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James Harrison (December 11, 1937 – March 26, 2016) was an American poet, novelist, and essayist. He was a prolific and versatile writer publishing over three dozen books in several genres including poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and children’s literature. He wrote screenplays, book reviews, literary criticism, and published essays on food, travel, and sport. Harrison indicated that, of all his writing, his poetry meant the most to him.[1]:1 He published 24 novellas during his lifetime and is considered "America’s foremost master"[2] of that form. His first commercial success[1]:5 came with the 1979 publication of the trilogy of novellas, Legends of the Fall, two of which were made into movies. Harrison's work has been translated into multiple languages including French, Greek, Chinese, and Russian.[3] He was the recipient of multiple awards and honors including a Guggenheim Fellowship (1969), the Mark Twain Award for distinguished contributions to Midwestern literature (1990), and induction into the American Academy of Arts & Letters (2007).[4] Harrison wrote that "The dream that I could write a good poem, a good novel, or even a good movie for that matter, has devoured my life."[5]

Jim Harrison
Jim Harrison.jpg
BornJames Harrison
(1937-12-11)December 11, 1937
Grayling, Michigan, U.S.
DiedMarch 26, 2016(2016-03-26) (aged 78)
Patagonia, Arizona, U.S.
OccupationNovelist, poet, essayist
Alma materMichigan State University (BA 1960, MA 1964)
GenreFiction, non-fiction, poetry
SpouseLinda King Harrison (d. October 2, 2015)
Children2 daughters: Jamie Potenberg and Anna Hjortsberg



Harrison was born in Grayling, Michigan, to Winfield Sprague Harrison, a county agricultural agent, and Norma Olivia (Wahlgren) Harrison, both avid readers.[6] Harrison was born 18 months after oldest child John, with whom Jim was close. Jim's younger siblings are Judith and then Mary and David. He became blind in one eye after a childhood accident ("My left eye is blind and jogs like/a milky sparrow in its socket").[7][8] Harrison graduated from Haslett High School (Haslett, Michigan) in 1956. When he was 24, on November 21, 1962, his father and sister Judy died in an automobile accident.

In 1959, he married Linda King, with whom he had two daughters. He was educated at Michigan State University, where he received a BA (1960) and MA (1964) in comparative literature. After a short stint as assistant professor of English at Stony Brook University (1965–66), Harrison started working full-time as a writer. His awards include National Academy of Arts grants (1967, 1968, and 1969), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1969–70), the Spirit of the West Award from the Mountain & Plains Booksellers Association,[9] and election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters (2007).[10]

His work has appeared in many leading publications, including The New Yorker, Esquire, Sports Illustrated, Rolling Stone, Outside, Playboy, Men's Journal, and The New York Times Book Review. He published several collections of novellas, two of which were eventually turned into films: Revenge (1990) and Legends of the Fall (1994).

Much of Harrison's writing is set in sparsely populated regions of North America and its West. Many stories are set in places such as Nebraska's Sand Hills, Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Montana's mountains, and along the Arizona–Mexico border.

Harrison lived in both Patagonia, Arizona, and Livingston, Montana.[11] On August 31, 2009, he was featured in an episode of Anthony Bourdain's television show No Reservations, which took place in and around Livingston.[12][13] He also appeared during season 7 of Bourdain's CNN series, Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, in an episode which first aired on May 15, 2016.

Harrison died of a heart attack on March 26, 2016.[14]

Prose worksEdit

Early careerEdit

Harrison said he became a novelist after he fell off a cliff while bird hunting. During his convalescence, his friend Thomas McGuane suggested he write a novel, and Wolf: A False Memoir (1971) was the result. It is the story of a man who tells his life story while searching for signs of a wolf in the northern Michigan wilderness. This was followed by A Good Day to Die (1973), an ecotage novel and statement about the decline of American ecological systems, and Farmer (1976), a Lolita-like account of a country school teacher and farmer coming to grips with middle age, his mother’s dying, and complications of human sexuality.

