Duino Elegies. At the end there are what show business calls “out takes,” intended lines that Rilke didn't use. I said one at the memorial service: “Beware, oh wanderer, the road is walking too.”

Last night at the reading you mentioned that you were writing poetry again.

Yes, I wrote two long poems this winter. One I had started earlier, and then one called “Sonoran Radio.” Where I live part of the year in the southwest there's no contact, you can't get television. We don't have anything there except a VCR to watch movies. The only radio I can get to play at night is from Mexico. I don't really know Spanish but I was amalgamating all of my feelings about Mexico. It's a long suite. I am getting closer to having another book but I'm going slow. Also, I just feel tremendously overexposed now and I don't want to publish any more books for a while. It's flattering in an odd way because I never expected to have the range of audience I do.

Do you have a sense that there's an audience interested in your poetry, and another in your fiction, and more readers who discovered you through your Esquire food column?

Or the movie business. Although it was odd in Mississippi—where for some reason I have a lot of readers—and they really are readers in Mississippi. But down there they usually have the poems and the novels and they never ask about the movie business. It's a living, certainly, but it's a relief not to have to deal with the torpidity that comes with being in the business. Because Hollywood was just an option instead of teaching, which I simply couldn't do temperamentally. All your energy being sucked out. You're a walking blood bank for students, which you understand and respect, but for writing you have to save up for yourself and silence until the right time to release it.

Torpidity aside, you've been noted as saying that you desperately want to write a good screenplay.

I do because I love movies.

Do you feel that you've done it?

I had a good start on Wolf before I was interfered with, but that's the luck of the draw in showbiz. For a while when I was writing that screenplay—this is how we don't know what's really going on—I had a hard time because naturally I was re-living the experience that I had of lycanthropy and then my hair—my eyebrows—kept growing faster and faster and I was having to clip my nails every day, if you can believe this. I thought: “I can't deal with this craziness that I have anymore.” And there were dreams I'd be sitting with the producer and director in New York and suddenly the hair started growing through my shirt and I'd throw them out the window. I thought: “Slow down boy.”

Did you write the screenplay for Legends of the Fall?

I wrote the first couple versions, but I didn't claim credit on that one. The man who did the real work was Bill Wittliff. He's a marvelous Western writer and his screenplay was so much better than mine it was humiliating. I said that to him. “God, how long did you take? I spent a whole month on mine.” He had spent a year on his, naturally. I was trying to rip them off for some quick bucks to buy cocaine at the time. Pack up my nose, you know. Should've stayed back on the farm like Bob Frost.

When you were back on the farm you helped co-edit Sumac with Dan Gerber. Did you enjoy the work?

Well, Dan worked harder on it. When you start an appreciable literary magazine you're absolutely deluged with manuscripts. We didn't realize it at the time but the problems in those magazines is that every MFA in the United States is trying to get credits, and they keep track. Of course the nightmare in editing Just Before Dark was I never kept track of anything. I just simply forgot about a lot of the stuff. That's when I began to think that maybe I was writing too much.

In “The Seven-Ounce Man,” Brown Dog has his “best nature day” when he finds a bear's blow hole. That's a beautiful image.

He says: “What luck.” It's a miniaturization of the Delphic oracle. That's a god sleeping down there and you smell the breath and hear the snoring.

In your TriCycle piece, “Sitting Around,” you called bears your “dharma gate.”

I never associated that at the time. Everything can be a dharma gate but there's this enormous specificity in bears. And you know, one's animal changes. When I finally got to see a wolf where I lived, that meant an enormous amount to me. To hear her three nights and to see her. And then there are bears up there and bears are mostly nocturnal but to see them occasionally, to follow them and to sense them—I wrote a poem about one—he fed on the sweet pea and the wild strawberries. He was a huge, gaunt male. I watched him for about an hour. Probably too close. They can get a little irritable in the spring when they're hungry.

I was interested to hear that black bears actually attacked more humans than grizzlies, and grizzlies have the bad reputation.

Well, of course there are more of them. We've had a couple deaths up in the Porcupine Mountains. But generally you just have to exercise the same caution you do in New York and Los Angeles.

Maybe less so, actually. In terms of your writing do you consider anything out of bounds?

What's out of bounds for me is somebody else's religious rituals. The most disgusting thing you see now is the “new age” appropriation of what's Native American. That just terrifies me. How could they do that? Just like that old Chippewa shaman seeing his first picture of a white man who shot a deer with his foot on the deer—Oh, God—you don't fool with that. Oddly enough, that's just like if a Catholic went into a teepee and saw all these priest vestments hanging there as wall decoration. I mean there's something tremendously inappropriate about one writer fooling with another person's secret religion or public religion, or using it for his own purposes. That would be the only bar, nothing else. You know, Terry Tempest Williams said something very odd the other day. She and her husband went down to Mexico and went to about 10,000 feet in this forest, where all the Monarch butterflies in North America go. As she said, “I don't know how they count them.” There were twenty-five million. She could hear the twenty-five million. You can't typify the sound but she says: “It was just like being in God's brain.” And I says, “That's it!”

What an unforgettable sound that must be. When I first heard Terry Tempest Williams read aloud I was utterly intoxicated by her voice.

There's a woman with a lot of mojo. She's dealing in an area now that's quite scary, or strange—calls it the “panerotics of nature,” We're lucky that there are wonders.

And that the natural world is teeming with sound.

I had in this one part of a poem: “The cat drinking water was insufferably loud.” [Harrison rummages for, then reads from a typescript]:

At first the sound
of the cat drinking water
was unendurable,
then it was broken by a fly
heading north,
a curve-billed thrasher
swallowing a red berry,
a dead sycamore leaf
suspended on its way to earth
by a breeze so slight
it went otherwise unnoticed.

If you want to read this one you can take it and send it back to me. I don't know if I have another copy. [Harrison hands over a six-page suite.]

I'm sure we can get it copied here in the hotel.

It doesn't matter, just send it to me.

Thanks. I look forward to reading this. In regards to some of your earlier work George Quasha, in Stony Brook, wrote about your second book, Locations. He claimed there was a story afoot about the poem “After the Anonymous Swedish”: That you woke from a dream having been a pond and recited the poem in Swedish, a language you don't speak, then translated it to your wife at 3 A.M. Is that bullshit?

