Jim Harrison

A prolific author catalogs his work and life
— by Mary Isca Pirkola

When Jim Harrison made his annual visit to Grand Valley several months ago he was followed around campus by the editor-in-chief of Publishers Weekly. She took notes as he spoke to students about writing and visited a class that was reading one of his books. When her article was published on November 6, it was immediately archived in Grand Valley’s Special Collections of the University Library, adding to more than 300 boxes of materials written by, to and about Harrison, an internationally acclaimed author and Michigan native.

In 2005, through the efforts of past President Mark A. Murray and the generosity of the Meijer Foundation, Grand Valley acquired the Harrison papers for use by researchers and students for many generations to come. University Archivist Nancy Richard has spent the better part of the past year sorting, organizing and preserving the collection, which will continue to grow as long as new items are produced.

As an icon of American literature, Harrison’s work has been recognized worldwide and published in 22 languages. The prolific author of a dozen books of poetry, 11 books of fiction, a memoir and other nonfiction books has also written an abundance of screenplays, reviews and articles for a diverse range of publications, from Audubon to Zeotrope.

Upper: Harrison and poet Dan Gerber at Tintern Abbey in Wales, circa 1969.

Lower: young Harrison stands outside his northern Michigan writing studio.

Photos, unless otherwise indicated, are courtesy of Grand Valley’s Special Collections of the University Library

A 96-page written description of the collection, compiled by Richard, serves as a useful guide for students and researchers. More than one-third of the collection is writings by Harrison. They include all of his notes, handwritten drafts, typescripts and revisions, revealing his creative process from initial idea through publication.

In organizing Harrison’s papers, Richard also wanted the collection to tell the story of his life and the development of his work. In fact, the two are so interrelated that many items are cross-referenced.

A huge portion of the papers, 95 boxes, are correspondence to and from other writers, publishers, friends and family members. The earliest is from 1938. It is a collaborative letter from family members written on the occasion of his first birthday and contains warm wishes for a good and happy life.

Early Influences

Harrison was born in Grayling, the second of his parent’s five children. During his childhood, Harrison’s family moved to Reed City, where his father was the county agricultural agent. The author’s long association with Grand Rapids began after a childhood accident blinded his left eye and landed him in Blodgett Hospital for nearly a month.

I was only seven and I heard my first diesel train here and was quite frightened,” said Harrison. “My parents would keep coming down to visit on weekends and I had an aunt who lived in town, but mostly it was just a bunch of kids in the children’s ward.”

Harrison was very close to his family, especially his father who shared his love of hunting and fishing. They also shared a deep respect for nature and a strong interest in Native American history.

He had a lot of books about Indians and one for children I remember called Two Little Savages. It was about two white boys that studied about Indians and then went off and left their moms,” said Harrison. “That was also right after my eye accident and I did just run off into the woods after that. It was a very traumatic thing for me.”

It would also serve as an influence for his foray into children’s literature; the autobiographical tale The Boy Who Ran Into the Woods was published in 2000.

The family moved to Haslett in 1952, to be commuting distance from Michigan State University, where Harrison enrolled in 1956 and eventually earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees. The papers at Grand Valley include his college notebooks and work on his master’s thesis, “The Natural History of Some Poems.”

During his MSU years, Harrison developed friendships with fellow students Dan Gerber and Tom McGuane, both with whom he has spent a lifetime sharing writing, chasing dreams and exorcising demons. Harrison dropped out of school for a short time to investigate bohemian life in New York, San Francisco and Boston. He did it again when his beloved father and younger sister, Judith, were killed in an automobile accident in 1962. In between he married Linda May King and the first of their two daughters was born.

While working as a laborer, Harrison began to have some success at publishing individual poems in national publications. With support from established poet Denise Levertov, Harrison’s first book of poetry, Plain Song, was published in 1965. After a couple of years as an assistant professor of English at SUNY-Stony Brook, Harrison returned to Michigan to work with Gerber on a film project about wolves. They also started publishing a literary journal, Sumac, began fishing expeditions to Key West, and made a literary pilgrimage together to Moscow and Leningrad.

Harrison talks with President Thomas J. Haas in Seidman House, where the special collection is kept.
photo by Bernadine Carey-Tucker

The Spoils of Success

In 1975 Harrison wrote the screenplay of A Good Day to Die for filmmaker Frederick Weisman. While in Hollywood he met actor Jack Nicholson on the set of Tom McGuane’s film Missouri Breaks. The course of events had a lasting impact on his life and the direction of his work. In 1978 Nicholson financed Harrison’s writing for a year. During that time he wrote, among other things, his novella Legends of the Fall. The following year he began a long career as a contract screenwriter, which brought him financial success as well as the dangerous trappings of success.

“I’ve never been very good at self-control,” Harrison said. “I had, as they say now, ‘issues’ with alcohol, drugs and stuff. Novelists tend to have a terrible life. I grew up basically, as they say, without a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of. I was part of a large family. And then, when I started doing well myself, I became more appalled and sympathetic to certain problems it presents.