Harrison’s first novellas were published in 1979 under the title Legends of the Fall. Actor Jack Nicholson, a close friend of Harrison's whom he had met through Thomas McGuane, played a peripheral role in the creation of that book. When Nicholson heard that Harrison was broke, he sent $30,000, which allowed Harrison to write Legends of the Fall.[15] The title novella is an epic story that spans 50 years and tells the tale of a father and three sons in the vast spaces of the northern Rocky Mountains around the time of World War I. Referring to the title novella, Harrison said:

"I wrote Legends of the Fall in nine days and when I re-read it, I only had to change one word. There was no revision process. None. I had thought so much about the character that writing the book was like taking diction. I felt overwhelmed when I finished, I needed to take a vacation, but the book was done."[16]

The novella format would become an important part of both Harrison's future reputation and his output. Following Legends of the Fall, seven more collections of novellas appeared over the course of Harrison's lifetime: The Woman Lit by Fireflies (1990), Julip (1994), The Beast God Forgot to Invent (2000), The Summer He Didn’t Die (2005), The Farmer's Daughter (2009), The River Swimmer (2013), and finally The Ancient Minstrel (2016), the latter appearing just before Harrison's death in March of that year.

After publishing Warlock (1981) and Sundog (1984), Harrison published Dalva (1988), one of his best-known novels. It is a complex tale, set in rural Nebraska, of a woman’s search for the son she had given up for adoption and for the boy’s father, who also happened to be her half-brother. Throughout the narrative, Dalva invokes the memory of her pioneer great-grandfather John Wesley Northridge, an Andersonville survivor during the Civil War and naturalist, whose diaries vividly tell of the destruction of the Plains Indian way of life. Many of these characters are featured also in The Road Home (1998), a complex work using five narrators, including Dalva, her 30-year-old son Nelse, and her grandfather John Wesley Northridge II. Harrison has been described as trying to get at "the soul history of where you live" in this sequel to Dalva, in this case rural Nebraska in the latter half of the 20th century.[17]

By the time Harrison turned 60 in 1998, he had published both a dozen works of fiction and another dozen volumes of poetry.

Later life and writingsEdit

In terms of his publishing career, Harrison's final 18 years, after he turned 60, would be nearly as productive as the preceding 30 years. After age 60, he published another dozen works of fiction, at least six more volumes of poetry, a memoir Off to the Side, and The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand, a collection of his food essays which had first appeared in magazines, mostly in Esquire and Men's Journal.

Although he continued writing in the novella format, during these final years (1999-2016), Harrison refocused his efforts on the longer novel form. In the 2000s, Harrison published two of the most ambitious novels, setting them in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula: True North (2004) and its sequel Returning to Earth (2007). True North examines the costs to a timber and mining family torn apart by alcoholism and the moral recklessness of a war-damaged father. The novel contains two stories: that of the monstrous father and that of the son’s trying to atone for his father’s evil, and ultimately, reconciling with his family’s history.

Returning to Earth (2007) revisits the characters and setting of True North (2004) 30 years later. The story has four narrators: Donald, a mixed-blood Indian, now middle-aged and dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease; Donald’s wife Cynthia, whom he rescued as a teen from the ruins of her family; Cynthia’s brother David (the central character of True North); and K, Cynthia's nephew and Donald’s soul mate. Ultimately, the extended family helps Donald end his life at the place of his choosing, and then draw on the powers of love and commitment to reconcile loss and heal wounds borne for generations.

Harrison’s The English Major (2008) is a road novel about a 60-year-old former high school English teacher and farmer from Michigan, who after a divorce and the sale of his farm, heads westward on a mind-clearing road trip. Along the way, he falls into an affair with a former student, reconnects with his big-shot son in San Francisco, confers on questions of life and lust with an old doctor friend, and undertakes a project to rename all the states and their state birds.[18]

Harrison wrote two darkly comic detective novels, The Great Leader: A Faux Mystery (Grove Press, 2012) and The Big Seven (Grove Press, 2015), both focused on protagonist Detective Sunderson. The Great Leader: A Faux Mystery was positively reviewed in The New York Times, with critic Pete Dexter calling Harrison's writing "very close to magic."[19]


Although he is best known as a fiction writer, Harrison called his poetry "the true bones of my life." In fact, he published more books of poetry than novels. And as a poet, Publishers Weekly called him "an untrammeled renegade genius."[20] In all, he published 18 books of poetry. "Mozart of the Prairie" is what Terry McDonell, writing in The New Yorker, called Harrison, adding "through all the years, and the novels and novellas and films that came with them, he (Harrison) remained a poet, his life syncopated with contrapuntal complexities and the chromatic cadences of rural landscapes."[21]