That's bullshit. I was so envious at the time that I didn't know any languages, so I wanted to translate a poem too. So I just made one up. It sounds like a Swedish poem. I've been thinking about writing more of them. Drummond Hadley, who's an extraordinary poet and an old friend of Gary Snyder's, is a cowboy poet. He lives on this vast, strange fiefdom out in the southwest. We were walking down the road and he quoted the entirety of the “Tenth Duino Elegy” in German. Then he told me a funny story. He's from a wealthy family and he'd run off to be a cowboy down in the Sierra Madres. He wanted to be a Mexican cowboy, so he camped for months with this group of Mexican cowboys. Locating cattle is hard work, but they always told stories at night. And he didn't have any stories. He does have this gifted memory, and he loves Lorca, so he thought “Well …” So he stands by the fireside and recites a poem: “La luna, la luna, la luna,” about the moon spilling like milk over the mountain onto this young girl in her torment. So every night: “Drum, we want to hear the luna poem,” and they'd sit there and listen to it. They couldn't read, any of them. The beauty of that.

Do you memorize any of your own poems?

Never. Sometimes I surprise myself, I remember whole parts of them. I remember other people's lines. That is odd, I never have—I suppose I don't want any knots between the next one.

Do certain parts of your suites emerge at different times and in different places?

Oh, absolutely. The suite form I like is when all these little wedges are intended to suggest; then, finally, a whole—almost topographically. It's a map, the sacred, though they were written before I read that book by Bruce Chatwin, Songlines. That's a monster of a book because he determined—which was known only by anthropologists for a long while—that the Aborigines navigate by singing, knowing the songs of an area. So this guy's walking twenty-two hundred miles to see this girl he had dreamed about. Twenty-two hundred miles, and he's trotting along with his stick and he's singing the songs of the area that tell him how to go, where to go. It's just an unbelievable, utterly transcendent idea.

In your essay “Going Places” you talk about your seduction with maps. The first map being wooden puzzle pieces shaped like the states in different colors—

Iowa is yellow. It's the corn, you know.

—and the last map, to a remote, secret place, is drawn on thin buckskin which is slowly cut up for stew.

Eating your map. It seems certain things are ineffable and that's the barrier, back to writing what you can't quite reach. I was thinking that the whole notion of zazen is to be able to speak the language you spoke before you were born and the language you speak after you die, that's part of it. Writing is a lifetime pursuit. You never come up with anything.

Well, there's the old stories of the Zen poets writing on leaves and tossing the poems into the river.

Well, that's old Li Po. The river, in you go. Do you read Stephen Mitchell's translations?

I've read his Tao Te Ching.

The Gospel According to Jesus is a tremendous book because he's reduced the entirety of the whole thing to what Jesus actually said, separated from church history and all the gloss and accumulation, so the actual text is quite slender. It's very similar to what both Gandhi and Thomas Jefferson did with the New Testament.

In “Sitting Around” you wrote that you were creating your own religion called Bobo. Are there any holy books in Bobo?

Snyder's The Practice of the Wild probably comes closest. It's an incredible book. But Bobo. “Bobo knows all modernity is just a flaky paint job.” That kind of thing. It goes on and on from there.

From Bobo back to the silver screen: Have any of your books ever been made into a foreign film?

No, although the French have owned A Good Day to Die for years now and the guy claims he's going to make it. I was ignoring him and then I was appalled—I saw this film I love, I've watched it three or four times now called The Hairdresser's Husband. Just a transcendent film about this little French boy. He likes to dance to Egyptian music. And he likes to get his hair cut by this sexy sort of woman, so he's always waiting for his to grow. His dad asks him at dinner what he wants to do when he grows up and he says “I want to get my hair cut.” So his dad of course slugs him. He meets this beautiful hairdresser, gets his hair cut, and keeps coming back. Then they get married and he just sits around in the barber shop, talking, as other people get hair cuts. It's just a beautiful film. So then I found out the people that own A Good Day to Die are the ones that did this. And then I feel stupid. Because I couldn't see how they would make A Good Day to Die. Or why, but then I thought this is the kind of thing the French are interested in—and the Spanish. The Spanish liked the book too, for obvious reasons: a good day to die.

Do you think A Good Day to Die sealed your fate in the feminist world?

Oh, everyone forgets everything. Nobody reads very much. That did at the time, but I don't care. I mean, nobody knows how to locate anybody, and then I published Dalva and The Woman Lit By Fireflies.

Was there an equal and opposite reaction?

Oh, tremendously, to both those books. It was very overwhelming to me, in the pleasant sense. I must've received a couple hundred letters from women on Dalva and only one didn't like it, or was upset at my temerity. But we can't have abridgments of our freedom. I mean I don't even accept the abridgments that I mentioned to you, other than implicitly, it's just that I would fear to fool with somebody else's medicine. I know people do, and then the Native Americans justly get pissed off. There's some wonderful poems in Elizabeth Woody. She's an Indian poet up in Washington. Her book's coming out with University of Arizona Press. Some of her first poems are quite formal and not too interesting to me and then she hits some kind of really strange, powerful stride in a long poem about her sister. Crazy. It's like Louise Erdrich's poem to her sister who got beaten up by a drunk white guy. Overpowering poem. Elizabeth told this story when we all met in Wyoming. Matthiessen and Lopez and everybody was there—writers and nature. It was intriguing because I never met Lopez though we corresponded. We never met in what we call “real life.” I like that, don't you? Anyway, Elizabeth got up—everybody's making very elaborate speeches, except Sam Hamill who's just sitting back there as Sam Hamill, which is quite wonderful—and she says: “I come out of the store.” She lived way up in the reservation at the time. “I get in my car and then these two ravens come down that like to fool around, and they sit on the hood of my car and they grab my windshield wipers and snap them, looking at me,” and so there we get the relation of writers and nature. It doesn't need many big adjectives.

Have you read Gerald Vizenor's Dead Voices?

I just ordered it. He's just a marvelous author. Nicholson's a great fan of his. I gave him Griever: An American Monkey King in China and The Trickster of Liberty because he's a real coyote figure.

In the magazine Caliban you dedicated the poem “Counting Birds” to Vizenor.

Because of that line in there about all those swallow holes. I was thinking that these are the eyes of the Anasazi bringing me the Manitou, because they look at the Manitou Islands. Sometimes when you look the Manitou are sleeping bears. I wrote the introduction, a couple years ago, for the local Ottawa-Chippewa tribal history and went to the dedication of their new motel and casino. It was wonderful. They had a drum group and the smoking of the pipe. It was just gorgeous. I went to the ghost supper with all these very loud and very old Chippewa, and the one turns to me and says: “We were really something once, weren't we.” [Harrison excuses himself and finishes packing.] I used to get terrified of missing planes, but then oddly enough I would think that everything will be OK if I get home. In recent years, I suppose because of my practice and what I've been doing, it doesn't come out anymore. It's Dogen's whole idea: Practice is finding yourself where you already are. So consequently sometimes when I'm in airports now I think maybe I'll go someplace else. You look at the tote boards and think—

“Well, there's a four o'clock flight to Rio.”

