Jim Harrison obituary: author of Legends of the Fall (2024)

In his fiction, poetry and essays, Jim Harrison, who has died aged 78 after a heart attack, displayed a unique voice, drawn from the hardness born of isolation within the vast perplexity of the US, especially its outdoors. One reviewer said he had “few equals as a writer on outdoor life, the traditional heritage and proving ground of the American male”. Harrison is best known for Legends of the Fall (1979), a collection of three connected novellas whose title story became the 1994 film with Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins.

Because his work seemed anchored in American masculinity, many critics either praised or dismissed him in terms of Ernest Hemingway. The comparison was easy. Harrison looked the part: a burly, bearded one-eyed man with a husky voice ravaged by drinking and smoking. His work, like Hemingway’s early stories, was often set outdoors in northern Michigan, where he lived much of his life. When he first moved from poetry to prose, Harrison’s writing had some of Hemingway’s tautness, but he wrote in a freer, Beat-like prose with more relaxed humour.

Harrison hated the comparison; he felt closer to William Faulkner, an admiration inherited from his father. For Harrison, Hemingway was “a marvellous writer, but a bully, and bullies tend to be lonely souls”. Gertrude Stein once said Hemingway was “tough” because “he was really sensitive and ashamed that he was”. Harrison never feared sensitivity, though sometimes he hid it well. Like him, his characters were physically strong men driven by, and often eager to indulge, strong desires.

Harrison flew to France for the day to eat a 37-course lunch for his food column in Esquire (“they pay $6,000 for less than a day’s writing”). He once ate 144 oysters just to prove he could, like Cool Hand Luke’s 100 boiled eggs. Harrison’s men pursue and succumb to women, but they also butt heads with strong women who more than hold their own, particularly verbally. His circle included the writers Tom McGuane and Philip Caputo, the singer Jimmy Buffett and the actor Jack Nicholson; they caroused in Montana, Hollywood and Key West. But amid the drink, drugs and women, Harrison also produced more than 20 books of fiction and more than a dozen of poetry, plus essays, journalism and screenplays. And he always returned to his native northern Michigan.

Jim was born in Grayling, Michigan, where his father, Winfield, was an agricultural engineer with a love of the outdoors and books, a passion shared with Jim’s mother Norma (nee Walgren). Like Hemingway, accidents loomed large in Harrison’s life. When he was seven he lost his left eye when a girl thrust a broken bottle at it during an argument. Harrison decided to write one night on a rooftop, “absorbing the poetry” of stars.

After finishing high school, he packed some books and a typewriter his father had given him and hitched to Boston and New York “to become a bohemian”, and actually drank with Jack Kerouac. But he returned home and enrolled at Michigan State University, where he met McGuane, who became his closest friend. He earned his BA in 1960 but, having married Linda King the previous October and already starting a family, he was less committed to graduate work.

Then, in the summer of 1962, his father and younger sister went on a hunting trip and were killed by a drunk driver in a car crash. Harrison had delayed their departure, dithering over whether to go with them; he blamed himself for not being there and for not letting them leave earlier. He also realised he needed to commit to his calling. “There couldn’t be any higher obligation on earth. Because if people you love die, what are you going to do?”

He received his master’s degree in 1964. His brother, John, was a librarian at Harvard, and through connections got his poems to a publisher. The collection Plain Song (1965) landed him a professor’s job at Stony Brook University, New York. He quit after a year, and moved back to Michigan, producing two more poetry collections and co-editing the literary magazine Sumac while he lived on a series of awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, followed by a Guggenheim fellowship.

Harrison could be scathing about academia. “I’m always being lectured on integrity by professors who’ve spent a lifetime at the public trough.” Just as the grants ended, Harrison injured himself severely by falling off a cliff-like river bank. McGuane suggested the invalid try writing prose, since he had nothing better to do. The novel Wolf: A False Memoir (1971) was the result; the only copy of the manuscript was accepted by a publisher after having been lost for months in a postal strike.

Although Wolf did reasonably well, the difficulty of making a living brought on suicidal thoughts that Harrison expressed in the poems of Letters for Yesenin (1973). His next novels, A Good Day to Die (also 1973), which prefigured the eco-activism of Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang, and Farmer (1976), did not earn much money. He was broke when he was not paid for a screenplay he had written, but Nicholson, whom he had met on the set of The Missouri Breaks, written by McGuane, lent him money to keep him going.

Legends of the Fall changed that. Based on the journals of his wife’s great-grandfather, a mining engineer, the book was grander in scale than his previous ones, but the three-novella format kept the prose focus sharp. The first of the three, Revenge, was actually made into a film four years before Legends of the Fall; Harrison co-wrote its screenplay.

He was now in demand. He wrote on the outdoors for Sports Illustrated and on food for Esquire, those columns collected in The Raw and the Cooked (1992). The 1980s saw one of his best collections of poetry, The Theory and Practice of Rivers (1989), and three novels including Dalva (1988), which confounded critics by having as its protagonist a woman searching for a child she gave up at birth. It was made into a 1996 television movie starring Farrah Fawcett.