The Shape of the Journey: New and Collected Poems,[22] is a sweeping review of his first eight books of poetry. In addition, it includes an introduction by Harrison, several previously uncollected poems, and "Geo-Bestiary", a 34-part suite rooted in Harrison's legendary passion for food, sex, poetry, and the natural world. In the introduction, Harrison writes:

"This book is the portion of my life that means the most to poetry our motives are utterly similar to those who made cave paintings or petroglyphs, so that studying your own work of the past is to ruminate over artifacts, each one a signal, a remnant of a knot of perceptions that brings back to life who and what you were at that time, the past texture of what has to be termed as your ‘soul life.’"

Poetry suffused everything Harrison wrote.

"It’s totally uncontrollable," he said. "You don’t have any idea when its going to emerge, and when it’s not going to emerge. I’ve never stopped writing it....You can put off a novel for a while but you can’t not write a poem because that particular muse is not very cooperative." [23]

In his own work. Harrison was influenced by predecessors as diverse as the Russian modernist Sergei Yesenin (Letters to Yesenin,[24] 1973), Zen literary traditions (After Ikkyu and Other Poems, 1996), and the American-English traditions of nature-writing (Saving Daylight,[25] 2006), leading back to Wordsworth. In his 2011 collection of poetry is Songs of Unreason[26] (Copper Canyon Press, 2011) Harrison uses interconnected suites, brief lyrics, and rollicking narratives to explore what it means to inhabit the world in atavistic, primitive, and totemistic ways.

Braided Creek[27] (Copper Canyon Press, 2003) is a poetic correspondence between Harrison and Ted Kooser. Longtime friends, they corresponded for a number of years in terms of short wakas or haikus, and were both thrilled to subsequently publish a book where the reader did not know who actually wrote each poem.

Harrison's final book of poetry, Dead Man's Float,[28] was published in early 2016 by Copper Canyon Press shortly before his death. In it, Harrison confronts aging and death, taking a "flinty and psalmist look at mortality and wonder."[29]

As one of America's literary icons, Harrison could have published his poetry anywhere. However, after 1998, he chose small independent literary presses because, as he said in an interview:

"The problem is that big publishers in New York don't know how to publish poetry. There's no tradition in poetry, and no response to it. So, with my heart's work I'm not going to New York and discuss a manuscript of poems … Poetry doesn't belong - as far as I am concerned - in these major houses, because there's no attentiveness to production, design, there's no attentiveness to editing. They just: Here it is and they flop it out and they forget a day later that they even published it."[30]

Regarding his most beloved art form, he wrote: "Poetry, at its best, is the language your soul would speak if you could teach your soul to speak." [31]

Harrison biographies and interviewsEdit

In 2009, University of Nebraska Press published Jim Harrison: A Comprehensive Bibliography, 1964-2008, an illustrated guide to Harrison’s published works, edited by Gregg Orr and Beef Torrey, with an introduction by Robert DeMott, which contains more than 1600 citations of writing by and about Harrison.[32] Many of Harrison’s papers are housed at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.[33]

Harrison was interviewed in 2004 in Paris by François Busnel, and asked how he explained the success of his novel, True North in the United States where his previous books were not successful. Harrison replied, "The age, undoubtedly! Or a proof that America loves France, since it is said often over there that I am the most French of the American writers."[34]

Many of Harrison's interviews between 1976 and 1999 are collected in the book, Conversations with Jim Harrison, edited by Robert DeMott, published by the University Press of Mississippi, 2002.[35] Harrison discusses his poetry in an extensive interview in Five Points Magazine.[36]

Film workEdit

Harrison's work on films and in the screenplay format began with his book Legends of the Fall, when he sold the film rights for all three stories in the book and became involved in writing the screenplay for the film with the same title. It was directed by Edward Zwick and starred Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins, and Aidan Quinn; it won the 1995 Academy Award for cinematography.[37] Jim Harrison had a writing credit for the film.

Other films he scripted or co-wrote include Cold Feet (1989), with Keith Carradine, Tom Waits, and Rip Torn and Revenge (1990), starring Kevin Costner. For his work on the screenplay for Wolf (1994, starring Jack Nicholson) Harrison, along with co-writer Wesley Strick, shared the Saturn Award for Best Writing.