Yeah. Or there are all these different Fayettevilles and Charlottevilles in the southeast, so you think “maybe I'll just check 'em all out.” I think it first happened when I was writing “Brown Dog,” the illusion that there is a home if you're not at home everywhere. I forgot that I could only write at home so then in this motel in Livingston, Montana, I started writing “Brown Dog.” I just completely forgot that I could only write at home, which is like some sort of idiot savant bullshit.

There's the argument to be made, though, that Brown Dog's voice is very familiar, much easier to access for you than Dalva.

Oh, infinitely. He's sort of my survival mechanism. In an odd sense he's a true Zennist while I'm only a student.

Right. He's the one who's there.

Always. He says: “This gravy is not pork gravy.” She says: “Of course not, it's generic. You wanna make something of it?” “I was just saying it isn't pork gravy.” And he says: “She was beautiful. Her one leg was too short but it looked just like the other leg only shorter.” You know, that kind of thing. It was just his immediate contact with life. And he can always get out of being cornered. “You don't have a social security card? How do you pay your taxes?” He only gets one letter every couple years and that's to renew his driver's license. He has no other official contact with anything. And he's always lived in unoccupied deer cabins. Well, Brown Dog's the emotional equivalent of what keeps me alive. In France I think I did thirteen interviews and nine photo ops, two lectures, three book signings, a couple talk shows in five days. I get a little walk in the Luxembourg Gardens and for some reason there's a lovely girl in a pink rabbit suit flouncing around in some promotion of some product. And the Luxembourg Gardens are overwhelming because I know Rilke walked through them. Every day, starting the next day, on French TV there's going to be this film about me on Cinéma 3, and they repeat it every day in the afternoon. I says: “I gotta get out of this fucking place before they blow my cover.” I think: “Ah, pink rabbit suit.” Weird. And then walking up: “Where's the zipper?” You know, reverting to Brown Dog emotions.

You didn't pack your green janitor's suit from The Theory & Practice of Rivers?

No, although that's from the same lineage, the green janitor's suit. I think that's partly the spirit of my father who was immediate like that. He said to me when I went off to New York: “Well James, maybe you should just stay there 'til the pissants carry you out through the keyhole.” This is wonderful and I'm lucky I don't spend my adult life fighting against my dead father, because he was very pleased that I wanted to be a writer. I wasn't even sure I should bother that much with college because Hemingway and Faulkner didn't bother with it, and Sherwood Anderson. All these people he liked. That's not where you learn how to write. His roots were real Brown Dogian. He went to college to study agriculture. He and his brother worked for two years digging pipeline and living in tents in Michigan during the winter.

To pay for school?

Yeah. Living in tents during the winter in Michigan and hand digging up pipeline. Well, give me a break. Now everybody wants a fucking grant before they read a book.

Was Clare in “The Woman Lit by Fireflies” named after John Clare?

I wondered about that later. Maybe a little subconsciously. I was always obsessed with Clare and Christopher Smart. Like Clare I've had periods of mental instability, as it were, and one always fears being locked up because there's no food. I couldn't deal with institutional food.

One final question with an eye toward the future. Dalva was originally going to be the story of Dalva's grandfather. What's the status of Northridge's novel?

That's what I'm working on now. How I originally planned the book was to write about her grandfather, her son, and her. But then Dalva just completely took over the whole thing. So I have nine cartons of unused notes and I can't afford to let them just go away. They're in the attic of my granary if they haven't been chewed by mice. I found three galleys of Dalva the other day, but they'd been chewed up by mice. That kind of thing really disturbs my librarian brother.

Gerald Locklin (review date Winter 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 750

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 be most at pain to dissociate themselves from the more conventional prejudices. Harrison still investigates frontier (and erstwhile transcendentalist) categories such as self-reliance, honor, courage, masculinity, and womanhood, whereas the very word manhood evokes derision in many circles today. The less ideological common moviegoer, however, responded deeply to the film's archetypes.

But there are many sides to the stories Harrison spins. “Julip,” for instance, depicts the absurd lengths to which traditional male values may be taken and that it often falls to a capable woman to unravel the complications created by men. Julip's addled brother has landed himself behind bars after a botched attempt to avenge her “defilement” by three middle-aged lovers. An experienced but uncoarsened 21, she is a pillar of savvy in a world of weak and loony males, but she likes men and deals kindly and effectively with them. Like the title protagonist of Harrison's novel Dalva, Julip has inherited from male ancestors traits that are often either absent or present only in parody in the men of her generation. Harrison's women are almost too good in too many ways to ring entirely true, but they are certainly not stereotypes.

“The Seven-Ounce Man” continues the adventures of Brown Dog—formerly of the novella [“Brown Dog” contained in] The Woman Lit by Fireflies—once again drawn into conflicts with various women, anthropologists, and law enforcement agencies. B.D. is a survivor but no stock picaro. He is capable of sacrificing himself on behalf of native burial remains, while parrying an attack on hunting with, “Tell it to someone who gives a shit.” He leads a man's life, but prefers the company of women: “You weren't always cutting and bruising yourself on their edges.” We will no doubt be learning more of this anti-hero of the Upper Peninsula.

Since I love the Tucson area almost as much as I loathe our current political rectitude, I found “The Beige Dolorosa” one of my most pleasurable reading experiences of recent years. It is more than the cautionary tale of an impotent historian set up for a sexual harassment charge. It is a parable of rebirth through intimacy with the natural world; its living things; its cycles, songs and silences; its timelessness; its repose. Drugs—and their profitability, born of their prohibition—have made their way into this landscape also, but Harrison suggests there are ways of co-existing with the insanities of contemporary life (which include an academic world that “resembles the cell structure of political life in Cuba”), of laughing at them while reintegrating ourselves with “the ordinary life of incomprehension.” Robinson Jeffers would concur.

Surely teachers will recognize a system in which they are obsolete at 50, only the rarest of students expresses a love of Mozart, and scholarship is reduced to “Sexism in Yeats.” Harrison, like Sartre, reminds us that a realm of possibilities confronts us and that the choice, ultimately, is our own.

Harrison has spoken ill of Hemingway in interviews, but this may be a case of influence-anxiety. His characters bathe as often as Brett Ashley, and they find their solace in the woods. He is, along with Cormac McCarthy, Tom McGuane, Thom Jones, Chris Offutt, and Gerald Haslam a sustainer of the tradition that asks “How should a person live?” and finds the answer in the natural, the perennial, the ancient, the quest itself. Hemingway never excluded women from his world, and their inclusion is even more explicit in Harrison. At times, Harrison could use a refresher course in the clarity of Hemingway's prose, and financial exigencies are sometimes too easily resolved. He has, however, like Hemingway, known both hardship and well-earned rewards, and has had similar entrée to wide experience and expertise. He even, like Hemingway, has only one good eye. Harrison has been a better literary son than he realizes, and we are the richer for it.

