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Jim Harrison and the Dream of Being an Artist

I set out to pen a short review of The Big Seven, a novel by Jim Harrison (1937–2016) published last year. Once upon a time I would have hacked out a brief synopsis of the plot, maybe quote a few passages and snatches of dialogue to convey the flavor of the writing, and hope to spice it up with a pithy observation or several. Somehow it does not work that way these days. Maybe it never did. I recall college term papers. On more than one occasion I finished a paper well before it was due only to have second thoughts as the deadline approached that prompted me to insert a blank sheet of paper into the old Royal manual, a wonderful blunderbuss of a typing machine, and go at it afresh. Some people are outliners, the way they taught us to go about it in high school. Harrison often thought and brooded over a story for an extended period, so he had it firmly in mind and the writing went quickly when the time came. He thought about the novella Legends of the Fall for half a dozen years before writing it in about ten days (Avlon, Jim Harrison Can Make You a Better Animal). Nietzsche composed books in the course of long walks of two or three hours morning and afternoon. My muse does not quite go for either approach, though she surely provokes a generous measure of thought and brooding. For me it is a matter of writing, rewriting, going at it again and yet again until the pieces come together as best I can manage.

A bit of research undertaken to flesh out the review turned up an informative obit in The New York Times and two fascinating interviews that infected me with the notion that Harrison merits more extensive reflection. He was a thoughtful, reflective, learned man who bore the look of a rustic and maybe a ruffian, equally at home and taking equal pleasure in fishing for trout in Michigan and dining in the restaurants of Paris. At his death this past March he had to his credit twenty-one volumes of fiction, fourteen books of poetry, two books of essays, a memoir, and a children's book. He served a stint as poetry editor of The Nation and wrote a food and drink column for Esquire. His awards include three National Academy of Arts grants (1967, 1968, and 1969), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1969–1970), and election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters (2007). He is popular in Europe, especially France, where his book sales are greater than in the U.S.

Jim Harrison was an outsdoorman, gourmand, and writer, as the more or less default opening for a piece about him goes. He lived on a farm in Michigan near where he grew up and at the end of his life "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 [Arizona], where he enthusiastically shot all kinds of things" (Fox, Jim Harrison, Poet, Novelist and Essayist Is Dead at 78). He once "once shared [a dinner] with Orson Welles, which involved, he wrote, 'a half-pound of beluga with a bottle of Stolichnaya, a salmon in sorrel sauce, sweetbreads en croûte, a miniature leg of lamb (the whole thing) with five wines, desserts, cheeses, ports' and a chaser of cocaine." (Fox)

While I enjoy hiking and can be deeply touched by rivers and waterfalls, oceans and mountains, flowers and meadows lush in spring rain, I am by no means an outdoorsman. Harrison's enthusiasm for hunting and fishing were alien to me even as a boy in rural South Carolina where they were routine pastimes. Dinner with friends in a nice restaurant that offers good food and wine in a convivial atmosphere is among life's great pleasures, but it is the conversation and companionship that matter most. I am no gourmand and do not share Harrison's gargantuan appetites, which are downright mind-boggling and lie beyond the scope of my experience. Yet from the beginning I felt an affinity with the writing, from acclaimed novels such as Dalva and The Road Home to The Great Leader and The Big Seven, somewhat lighter fare dubbed faux mysteries that nonetheless take up themes associated with serious literature, the nature of violence and evil, fall from grace and the possibility of redemption, one's place in the world, and life's meaning, if indeed it has any.

Harrison was born in Grayling, a town in the middle of northern Michigan, one of five children in a poor family. His father was a county agricultural agent. Both parents were great readers who passed their love of books and reading on to Harrison. While in his teens he decided he would be a poet. Books presented other worlds and possibilities to a boy growing up in a loving, supportive family but in a time and place of restricted horizons. They awakened in him "the hunger to do things." "I can’t tell you the thrill I had when I hitchhiked to California to look at the Pacific. And then the same way with New York City." (Paris Review Interviews Jim Harrison The Art of Fiction No. 104). Having accumulated ninety dollars, young Harrison set out for New York. dad gave me a ride out to the highway. I had my favorite books and the typewriter he’d given me for my seventeenth birthday–one of those twenty-buck used typewriters–and my clothes, all in a cardboard box tied with a rope, and I was going off to live in “Green-witch” Village. I was going to be a bohemian! I think I’d seen pictures of bohemians in Life magazine, and that’s what I wanted to be. Also the girls looked really pretty. They had straight black hair and they wore turtlenecks. And my dad thought it was all fine. He wasn’t insistent about me finishing college at the time. He knew that Hemingway and Faulkner didn’t go to college. (Paris Review)

Harrison finished college as it turned out, studying comparative literature at Michigan State University, where graduated with a B.A. in 1960 and added an M.A. four years later. He taught briefly at State University of New York at Stony Brook but soon figured out that the academic life was not for him.