  • Wolf: A False Memoir (1971)
  • A Good Day to Die (1973)
  • Farmer (1976)
  • Warlock (1981)
  • Sundog: The Story of an American Foreman, Robert Corvus Strang (1984)
  • Dalva (1988)
  • The Road Home (1998) ISBN 9780871137296, OCLC 39235548
  • True North (2004)
  • Returning To Earth (2007) ISBN 9781597225229, OCLC 71369560
  • The English Major (2008) ISBN 9780802118639, OCLC 243473921
  • The Great Leader (2011) ISBN 9780802119704, OCLC 707255777
  • Brown Dog (2013) – (gathers the five novellas published about the character 'Brown Dog' and adds a new one as a coda)[[38]
  • The Big Seven (2015) ISBN 9780802123923, OCLC 891155364

Novella trilogiesEdit

NOTE: the exception here being The River Swimmer (listed below) which is not a trilogy; note that Brown Dog (listed above) is an anthology of all the "Brown Dog" novellas

  • Legends of the Fall (Three novellas: "Revenge," "The Man Who Gave Up His Name," and "Legends of the Fall") (1979)
  • The Woman Lit By Fireflies (Three novellas: "Brown Dog," "Sunset Limited," and "The Woman Lit by Fireflies") (1990)
  • Julip (Three novellas: "Julip," "The Seven-Ounce Man," and "The Beige Dolorosa") (1994)
  • The Beast God Forgot to Invent (Three novellas: "The Beast God Forgot to Invent," "Westward Ho," and "I Forgot to Go to Spain") (2000)
  • The Summer He Didn't Die (Three novellas: "The Summer He Didn't Die," "Republican Wives," and "Tracking") (2005)
  • The Farmer's Daughter (Three novellas: "The Farmer's Daughter," "Brown Dog Redux," and "The Games of Night") (2009) ISBN 9780802145024, OCLC 406173729
  • The River Swimmer (Two novellas: "The Land of Unlikeness" and "The River Swimmer") (2013)
  • The Ancient Minstrel (Three novellas: "The Ancient Minstrel," "Eggs," and "The Case of the Howling Buddhas") (2016)


  • Just Before Dark: Collected Nonfiction (1991)
  • The Raw and the Cooked (1992) Dim Gray Bar Press ltd ed
  • The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand' (2001)
  • Off to the Side: A Memoir (2002)
  • A Really Big Lunch: Meditations on Food and Life from the Roving Gourmand (2017)

Children's literatureEdit

  • The Boy Who Ran to the Woods (Illustrated by Tom Pohrt) (2000)


  • Plain Song (W.W. Norton, 1965)
  • Walking (Pym-Randall Press, 1967)
  • Locations (W.W. Norton, 1968)
  • Outlyer and Ghazals (Simon and Schuster, 1971)
  • Letters to Yesenin (Sumac, 1973)
  • Returning to Earth (Court Street Chapbook Series) (Ithaca Street, 1977)
  • Selected and New Poems, 1961-1981 (Houghton Mifflin, 1981)
  • Natural World: A Bestiary (Open Book, 1982)
  • The Theory & Practice of Rivers (Winn, 1986). Republished 1989 by Clark City Press.
  • After Ikkyu and Other Poems (Shambhala, 1996)
  • The Shape of the Journey: New and Collected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 1998)
  • Braided Creek: A Conversation in Poetry (Copper Canyon Press, 2003). Coauthored with Ted Kooser.
  • Livingston Suite (Limberlost Press, 2005). Illustrated by Greg Keeler.
  • Saving Daylight (Copper Canyon Press, 2006)
  • In Search of Small Gods (Copper Canyon Press, 2009)
  • Songs of Unreason (Copper Canyon Press, 2011)
  • Dead Man's Float (Copper Canyon Press, 2016)
  • Jim Harrison: The Essential Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2019). Edited by Joseph Bednarik.