Scott Veale (review date 3 January 1999)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 393

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 collection, which also includes a new grab bag of nature verse and prose poems called “Geo-Bestiary,” has a meandering feel, although Harrison's concerns—aging, women, eating and drinking, hunting, the craft of writing and above all the spirit and rhythms of the natural world—are remarkably constant, as are his intentions: “In our poetry we want to rub our nose hard / into whatever is before it; to purge / these dreams of pictures, photos, phantom people.” His voice is obsessively unaffected and colloquial, which is surprising for someone so quick to acknowledge his lifelong debt to poets as diverse as Apollinaire, Rimbaud, Li Po and Keats, and who experiments with Buddhist-inspired verse and obscure poetic forms like ghazels. Harrison's writing is graceful, direct and muscular, even in those occasional places where the poems feel like dashed-off diary entries or, rarer still, when they hit a mawkish note. Much of the best verse—particularly the fine introspective reveries in The Theory and Practice of Rivers & New Poems—is set in rural Michigan, where Harrison is clearly most comfortable, pacing through the woods or confronting his appetites and his mortality: “It is not so much that I got / there from here, which is everyone's / story: but the shape / of the voyage, how it pushed / outward in every direction / until it stopped.” Throughout his wanderings he is great company—a restless, self-questioning, intelligent writer, humble before nature and above all grounded in the flesh and blood and feathers of the planet “A modern man, I do not make undue connections though my heart wrenches daily against the unknowable, almighty throb and heave of the universe against my skin that sings a song for which we haven't quite found the words.

Lee Oser (review date Autumn 1999)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 580

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 Pound said of Whitman, we can generally say for Harrison: “He is America. … He is disgusting. He is an exceedingly nauseating pill, but he accomplishes his mission. … He is a genius because he has a vision of what he is and of his function.” Whitman and Pound and Harrison are not only heirs of the ages; they are rebels against American Calvinism.

I respect any author who can mine his world for gold. Still, my response to this collection is ambivalence. It was probably a hankering after completeness that led Harrison to include his first, very voting book, 1965's Plain Song. For this reader, the influence of Robert Bly on the early Harrison dates him—like an echoey sound-effect on a 1960s record. Generation-Xers might even derive a kitschy pleasure from the long dinosaur-jam or sequences that typify Harrison's early writing.

Alongside Adrienne Rich, the protest-era Harrison experiments with ghazals. As in Rich's case, the experiment yields mixed results. Many of the ghazala feature an interesting surrealism, or reflect curious reading in anthropology. But you cannot adopt a challenging Middle Eastern form by jettisoning the hard parts. Unlike Harrison, I hesitate to defend associate leaps of thought in terms of organic form: the associations can be mechanical or clever, But the first few books offer many accurate and useful writings on the northern Michigan landscape, riot without inspired turns of phrase.

At his best, the later Harrison is a formidable wit, a Zen rambling man capable of fabulous drolleries and vertiginous shifts of perspective. There is, moreover, considerable thoughtfulness and religious feeling in the recent poetry, as in the opening stanza of the sequence “After Ikkyu” (named after the fifteenth-century Zen master of the Rinzai school in Japan): “Our minds buzz like bees / but not the bees' minds. / It's just wings not heart / they say, moving to another flower.” Detecting a hint of moral allegory in these rich verses, I begin to suspect that Harrison owes a debt to his Calvinist past. We read him, much as we read Gary Snyder, by shuttling between East and West.

The Shape of the Journey has two important defects. First, it rants. Harrison has a penchant for facile dichotomies (good writers versus evil politicians, pure Indians versus corrupt whites). This depressing Manichean strain allows him to shake his fist at civilization while partaking of its best fruits: he is yet another high-maintenance rebel. Second, I am not satisfied with Harrison from a technical standpoint. With respect to technique, his best poem is probably “The Theory and Practice of Rivers” (indeed a good poem). Here, for sustained passages, we find noble accents and an arresting rhythmical texture. I would grant that Harrison gets the form right in his more deeply meditative poems. Too often, though, he shuns formal constraints, and makes things rather too easy for himself.

James J. McClintock (essay date Winter 2000)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5373

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; nevertheless, they have been unfairly criticized for being macho derivatives of Hemingway. That criticism has diminished since Dalva (1988), “The Woman Lit By Fireflies” (1990), and “Julip” (1994), all narratives of women's lives.

Harrison's works, in fact, have always been as much about the interior life of men—and, now, of women—as the external life of action. Harrison has consistently explored the workings of imagination, the nature of consciousness, and the mystery of personality, developing his art in the service of what post-Jungian psychologist James Hillman, and before him the poet John Keats, called “soul-making.” Hillman, an American who spent nearly twenty years at the Jung Institute in Zurich, Switzerland, began publishing his major works in the mid-seventies. His psychological views about creativity and the connections among imagination, imagery, dreams, and the soul have aided Harrison in shaping and articulating his own literary vision and life's work.

Explicit references to Hillman's ideas begin as early as 1981 in Warlock, part two of which has an epigraph from Hillman's The Dream and the Underworld: “There is an imagination below the earth that abounds in animal forms, that revels and makes music” (117). Thereafter, Harrison mentions Hillman by name on the first page of Sundog (1984), in Dalva (122), and in a number of essays, most notably “Fording and Dread” ([Just before] Dark, 1982; 258, 259), “Passacaglia on Getting Lost” (Dark, 1986, 252), and “From the Dalva Notebooks, 1985–87” (Dark, 1988, 285). Furthermore, Harrison alludes to Hillman's ideas in nearly every work from “The Man Who Gave Up His Name” (1980) to “Julip” (1994).

Allusions to a Keats passage signifies the commonality between Jim Harrison's literature and James Hillman's psychology. Hillman quotes that passage frequently as capturing the purview of his “archetypal psychology” (Blue Fire, 6); and Harrison alludes to the same passage in a number of works, quoting it in “The Beige Dolorosa” (Julip, 248). In a letter to his brother, Keats wrote, “Call the world if you please, ‘The vale of Soul-making.’ Then you will find out the use of the world” (Re-Visioning, xv).

For Hillman, the soul refers to “that unknown human factor which turns events into experiences,” investing the ordinary with significance. It is “the imaginative possibility in our natures … that mode which recognizes all realities as primarily symbolic.” Hillman says of soul that it is “a perspective rather than a substance, a viewpoint toward things rather than a thing itself” (Archetypal Psych, 16–17). Not the Christian idea of soul, Hillman's conception is interchangeable with the Greek “psyche” and Latin “anima,” a mediator between matter and spirit, body and mind (Re-Visioning, xvi).