By then his screenwriting had seen results: Cold Feet (1989) was an original script co-written with McGuane; he also co-wrote the screenplays for Wolf (1994) and Carried Away (1996), based on Farmer. With The Woman Lit By Fireflies (1990) he returned to the three-novella format and introduced Brown Dog, a recurring character who reminded many of Harrison himself. Another three-novella collection, Julip, a sequel to Dalva was published the following year.

Although he would publish another four three-novella collections, in 2004 his novel True North, a sprawling family saga reminiscent of Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion, became his biggest selling book; it was as if he had written in all the connections between what would have been cleaner as a series of separate stories, and readers loved it.

Harrison was prodigiously well-read; in interviews her referred to dozens of writers. His later poetry included After Ikkyu (1996), a homage to the 15th-century Japanese poet of zen. When asked for his secret as a writer, Harrison said “just start at page one and write like a son of a bitch”.

He lived in a farm house in Leelanau County, northern Michigan, and kept a cabin near Grand Marais, on the Lake Superior shore of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. His indulgences were followed by ill health – gout, diabetes and shingles. In 2002 he and Linda relocated to Montana, near to McGuane, spending winters in Patagonia, Arizona. Linda died last year; Harrison told an interviewer just before her death that: “My difficulty would be figuring out if I want to live without her.”

He is survived by his daughters Jamie and Anna. He once said: “In a life properly lived, you’re a river. You touch things lightly or deeply, you move along because life itself moves and you can’t stop it.”

James Thomas Harrison, writer, born 11 December 1937; died 26 March 2016

Jim Harrison obituary: author of Legends of the Fall (2024)


What happened to Jim Harrison? ›

Harrison died of a heart attack on March 26, 2016, in Patagonia, Arizona.

Where did Jim Harrison live? ›

Harrison lived most recently during the summers in the wild countryside near Livingston, Mont., where he enthusiastically shot the rattlesnakes that colonized his yard, and during the winters in Patagonia, where he enthusiastically shot all kinds of things.

Who wrote the Legends of the Fall? ›

In a career that began in the 1960s — and brought comparisons to Faulkner and Hemingway — Jim Harrison wrote more than three dozen books, including the novels Dalva and True North, the novella Legends of the Fall and many collections of poetry.

What is Jim Harrison known for? ›

Harrison published more than a dozen collections of poetry, including Livingston Suite (2005), Saving Daylight (2006), In Search of Small Gods (2009), Songs of Unreason (2011), and Dead Man's Float (2016). He was also well known as a fiction writer, publishing numerous novels and collections.

What is Jim Harrison's best book? ›

How old is Jim Harrison? ›

Where did Jim Harrison live in Arizona? ›

So began my evening in Patagonia, Ariz., (pop. 896) with the notoriously bawdy Jim Harrison, 78 years old, author of Legends of the Fall, Dalva and a small library of other novels and novellas, to say nothing of his 18 collections of poetry and a handful of non-fiction books.

Who was the one eyed American poet? ›

Creeley was born in Arlington, Massachusetts, and grew up in Acton. He and his sister, Helen, were raised by their mother. At the age of two, he lost his left eye. He attended the Holderness School in New Hampshire.

Where did Jim Harrison live in Patagonia? ›

“I knew then I wanted to live here,” Harrison told me. After eventually “hitting pay dirt” during his days in Hollywood, he bought a casita outside town along Sonoita Creek, where he and his wife took refuge from the long Michigan and later Montana winters.

What is the point of Legends of the Fall? ›

Based on the 1979 novella of the same title by Jim Harrison, the film is about three brothers and their father living in the wilderness and plains of Montana in the early 20th century and how their lives are affected by nature, history, war, and love.

What happened to the house from Legends of the Fall? ›

The Fall Movie

The House from Legends of the Fall. It was vandalized and burned shortly after shooting wrapped up.

Why is it called Legends of the Fall? ›

The title refers to the biblical fall from innocence. In Sweden, however, the title was translated as "Höstlegender" meaning Legends of the (season) Fall (as in autumn). Similarly, in South Korea, the title was "Gaeul-ui jeonseol" interpreting "the fall" as the autumn season.

What has Jim Harrison written? ›

Harrison's later books of poetry include Letters to Yesenin (1973), Returning to Earth (1977), Selected and New Poems, 1961–1981 (1982), The Theory & Practice of Rivers (1985), After Ikkyū and Other Poems (1996), The Shape of the Journey (1998), Braided Creek: A Conversation in Poetry (2003; with Ted Kooser), Saving ...

What teams did James Harrison play for? ›

James Harrison career stats with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Rhein Fire, Cincinnati Bengals and New England Patriots. Bold denotes league leader.

Is there a sequel to Dalva? ›

Dalva is the story of a middle-aged Midwestern woman who finds herself moved to search for the son she gave up for adoption; The Road Home is its sequel, weaving in other voices from Dalva's family.

Who is Jim Harris Michigan author? ›

Jim Harrison, byname of James Thomas Harrison, (born December 11, 1937, Grayling, Michigan, U.S.—died March 26, 2016, Patagonia, Arizona), American novelist and poet known for his lyrical treatment of the human struggle between nature and domesticity.

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