Jim Harrison Analysis

Other literary forms

ph_0111207086-Harrison.jpg Jim Harrison Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Although Jim Harrison began his career as a poet, it was the publication of his fourth fiction title, Legends of the Fall (1979), that brought him national recognition. The book, which consisted of three novellas, two of which had previously appeared in Esquire, proved so successful that Dell Publishing Company reissued his previously published novels in paperback editions. The book became the basis of two films, Revenge (1990) and Legends of the Fall (1994). Harrison has published numerous other volumes of fiction, some of which also are three-novella collections. His Farmer (1976) became the basis for the film Carried Away (1996), and Dalva (1988) became a 1996 television movie. Harrison also wrote screenplays, including Cold Feet (1988, with Thomas McGuane) and Wolf (1994). The Boy Who Ran to the Woods (2000) is his first book for children. Harrison’s novels and novellas, like his poetry, are often marked by a lyrical imagination, intelligence, and passion for living.

Harrison has also published numerous essays dealing with sports, cooking, wine, fishing, farming, and hunting; these articles complement the tone and thrust of his other writing and offer further evidence of his commitment to the natural environment and the code of ethics necessary for its maintenance. Just Before Dark (1991) is a collection of his nonfiction prose pieces. In 2002, he published Off to the Side: A Memoir.


Jim Harrison has long been recognized as a talented and important voice in American letters. He has received National Academy of Arts grants (1967, 1968, 1969), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1969-1970), and the Spirit of the West Award from the Mountain and Plains Booksellers Association (2000). He was also elected to the Academy of Arts and Letters in 2007.

Harrison has combined a unique blend of elements, uniting the American vernacular with a distinctly Eastern metaphysics and widely reaching references to European culture. He consistently fuses primitive and naturalistic images with the arcane and ponderous and draws on both gothic and surreal conventions. By refusing to limit himself to a single genre and by attending to “audible things, things moving at noon in full raw light,” Harrison has been able to appeal to a diversified audience and to promulgate an integrated vision that embodies the subtler nuances of the physical and natural world. Relying on what T. S. Eliot called “the auditory imagination,” he enables the reader to hear and feel simultaneously the meaning and motion of objects and experiences and to take part in the poet’s personal journey toward self-discovery.

Other Literary Forms

Although best known for his prose—novels and novellas—Jim Harrison is an accomplished poet (After Ikkyu and Other Poems, 1996; The Shape of the Journey: New and Collected Poems, 1998), essayist, and screenwriter. As a man of letters, Harrison made his poetic debut with the publication of Plain Song (1965). The Theory and Practice of Rivers (1985) represents a continuing pursuit of the poetic muse. Essays concerning food, travel, sports, and critical literary insights appear in Just Before Dark (1991). The screenplays Revenge (1989), based on the novella in Legends of the Fall, and Wolf (1994), which he wrote with Wesley Strick and which is based on the novel of the same name, are his most noted works in that genre.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The accumulation of Jim Harrison’s writing ensures him a place among important writers of the late twentieth century. The multifarious concerns addressed in his books of fiction, poetry, and numerous nonfiction articles are gleaned from his intense capacity for observation, memory, and experience.

Harrison received a National Endowment for the Arts Award in 1968 and a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship in 1969; he was also awarded twice by the National Literary Anthology.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

To appreciate fully the lyrical voice that dominates Jim Harrison’s best novels, it is helpful to bear in mind that he began his career as a poet. His first two volumes of poetry, Plain Song (1965), written under the name James Harrison, and Locations (1968), received very little attention, and the reviews were mixed. With the publication of Outlyer and Ghazals (1971), critics began to give Harrison his due, but his next two volumes, Letters to Yesenin (1973) and Returning to Earth (1977), both issued by small publishing houses, were again overlooked, even after they were reissued in a single volume in 1979. Selected and New Poems: 1961-1981 (1982), a volume that included the best of his previous work, demonstrated Harrison’s range and complexity and established his as a major voice in American poetry. His collection The Theory and Practice of Rivers: Poems (1985) only served to demonstrate more fully both his breadth of interests and his mastery of the poetic form. The Shape of the Journey: New and Collected Poems (1998) restores to print lyrics and protest poems of Plain Song, the effusive Letters to Yesenin, and the Zen-inspired After Ikkyu, and Other Poems (1996).

In addition to novels and poetry, Harrison has published numerous essays, predominantly in Sports Illustrated and Esquire. In many of his essays, Harrison emerges as an amateur naturalist who denounces those who violate fish and game laws, sings the praises of seasoned guides and ardent canoe racers, and laments the passing of the wilderness in the face of urban development. Harrison has also published some food-related nonfiction, including The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand (2001), and the memoir Off to the Side (2002).


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Jim Harrison, a venturesome and talented writer, proved himself an able poet, novelist, and journalist by revitalizing the territories and boundaries explored by others. Along with Nebraska, the territory of Ted Kooser and Willa Cather, both northern Michigan and Key West, the Hemingway provinces, are re-created in Harrison’s work. Also present are the subterranean worlds and the connecting roads that the Beats had earmarked, the relatively unsullied outback celebrated by Edward Abbey and Theodore Roethke, and the predominantly masculine worlds explored by writers such as Harrison’s friend and fellow hunter Thomas McGuane and Larry McMurtry.

However, it was Denise Levertov who helped Harrison publish his first book of poetry, Plain Song. It was not long after that when he received the first of three grants from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1967 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1969. These helped him to settle down in the Leelenau Peninsula in northern Michigan and to focus on poetry and finally fiction in the early 1970’s. After steadily developing a literary following over two decades, and having his work published in twenty-seven languages, in 1999 Harrison was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and he was awarded the Colorado Review’s Evil Companions Award, along with Michigan State University’s College of Arts and Letters Distinguished Alumni Award. In 2000, he received the Spirit of the West Literary...

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(Poets and Poetry in America)

Davis, Todd. “A Spiritual Topography: Northern Michigan in the Poetry of Jim Harrison.” Midwest Quarterly 42, no. 1 (Autumn, 2000): 94-104. Examines the spiritual topography in the poetry of Harrison, specifically how his quest for life’s meaning is influenced by the natural world, particularly the landscape of northern Michigan, and how that landscape figures in the poems.

Harrison, Jim. Interviews. Conversations with Jim Harrison. Edited by Robert DeMott. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2002. This collection of interviews with Harrison includes bibliographic references and an index.


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