The making of soul, Hillman writes, “calls for dreaming, fantasying [sic], imaging” because “in the beginning is the image; first imagination then perception; first fantasy then reality” (Re-Visioning, 23). The psychologist's views about access to and development of soul through imaginative acts are, therefore, close to ideas of what writers do, especially since Hillman believes that imagined figures and persons are personifications of powers of the psyche, the soul. “In dreams, we are visited by the daimones, nymphs, heroes, and Gods shaped like our friends of last evening,” Hillman writes (Dreams, 61–62). The courage to attend to such dreams, to participate in soul-making, is for Hillman synonymous with the novelist's courage:

Entering one's interior story takes a courage similar to starting a novel. We have to engage with persons whose autonomy may radically alter, even dominate our thoughts and feeling. … It is a rare courage that submits to this middle region of psychic reality where the supposed surety of fact and illusion of fiction exchange their clothes.

(Healing, 54–55, in Blue, 49)

The challenge to do this is so great, Hillman often asserts, that writers (and others) suffer from depression and turn for relief to obsessive drinking, eating, and sexual encounters, exercising “Herculean” efforts to dominate their surroundings. These are familiar problems in Harrison's autobiographical writing; and they are prominent in his fiction and poetry. Harrison's troubled male protagonists often try to overcome painful experience through obsessive drinking, womanizing, eating, hunting and fishing—masculine pursuits that readers and reviewers have believed epitomize Harrison's major interests.

But readers who consider Harrison's portrayals Hemingwayesque in romanticizing masculine adventurers, are wrong. As William H. Roberson has argued convincingly, “Harrison's protagonists may aspire to the ‘tough guy’ image … [but] they are characters constantly questioning themselves, their lives, their purposes … and any pretense at macho is more an example of their own narcissism … than any reflection of male dominance” (241).

Harrison's failed-macho characters seek to lose themselves by trying to master their problems heroically. Their failures, ironically, are directly proportional to their tenacity in trying to dominate their “dayworld” lives (the common sense world of daily activities); they desperately need to give themselves over to the process of soul-making that occurs while dreaming and when opening to the indeterminate possibilities of dream images. Encouraged by many forces in American culture, men and women divorce themselves from reality, Hillman argues, by trying to achieve full control over circumstances. Ironically, they experience “loss of soul”; “All particular functions of ego-consciousness operate as before; associating, remembering, perceiving, feeling, and thinking are unimpaired. But one's conviction in oneself as a person and the sense of reality of the world have departed” (Re-Visioning, 44).

Certainly, this is true for failed artist, then unsuccessful foundation executive, Johnny “Warlock” Ludgren, in Warlock. Here is a mock-macho, fumbling, private detective who drives a four-cylinder Subaru rather than a black Trans Am, experiences terror in the woods of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and is a would-be ladies' man whose sexual imagination is shaped by his stack of Playboy, Oui, and Penthouse magazines (30). In this comic novel, Warlock is so self-preoccupied, sitting for hours thinking at the kitchen table, that his wife, Diana, sneaks up behind him and screams, “Leave yourself alone!” (154). Good advice, Hillman would say. Warlock needs to plunge into the underworld through dreaming, where roles and personae are neither simple nor culturally determined.

Harrison's invitation for us to read the novel from that perspective is offered in the epigraphs to each of the novel's two sections which draw attention to Hillman's The Dream and the Underworld (1979) and emphasize Hillman's major premise that soul-making is associated with dreams and a bottomless downward movement. Quoting A Midsummer Night's Dream exactly as Hillman has edited the same passage, Harrison opens Warlock with the Shakespearean epigraph for the Dream and the Underworld:

I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was: man is but an ass, if he go about to expound this dream. … The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was. … It shall be called “Bottom's Dream,” because it hath no bottom; and I will sing it in the latter end of a play … to make it the more gracious, I shall sing it at her death.

The second epigraph in Warlock, a direct quotation from Hillman's book, mentions the downward movement again but emphasizes imagination's role: “There is an imagination below the earth that abounds in animal forms, that revels and makes music” (117). In addition, and underscoring the importance to Harrison of archetypal psychology, the companion epigraph to The Dream and the Underworld is from Carl G. Jung's Psychology and Alchemy: “The dread and resistance which every natural human being experiences when it comes to delving too deeply into himself is, at bottom, the fear of the journey to Hades.”

Dread accounts for macho (Herculean) avoidance, but one must engage death (understood metaphorically) by taking the dream bridge to the underworld, to Hades, if soul-making is to occur. According to Hillman, the archetypal, mythic, transpersonal experience in those dreams has a salutary effect on our lives: because “We move from dream to … joyfulness” (132). In Warlock, Harrison engages these ideas with a brilliantly comic use of myth.

By alluding to Hillman's first chapter of The Dream and the Underworld, “The Bridge,” Harrison reveals that his character, Warlock, without knowing, is embarking on a soul-making journey. As Warlock crosses the Mackinac Bridge to Michigan's Upper Peninsula, it seems to him a path over “some sort of holy Rubicon,” an experience which resonates with an earlier dream; and the novel's narrator tells us that Warlock “did not know that the bridge of dreams is the bridge downward, and that in entering this terrain of sleep he had ruffled the ghastly feathers of the strange gods” (119).

Harrison's comic use of the many mythic elements in Warlock deflates the “melodramatic seriousness with which Warlock views his situation” (Gilligan, 149). Eventually Warlock grows away from his life-long confusion between the “day-world” of personal self or ego and the dream-infused world of the soul-making self. At first Warlock had tried to control and change his life “heroically,” vowing to live by simple rules:

Number One: Eat Sparingly
Number Two: Avoid Adultery
Number Three: Do Your best in Everything
Number Four: Get in First Rate Shape.


He had quickly and repeatedly failed to follow any of the rules. Warlock needs to heed the admonition of his mentor—significantly named Vergil—who gives advice Hillman might give about abandoning efforts to control one's life: “You don't live in the actual world. You live in a far inferior world where you dissipate all your energies making the world conform to your wishes” (75).

Ultimately, Warlock silences his obsessional concern with Self by crossing the bridge that draws him downward into the rich and potent world of his interior life, the world of personified images, of myth, of material for soul-making. We learn with Warlock that “beneath the slick and sophisticated surface of American life the old nature gods still exercise their capricious power” (Treadwell, 225). Thus the novel ends joyfully, with human wishes in concert with nature. Warlock confidently heads in the right direction after hearing the goddess of this hunt's horn (his wife Diana's car horn). The horn sounds to Warlock like Pan piping; the night world has invigorated his day world experience. Harrison's and Hillman's point is that “the surety of fact and illusion of fiction [have] exchange[d] clothes” during soul-making.