“I think it was the economist John Kenneth Gilbraith that said ‘there’s an enormous difference between not having enough and having enough. And then there’s the difference between having enough and having too much that becomes problematic and messy.’”

One outcome of Harrison’s success as a screenwriter was the ability to purchase farm property in Northern Michigan’s Leelanau area. Trips driving back to Michigan became restorative as the frenzied pace and make-believe world of Hollywood were replaced by the slower tempo of rural life and the sanctity of the natural world.

Harrison prefers living in remote locations where he can commune with nature and hear the voices of the wilderness: be it wolves, birds, bears or the spirits of the landscape. They are, like so many aspects of his life, woven into his writing.

A rural stopping point along the way of one such trip, in the mid-1980s, was the Sandhills area of Nebraska. It was there that Harrison clearly dreamt of Dalva, who was also fleeing from California to return to her Midwestern roots. She became the title character of his 1988 book.

“Horses and dogs always seem to know where they are and how to find their way home,” said Harrison. “Indians would bend a tree branch a certain way to mark their path through the wilderness. But most of us have lost our cognitive abilities because we don’t use them anymore.”

As Harrison’s success grew, so did his appetite and skill as a gourmand. For more than 20 years he wrote essays on food for several publications, including Smart, Esquire and Men’s Journal. Many of them were later compiled as a book, The Raw and the Cooked, published by Atlantic Press in 2001. Any conversation with Harrison is bound to include a discussion of favorite meals, ingredients and chefs, including his good friend Mario Batali. They once hosted a dinner party in Key West for 30 French writers.

“We ordered a couple of roasting pigs and a thousand oysters and made a huge number of side dishes,” Harrison said. “Mario is so incredibly fast, he made it seem so easy to pull it all together.”

Harrison once wrote a piece in the New York Times asking readers what cookbook they had lost that they would really like to find again. He shared his own lament of losing a three-volume cookbook from the Italian Community Club of Madison, Wisconsin.

“It even told how to make your own prosciutto, which takes a year, what with aging the hind quarters,” he said. It didn’t take long for readers to respond and replenish the cookbook to his collection.

Lasting Impressions

Relationships run deep within Harrison, especially with other writers. The poet Ted Kooser, while undergoing cancer therapy, wrote a series of poems on postcards to Harrison that was later published as a book. Intimate conversation in poetry, between Kooser and Harrison, was the basis of another book, Braided Creek, published in 2003. They remain very close and in 2006 Harrison performed readings with Poet Laureate Kooser in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Harrison reads and smokes in this circa 1969 photo by John Schultz.

“Writers just naturally know each other. We critique each others’ work and talk in general about what a writer is and does. The biggest chunk of writing down there is correspondence with Tom McGuane. He was from Grosse Isle. We’ve known each other since our college years and we’ve been in touch ever since,” he said.

Answers to questions about his life and work are often infused with praise for others. When asked how such a macho writer is also in possession of a strong sense of the female voice, as evidenced in his books Dalva, Julip and others, he credits his mother and sisters who were “wonderful, intelligent Swedish farm girls,” and then expounds on how today’s culture has bred the differences between the sexes.

“I also read Carl Jung when I was 19. He said, ‘What have we done with our twin sister we abandon at birth?’ So see, there’s a natural sympathy there,” Harrison said.

Praise was also heaped on his late brother John, who was dean of libraries at Yale and then University of Arkansas, where some of Harrison’s papers had been stored.

“He insisted that I never sell off individual manuscripts, though I was once offered $100,000 for the manuscript to Dalva. It was tempting, but John helped me to realize it was important to keep everything together and thought it should be somewhere in Michigan,” he said.

Harrison expressed great appreciation for Joyce Bahle, who resides in Northern Michigan. She has been his assistant for the past 27 years, transcribing his handwritten notes and dictation and providing a sense of order to the management of his career and his life. He also complimented Richard for her hard work organizing the archive during the past year.

“It was amazing to me how much stuff there was for her to go through,” he said. “Maybe I worked too much and should have gone fishing more.”

Harrison hedged when asked to think about his legacy, saying, “That’s not for me to decide.” When asked which one of his books means the most to him, he was only slightly more forthcoming: “I’m not sure, it changes everyday. You inevitably think of them as your children and can’t play favoritism.”

Harrison’s most recent book of poetry, Saving Daylight, was published in 2006, and his most recent novel, Returning to Earth, in January. He is currently at work on a book of short essays, Pilgrimages. He said it’s about “the 30 or so writers that have meant the most to me.”

Harrison and his wife now reside in Arizona and Montana to be near their children and grandchildren.

Learn more about Jim Harrison in his memoir, Off to the Side. Researchers who are interested in studying the Harrison papers at Grand Valley should contact University Archivist Nancy Richard at (616) 331-8726 or richanar@gvsu.edu. A guide to his work is online at www.gvsu.edu/forms/library/HarrisonRHC-16Final.pdf.

Page last modified March 17, 2014