Obituary: Jim Harrison, writer

Born: December 11, 1937. Died: March 26, 2016, aged 78

Jim Harrison, author who found success in middle age with historical saga Legends of the Fall. Picture: NYT

Jim Harrison, the fiction writer, poet and outdoorsman who wrote with gruff affection for the country’s landscape and rural life and enjoyed mainstream success in middle age with his historical saga Legends of the Fall, has died at age 78.

A spokeswoman from Grove Atlantic, Harrison’s publishersaid Mr Harrison died on Saturday at his home in Patagonia, Arizona. She did not know the cause of death.

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The versatile and prolific author completed more than 30 books, most recently the novella collection The Ancient Minstrel, and was admired worldwide. Sometimes likened to Ernest Hemingway for the range and kinds of his interests, he was a hunter and fisherman who savoured his time in a cabin near his Michigan hometown, a drinker and Hollywood scriptwriter who was close friends with Jack Nicholson and came to know Sean Connery, Orson Welles and Warren Beatty among others. He was a sports writer and a man of extraordinary appetite who once polished off a 37-course lunch.”

“His voice came from the American heartland and his deep and abiding love of the American landscape runs through his extraordinary body of work,” Grove Atlantic chief exceutive Morgan Entrekin said.

Published in 1979, Legends of the Fall was a collection of three novellas that featured the title story about Montana rancher Colonel William Ludlow and his three sons of sharply contrasting personalities and values, the narrative extending from before the World War One to the mid-20th century, from San Francisco to Singapore.

The book was a best-seller, and Harrison worked on the script for an Oscar-nominated 1994 film of the same name starring Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins and Aidan Quinn. Harrison’s screenplay credits also included Revenge, starring Kevin Costner, and the Nicholson film Wolf. But he would liken the unpredictable and nerve wracking process to being trapped in a “shuddering elevator” and reminded himself of his marginal status by inscribing a putdown by a Hollywood executive, “You’re just a writer,” on a piece of paper and taping it above his desk.

Harrison could have been a superb character actor, a bearded, burly man with a disfigured left eye and a smoker’s rasp who confided that when out in public with Nicholson he was sometimes mistaken for the actor’s bodyguard. Erudite enough to write reviews for The New York Times and to quote Wallace Stevens from memory, he also had a strong affinity for physical labouir and a history of writing stories for and about men.

“My characters aren’t from the urban dream-coasts,” he told The Paris Review in 1986. “A man is not a foreman on a dam project because he wants to be macho. That’s his job, a job he’s evolved into.

“How is it macho that I like to hunt and fish? I’ve been doing it since I was four.”

Harrison had displayed numerous talents before the general public caught on to him. He was an accomplished poet and sports journalist and a fiction writer with a strong feel for open spaces and the pull and consequences of history. He set many works in the rural north of his native Michigan, including the detective novels The Great Leader and The Big Seven, and used Nebraska as the backdrop for one of his most acclaimed works, Dalva.

He was voted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2007.

Harrison married Linda King in 1959 and had two daughters.

The grandson of farmers, and son of an agricultural extension agent, Harrison grew up in small Michigan towns – Grayling, Reed City, Haslett – where he developed a love of books and a primal bond with the outdoors, “bone- and marrow-deep”. He would associate his childhood with simple pleasures and ongoing loss, a general longing for simpler times and the physical handicap of his blind left eye, injured at age seven when a neighbourhood girl jammed a bottle in his face.

In the 1950s and `60s, he drifted between studies at Michigan State University and the Beat scene in Boston, where he met Jack Kerouac, and New York City, where he taught briefly before returning to rural Michigan. In 1965, he debuted as a poet with Plain Song.

Life as an outdoorsman inadvertently made him a novelist. In the late 1960s, he slipped off a bank along the Manistee River in Michigan, injured his back, lapsed into a semi-coma and for some two years was forced to wear a corset. His close friend Tom McGuane suggested he try a full-length work of fiction since Harrison “could no longer do anything to avoid it”.

Harrison’s first novel, Wolf: A Fake Memoir, came out in 1971 and he followed two years later with a work of fiction about the ecology, A Good Day to Die. But he was devastated by the commercial failure of his novel Farmer and was so broke he recalled, he couldn’t pay his taxes and could not fill out a scholarship form for his daughter because he was required to include records from the IRS.

His turnaround came with Legends of the Fall. “And now the one-eyed goofy, the black-sheep poet ... has inadvertently struck it rich,” Harrison later wrote of his mid-life success. “After the first full year of this experience I was sitting on the porch of our recently remodelled farmhouse, triple the estimated time and expense and a thoroughly enervating process, reading the Detroit Free Press and noting that I had made more money in the last year than the president of General Motors, Harlow Curtis.

“I idly hoped he was happy in his work.”