That exchange between fact and fiction is apparent even in the title of Harrison's next novel directly influenced by Hillman's ideas: Sundog, a Novel, The Story of an American Foreman, Robert Corvus Strang, as Told to Jim Harrison (1984).

In Sundog a fictional Jim Harrison is a depressed novelist whose work has deteriorated to writing a book about game cookery and who has found that “gluttony, alcohol, painkillers … didn't work anymore” (xii; while discussing Sundog, I will refer to the fictional character as “Jim Harrison” and the author as “Harrison”). In this enervated state, Jim Harrison is invited to write about “someone who has actually done something,” Robert Corvus Strang, an extraordinary hydraulic engineer who builds dams for irrigation systems in third world countries (xi). Sundog consists of taped interviews with Strang and of protagonist Jim Harrison's comments upon Strang's process of self-healing. Strang had injured leg nerves in a fall from a dam, a problem compounded by physical and mental effects of an Indian herbal medication he had taken since childhood for epilepsy. These problems not only parallel the fictional Jim Harrison's “nerves” and alcohol abuse, they are problems the living Harrison faced while writing this novel. In “Fording and Dread,” Harrison portrays himself as resembling the novel's Jim Harrison. During four months alone in an Upper Peninsula Michigan cabin, the setting for Sundog, Harrison had notes for the novel but nothing written, as he worried about “lost energy and interest,” wanting freedom from “dread, alcohol, gluttony, habits of all sorts” and wondering if “the character [Strang] I'm inventing is the one I wish to become” (Dark, 257). Strang's overarching motivation is to continue his work, the problem both the fictional and real life Harrisons confront. The question is, Harrison says in “Fording and Dread,” “How does one regenerate?” Sundog seeks the answer. The protagonist Jim Harrison says in the aptly titled first section, “Author's Note” (the living Jim Harrison, inevitably present), that the Strang writing project began “the rather nagging and painful beginning for me of a long voyage back toward Earth” (xi).

James Hillman is on the mind of both Jim Harrisons. The novel's opening paragraph mentions Hillman: “The contemporary mage James Hillman has told us that the notion that there is a light at the end of the tunnel has mostly been a boon to pharmaceutical companies,” referring to Hillman's contention that efforts at soul-making through therapy or other efforts, including Christian dogmas such as the resurrection, cannot obliterate depression (Sundog, ix; Inter Views, 19–21). There is no final cure for suffering and no fixed point of rest; “fluidity and grace are all” (ix; Inter Views, 17). Author Harrison learned this lesson and found an answer to his question, “How does one regenerate?” when he stopped taking notes for Sundog and “read the galleys of the new James Hillman book,” Healing Fictions (Dark, 258).

Healing Fictions—like Sundog, a Novel, The Story of an American Foreman, Robert Corvus Strang, as Told to Jim Harrison—is a title with multiple meanings: narratives that heal people and the healing of narratives, both applicable to Sundog. The book's underlying themes are that “our reality is created through our fictions; to be conscious of these fictions is to gain creative access to, and participation in, the poetics or making of our psyche or soul-life” (George Quasha, “Preface,” ix). And Harrison must have been struck by Hillman's assertion in Healing Fictions that “the act of turning to imagination is not an act of introspection: it is a negative capability, a willful suspension of disbelief in [one's works of the imagination] and belief in oneself as their author” (58–59). That, we know, for Hillman and Harrison both, is the ground for soul-making. “According to Hillman,” Harrison writes, “our main guide is the story we have already collected and written for ourselves” (Dark, 258). It does no good, Harrison continues, to “hammer at our psyches as if they were tract houses” in order to avoid painful emotions and assure “self-improvement,” using an idea Harrison attributes to Hillman and a phrase he puts in the mouth of the character Jim Harrison in Sundog (18). Harrison learns from Hillman that “dread and all her improbabilities are an inevitability we must make our lover” (Dark, 260).

Strang does make dread his lover. Rather than avoiding his pain by drinking compulsively and womanizing, he embraces it. His therapy is to crawl for miles through difficult terrain and, later, day after day, to swim in a river's cold waters, even at night, periodically telling his story, his fiction, to Jim Harrison. Strang's disease and disability, in Hillman's view, does not indicate something essentially wrong with him. On the contrary, “whatever appears wounded, sick, or dying may be understood as that content leading … into the House of Hades,” a sign of the soul's necessary movement into the realm of psyche in the process of soul-making (Dream, 146–47). There, images—not ideas or words—are the language of soul; Strang has a waking night-time experience when “all my thoughts illustrated themselves by vividly colored pictures” (213; Archetypal Psych, 6).

Strang, clearly, is a soul-maker. His story is a healing fiction which emphasizes two symbolic foci: women and the river. Too complex to discuss fully here, I will comment only on the symbols' basic thematic implications for Sundog. Women and the river are linked imaginatively, if not logically. This is first indicated when Strang's daughter, Evelyn, tells Jim Harrison early that information about Strang's illnesses and physical limitations isn't helpful compared with paying attention to what Strang calls “the theory and practice of rivers” and knowing that Strang “understands women better than any man I have ever known” (5). The unfolding of Strang's tale that becomes Sundog details his insights derived from relations with women and his theory and practice of rivers.

There are many women: Strang's childhood friend, Edith; his nurse-lover in Africa; Violet his sister-mother; and Eulia, his adopted daughter who seems his lover. They, in the aggregate, are the voices of his anima, which express what lies below his story and complete it. Of his love for the nurse, Strang says “it was a frightening love that I embraced,” the answer in some measure to the question “someone asked, ‘What have you done with the twin that was given us when we were given our soul?’” (164). “Someone” was James Hillman, whom Harrison says is “an unbelievably brillant [sic] man” who helped him understand that the male artist must have a highly developed feminine aspect (Dark, 259; “Art of Fiction,” 73). The twin-anima figure, a favorite among Harrison's symbols, has a meaning so rich for him that he ends Just Before Dark with a poem to her, the mysterious secret sharer of his soul who is met in dreams that “dream myself back to what I lost, and continue to lose and regain, to an earth where I am a fellow creature and to a landscape I can call HOME”:

Who is the other,
this secret sharer
Who directs the hand
that twists the heart,
the voice calling out to me
between feather and stone
the hour before dawn?


These women, faces of the anima, which personify the soul's powers of the imagination, even the soul itself (Re-Vision, 43), are fittingly associated with Strang's “theory and practice of rivers,” which, of course, is the title of Harrison's own poem published five years after Sundog. Hillman writes that “Anima means both psyche and soul, and we meet her in her numerous embodiments as soul of waters without whom we dry …” (Re-Visioning, 42).