  • Wolf (1994)


  • Here is Something Beautiful (announced)
  • La grande librairie (2009-2015)
  • Café littéraire (2010)
  • The Practice of the Wild (2010)
  • Amérique, notre histoire (2006)
  • Le cercle de minuit (1995)


  1. ^ a b Harrison, Jim (1998). The Shape of the Journey : New and Collected poems (1st ed.). Port Townsend, Wash.: Copper Canyon Press. ISBN 1556590954. OCLC 39615442.
  2. ^ Shreve, Porter (December 2, 2013). "Book World: 'Brown Dog' by Jim Harrison". The Washington Post. Retrieved February 27, 2019.
  3. ^ " listing for Jim Harrison works in all languages". Retrieved March 1, 2019.
  4. ^ "Jim Harrison papers. Grand Valley State University Special Collections and University Archives". Retrieved March 12, 2019.
  5. ^ Harrison, Jim (2002). Off to the Side : A Memoir (1st ed.). New York: Atlantic Monthly Press. p. 2. ISBN 0871138603. OCLC 50065061.
  6. ^ Harrison, Jim; DeMott, Robert J. (2002). Conversations with Jim Harrison. Jackson: Univ. Press of Mississippi. ISBN 978-1-57806-456-4. page xxi.
  7. ^ Sketch for a Job-Application Blank
  8. ^ Harrison, Jim. "Searchers by Jim Harrison | The Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor". Retrieved January 21, 2012.
  9. ^ "Mountains & Plains AKA Reading the West - Between the Covers Bookstore".
  10. ^ "Jim Harrison, author of ‘Legends of the Fall’ and other books, dies at 78"
  11. ^ Alter, Alexandra (July 10, 2009). "Indoors With a Poet of the Outdoors". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved August 13, 2011.
  12. ^ "Episodes : Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations". Travel Channel. February 28, 2011. Retrieved January 21, 2012.
  13. ^ "Big Sky … Thick Jungle … Zero Tolerance (and Diane Saves The Day) « Anthony Bourdain". Retrieved January 21, 2012.
  14. ^ Jim Harrison, Poet, Novelist and Essayist, Is Dead at 78
  15. ^ "'Legends of the Fall' a massive hit". The Clarion Ledger. Retrieved February 12, 2019.
  16. ^ Fassler, Joe (January 7, 2014). "'It Has to Come to You': Why Jim Harrison Writes Patiently". The Atlantic. Retrieved February 12, 2019.
  17. ^ Phipps, T.W. "Image matters to Jim Harrison", Book, Oct/Nov 1998
  18. ^ McGrath, Charles (January 25, 2007). "Pleasures of the Hard-Worn Life". The New York Times.
  19. ^ Dexter, Pete (September 30, 2011). "Jim Harrison Stalks a Cult Leader". The New York Times. Retrieved March 27, 2016.
  20. ^ Harrison, Jim (September 1, 2000). "The Shape of the Journey: New & Collected Poems". Copper Canyon Press – via Amazon.
  21. ^ McDonell, Terry (March 30, 2016). "Jim Harrison, Mozart of the Prairie" – via
  22. ^ "Copper Canyon Press: The Shape of the Journey, poetry by Jim Harrison".
  23. ^ Book, October/November 1998
  24. ^ "Copper Canyon Press: Letters to Yenesin, poetry by Jim Harrison".
  25. ^ "Copper Canyon Press: Saving Daylight, poetry by Jim Harrison".
  26. ^ "".
  27. ^ "Copper Canyon Press: Braided Creek: A Conversation in Poetry, poetry by Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser".
  28. ^ "Copper Canyon Press: Dead Man's Float, Poetry by Jim Harrison".
  29. ^ Kuipers, Dean. "Jim Harrison on spirits, bad poetry and the wonder of nature".
  30. ^ "Five Points".
  31. ^ "Poetry by Jim Harrison: Copper Canyon Press".
  32. ^ "Jim Harrison - University of Nebraska Press". Retrieved January 21, 2012.
  33. ^ "Jim Harrison Biography". Net Industries. Retrieved January 21, 2012.
  34. ^ ""Entretien avec Jim Harrison" – Interview with Jim Harrison". L'Express, article in French previously published in its literary brand "Lire Magazine". October 1, 2004.
  35. ^ Demott, Robert, ed. (May 6, 2002). "Conversations with Jim Harrison". University Press of Mississippi – via Amazon.
  36. ^ "Five Points". Retrieved January 21, 2012.
  37. ^ "67th Academy Awards Winners | Oscar Legacy | Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences". March 27, 1995. Retrieved January 21, 2012.
  38. ^ Ulin, David L. (2013) "In Jim Harrison's 'Brown Dog,' novellas trace the arc of a life"

External linksEdit