Rivers give Strang “that incredible sweet feeling I once got from religion” as he gives himself over to psyche and soul-making (197). His life's work with hydrology, which had begun as an extension of his Christian evangelism, had led to a theory and practice of rivers related to the making of his own soul. Strang's last interview with Jim Harrison affirms connections between river symbolism, dreams, full consciousness, and soul-making:

Do you realize how unspeakably grand it was to come up to this cabin, the area of my youth, after that long in a hospital. … That's why I refused all those drugs after awhile. I had to be conscious. That's all. How could I bear not being conscious? Last night I was swimming in the dark in my dreams and it was wonderful.


The novel's Jim Harrison thinks he is not yet ready to emulate Strang, admits that “I tried to imagine what it would be like to swim down a large river at night, but couldn't quite make it,” and turns in his imagination for a moment to a pornographically inspired fantasy “vision of a buttocks as big as the Ritz” (236–37, 240). Nevertheless, Jim Harrison has been in a significant way restored by his working relationship with Strang. The taping complete, packing his bags to leave, Jim Harrison reveals that he stopped to “reread Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces for the umpteenth time,” saying “There aren't any old myths, just new people,” referring of course to Strang as a journeying hero but as well to himself as one called to the vocation of writing (236). That calling for Harrison, the author, is understood as religious, and “the worst thing is the refusal of the call” (“Art of Fiction,” 92). The character Jim Harrison hears the call and begins the “long voyage back towards Earth.”

Harrison's long poem, “The Theory and Practice of Rivers,” integrates and elaborates the Jim Harrison and Robert Corvus Strang figures into a single speaker close to the writer Harrison. As well, it elaborates Hillman's ideas about waking the gods within. The poem's speaker, a poet, like Sundog's Jim Harrison, is “drowning in a bourgeois trough, a bourride or gruel of money, drugs, / whiskey, hotels, the dream coasts …” and has forgotten “what it was I liked / about life” (20, 24). He sits on the banks of an unnamed northern Michigan river, thinking through his pain, making his way eventually into the water and a healing process that will restore his will to live and power to create. Harrison's poem itself is “designed to waken sleeping gods,” for Hillman mythic personifications of the psyche (21).

Harrison experienced such integration in his own life, and expressed it in terms similar to those in “The Theory and Practice of Rivers” and Sundog. Recalling the traumas of an eye blinded in childhood, the deaths of his sister and father in a car accident, his young niece's death, his continuing financial and alcohol problems, ensuing psychoanalysis with Lawrence Sullivan, and dreams of many years—Harrison reports his own healing in language consonant with Hillman's language and concepts. In “Dream as a Metaphor of Survival,” Harrison writes:

Slowly, and mostly in my imagination, I had begun to swim in waters that sensible folks would readily drown in, mostly in the area of consensual reality. … Concurrently my work began to revolve around more ‘feminine’ subjects, the acquiring of new voices, and away from a concern with the “men at loose ends” that tends to characterize the fiction of most male writers.

(Dark, 312)

He discovers “the evident attempt of my dream life to relocate me, to protect me from an apparent fragility I tried to overcome with drugs and alcohol, the over dominance in my life of ‘manly’ pursuits. I no longer try to ‘guts out’ anything” (317).

After Sundog, not surprisingly, Harrison wrote three works with women protagonists: the novel Dalva (1988) and two novellas, “The Woman Lit By Fireflies” (1990) and “Julip” (1994). None is as directly and pervasively shaped by Hillman's works as Sundog, but all reflect his influence. For example, Michael, Dalva's misdirected lover, an alcoholic Stanford University historian, displays his spiritual blindness and inferiority to Dalva by making an acerbic remark about Hillman. After Dalva speculates about connections between her waking life and her dreams about Nebraska, Indians, and animals, Michael parades his erudition by lecturing about Freud, commenting on Otto Rank and Karen Horney, and “in the interest of winning the point” deliberately overlooks “those irrational mushmouths Carl Jung and his contemporary camp follower, James Hillman” (122).

In many ways, Dalva is an answer to Hillman's question, “What have you done with the twin that was given us when we were given our soul?” Harrison, while writing the novel, noted that “Dalva is probably my twin sister who was taken away at birth” (Dark, 288). She is his psyche, the mysterious sharer of his soul that makes soul-making possible, whom he meets in dreams that “dream myself back to what I lost … to an earth where I am a fellow creature and to a landscape I can call HOME” (Dark, 317). “Going Home” is the title of the novel's third and final section, in which Dalva returns to the Nebraska prairie, the landscape of her family history.

The novel ends with reconciliation between Dalva and that place, between Dalva and her mixed-blood son whom she had given up for adoption at birth, and between the living and the dead. This last is especially important because she reconciles with a past that is the nation's “soul” history—another concept Harrison and Hillman share (Archetypal Psych, 26; Blue, 95–111, 166–92). In Dalva the white settlers' mistreatment of the Sioux is a cause of the nation's soul sickness. Dalva's family's history involved trying to help the Sioux but, ironically, prospering from Indian lands the family acquired. Some basis for reconciliation is symbolized by her great-great grandfather (whose Indian name, “Earth-diver,” alludes to Hillman's idea that in dreams we go “under the earth”) marrying a Sioux woman; Dalva, herself, having a child by her mixed-blood half-brother, Duane Stonehorse; Dalva's eventual reunion with her son; and her loving relationship with Sam Creekmouth (Re-Visioning, 33).

Of the other two works focused on women's consciousness, “The Woman Lit By Fireflies” owes most to Hillman. In it Clare, at fifty and on impulse, leaves her self-centered husband at a highway rest stop, climbs the fence into a corn field, and spends the night in memory and dream until “relocated” in relation to herself, nature, and others. The situation is archetypal: she makes an animal's lair—a “green cave”—for herself, builds a fire, and is interrupted from her dreams and reflections only by a companionable awareness of animals and birds nearby (a rabbit, opossum, cock pheasant) and in dreams (bear, horse). Animals and birds that come to her mind and imagination are “soul doctors” (Dream, 150). Harrison has frequently cited Hillman's remarks in Dream and the Underworld that animals are “carriers of soul … there to help us see in the dark” (Dream, 148; Dark, 285). Clare, whose veterinarian daughter observes that she behaves as if her spirit is detached from her body, comes back to her body, waking in the morning to a “green odor transmitting a sense she belonged to the earth as much as any living thing” (Woman [Lit By Fireflies], 237). Eventually, she feels blessed by “countless thousands of fireflies” surrounding her and, closing her eyes, “felt herself floating in memory from her beginning, as if on a river” (239–40). Having reached into herself to a level that transcends the personal, Clare is “at home.”

“The Beige Dolorosa,” in Julip, Harrison's most recent volume of novellas, is thoroughly indebted to Hillman's concept of “coming home” through a change in personality resulting from soul-making; and it can serve to summarize the impact of Hillman's ideas on Harrison's writings. The work's connections among dreaming as soulful activity, nature's creatures as soul doctors, and an eventual return to an acceptable ordinary life are consistently articulated with Hillman's ideas.

In this comic work, the first-person protagonist, a disgraced, minimally functioning, midwestern college English professor, is on forced leave, staying in a cabin on a small southeastern Arizona ranch. After a year's work on a paper-back edition of John Clare's poetry, he has managed to write only “Clare was Clare” on a three-by-five card (Julip, 199). His spiritual resources seem as minimal as his professional accomplishments.

The novella dramatizes the professor's change in personality, a spiritual renewal. Dreams are central to the novella. One “instructed me to walk the border of the forest and open land, and at the same time to rename the birds of North America,” which he suspects will develop a “taxonomy … based on the spiritual consequences of the natural world” (246; Harrison's identical dream is recorded in Dark, 316). Hillman argues that naming, as Adam named animals in Eden, is part of personification, of creating images and metaphors, that relate to others as “living psychic subjects,” not objects (Re-Visioning, 31–32). To rename the brown thrasher the “beige dolorosa,” is a spiritual decision for the protagonist for the richly metaphorical name suggests the sorrow and depression Hillman sees as a necessary prelude to entering the underworld and soul-making. The name remains the protagonist of a musical phrase from Mozart (the “Jupiter” symphony is mentioned earlier), “one that makes your heart pulse with mystery.…” Such mystery occurs when “you were exercising the glories of your negative capability and thus were plumb in the vale of soul-making.” Remaining in the “forest glade,” continuing to meditate on “Keats's notions of ‘the value of soul-making,’ which [he] had never properly understood,” the professor realizes that “I had been guilty like so many in controlling myself when there was nothing left to control.” He “tingle(s) with pleasure” as he understands fully that he is, at that very moment, in the “value of soul-making” (248).

Thereafter, he experiences that profound mystery in a series of encounters with birds—an unnamed warbler, dozens of tiny elf owls who speak to him, and the beige dolorosa itself, who peered up at him “as if I might be a tree” (252, 258, 257). The birds are signs of soul-healing, for here and elsewhere in both Hillman and Harrison birds are associated with angels on the one hand and words on the other, both bearing messages for the soul's nourishment (Blue, 28; Re-Visioning, 216; Archetypal Psych, 13–14; Dark, 260). Among the birds, the protagonist of “The Beige Dolorosa” is overcome by “feeling at home, whether I deserved to or not” (258–59), the same feeling of blessing Clare experienced in “The Woman Lit By Fireflies” (239) and which pervades the final scene of Dalva's “Book III, Going Home.”

Jim Harrison has often been misread as primarily concerned with the natural world—with fishing, hunting, eating, and sex. But that is a diminished and, finally, distorted view of his ambition and achievement. Both Jim Harrison and James Hillman envision the physical, natural world as crucial to spiritual growth. An understanding of Harrison's descriptions of the external world, especially nature, is more complex if it begins in Thomas Moore's characterization of Hillman's ideas about relationships between the material and spiritual—that “Soul is always tethered to life in the world” (Blue, 112). Harrison has said of his own life that immersion in nature has saved him from suicide. While that may be literally understood, it should be understood metaphorically as well, since “soul-making” takes place in “the vale of this world” when the ordinary ego dies. Significantly, both Harrison and Hillman allude to alchemy as a precursor to modern soul-making because alchemy was created to locate soul in the materials of this world (Blue, 55–56; Julip, 187).

Harrison's literary and spiritual vision insists that he explore the world in ways that evoke the images of a “common dream” that alters consciousness. Hillman writes that a faith that begins in the love of images and “flows mainly through the shapes of persons in reveries, fantasies, reflections, and imaginings,” gives one an “increasing conviction of having … an interior reality of deep significance transcending one's personal life” (Re-Visioning, 50). This is a faith that Jim Harrison has deepened through his art, a faith that his soul-making characters—Warlock, Strang, Dalva, Clare, the professor—come to experience. Jim Harrison's complex body of work, indebted in part to James Hillman's “archetypal psychology,” is reason to remember, in Hillman's language, that words are “carriers of soul between people” (Re-Visioning, 9). In turning our world into language, Harrison is, finally, fully engaged in exploring the nature of consciousness as the expression of, as well as site for, soul-making. As he has emphasized in many places, Harrison—quoting D. H. Lawrence this time—believes that the writer is “a hero of consciousness” (“The Art of Fiction,” 89).


Gilligan. Thomas Maher, “Myth and Reality in Jim Harrison's Warlock.Critique, 25:3 (1984). 147–53.

Harrison, Jim, Interview with Jim Fergus. “The Art of Fiction CIV.” Paris Review, 107 (1988). 53–97.

———. Dalva. New York: E.P. Dutton/Seymour Lawrence, 1988.

———. Julip Boston: Houghton Mifflin/Seymour Lawrence, 1994.

———. Just Before Dark, Collected Nonfiction by Jim Harrison. Livingston, Montana: Clark City Press, 1991.

———. Sundog. A Novel, The Story of an American Foreman, Robert Corvus Strang, as Told to Jim Harrison. New York: Pocket Books, 1984.

———. Selected & New Poems, 1961–1981. New York: Delta/Seymour Lawrence, 1982.

———. The Theory & Practice of Rivers and New Poems. Livingston, Montana: Clark City Press. 1989.

———. Warlock. New York: Delta/Seymour Lawrence, 1981.

———. Wolf. A False Memoir. New York: Delta/Seymour Lawrence, 1971.

———. The Woman Lit By Fireflies. Boston: Houghton Mifflin/Seymour Lawrence, 1990.

Hillman, James, Archetypal Psychology, A Brief Account, Together with a Complete Checklist of Works by James Hillman. Dallas: Spring Publications, Inc., 1993.

———. A Blue Fire: Selected Writings by James Hillman. Introduced and edited by Thomas Moore in collaboration with the author. New York: Harper Perennial, 1989.

———. The Dream and the Underworld. New York: Harper Perennial, 1979.

———. Healing Fictions. Barryton, New York: Station Hill Press, 1983.

———. Inter Views: Conversations with James Hillman and Laura Pozzo on Therapy, Biography, Love, Soul, Dreams, Work, Imagination and the State of the Culture. New York: Harper Perennial, 1991.

———. Re-Visioning Psychology. New York: Harper Perennial, 1976.

Robertson, William H. “‘Macho Mistake’: The Misrepresentation of Jim Harrison's Fiction.” Critique, 29:4 (1988), 233–44.

Treadwell, T. O. [qtd. in “Harrison, James (Thomas).” Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, 8, 225].

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Harrison, Jim (Vol. 14)


Harrison, Jim (Vol. 6)