In 1959 he married Linda King, who passed away in October 2015. They had two daughters. In interviews Harrison speaks of the beauty of his wife's garden, the flowers and vegetables, "that's how an artist is in his work." Both were accomplished cooks. On the subject of marriage, he offers these thoughts:

Marriage is survived just on the basis of ordinary etiquette, day in and day out. Also cooking together helps a lot… I’ve seen all these marriage that failed. Those people are always hollering at each other. That doesn’t work. Do you remember the ’70s, they had all these ‘empowering’ groups where you tell everybody everything? That doesn’t work in a marriage either. That’s stupid. That’s what the French have figured out.... I really think adultery is a sport in France. I’ve watched it over the years. That’s just sort of what it seems to me. (Avlon)

Early on his poetry received serious literary attention but as is the custom with poetry was not a source of income aside from the grants, dependence on which made for a boom-or-bust manner of existence, as Harrison tended to run through the money when he had it. He supported his family by manual labor when the grants ran out. The work left him hungry, tired, and poor. "But you got a lot of thinking done."

He turned to fiction at the suggestion of his college pal Thomas McGuane while convalescing from a fall off a cliff while bird hunting. The early novels found publishers and like the poems received favorable reviews from critics but not much in the way of sales. Later he served a stint as a Hollywood screenwriter because it was the only way he could make a living. In 1988 he said of writing for Hollywood,

I don’t have any other way of getting any money. I have no other gifts except what I can pull out of my hat, my imagination. I made a very conscious choice between teaching and the film business. If I hadn’t made a mess of my life, I could make a reasonably good living off my novels. I’m close to it. (Paris Review)

Harrison suffered bouts of depression throughout his life. In the early 1970s he considered suicide, a subject he took up in Letters to Yesenin, which he described in one poem as "this homage that often resembles a / suicide note to a suicide. I didn't mean it that way but how / often our hands sneak up on our throats and catch us unaware." In the end he is brought back by beauty, art, and ordinary, daily life:

And what a dance you had kicking your legs from

the rope–We all change our minds, Berryman said in Minnesota

halfway down the river. Villon said of the rope that my neck

will feel the weight of my ass. But I wanted to feel exalted

again and read the poems at the end of Dr. Zhivago and

just barely made it. Suicide. Beauty takes my courage

away this cold autumn evening. My year-old daughter’s red

robe hangs from the doorknob shouting stop.

I take the liberty of quoting at length because these lines strike my heart in the way that the best poetry does. There is something essential in it about how things are.

So this is a song of Yesenin's noose which came

to nothing, but did a good job as we say back home

where there's nothing but snow. But I stood under

your balcony in St. Petersburg, yes St. Petersburg!

a crazed tourist with so much nothing in my heart

I wanted to implode. And I walked down to the Neva

embankment with a fine sleet falling and there was

finally something, a great river vastly flowing, flat

as your eyes; something to marry to my nothing heart

other than the poems you hurled into nothing those

years before the articulate noose.

Harrison's fictional narratives tend to be accessible and reasonably straightforward though peppered with digressions about fishing, hunting, food, academia, politics, history, and culture. His flawed characters resonate with a humanity we recognize and share. Poems and fiction alike speak to us in large measure through description of the surroundings of the poet or fictional protagonist, natural, urban, cultural, personal, the totality that makes up the space within which one is who one is. Much comes down to what Harrison notices.

The opening sentences in Legends of the Fall establish a tone and style that evoke ancient codes of honor and nobility that still move us however out of place they may seem in October 2016.

Late in October in 1914 three brothers rode from Choteau, Montana to Calgary in Alberta to enlist in the Great War (the U.S. did not enter until 1917). An old Cheyenne named One Stab rode with them to return with the horses in tow because the horses were blooded and their father did not think it fitting for his sons to ride off to war on nags.... They left before dawn with their father holding an oil lamp in the stable dressed in his buffalo robe, all of them silent, and the farewell breath he embraced them with rose in a small white cloud to the rafters.

The tales can be bleak, the subject matter grim, and resolutions problematic. Thuggery and violence are not uncommon. Coupled with rural settings, accounts of hunting and fishing, and marginal characters, these qualities have led some to a perception of Harrison as a strictly masculine, even macho writer, a label at which he bristled.

All I have to say about that macho thing goes back to the idea that my characters aren’t from the urban dream-coasts. 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. A man isn’t a pilot for that reason either–he’s fascinated by airplanes. A farmer wants to farm. But you know what it’s like here and up in the Upper Peninsula. This is where I grew up. How is it macho that I like to hunt and fish? I’ve been doing it since I was four. I have always thought of the word macho in terms of what it means in Mexico: a particularly ugly peacockery, a conspicuous cruelty to women and animals and children, a gratuitous viciousness. (Paris Review)

Dalva and The Road Home are sufficient to put the macho charge to rest, and they are just two examples. Harrison ranks with Larry McMurtry among contemporary male writers whose work features strong female characters. Some readers find this surprising, taken in by Harrison's persona and his look. He does not seem like a man who might be particularly in tune with women's perceptions and sensibilities. Gary Snyder related this anecdote about his wife Carole's reaction upon first setting eyes on Harrison:

Gary Snyder: When she first met you she said, "Is that jim Harrison?" I said, "Yeah, that's Jim Harrison," as you're walking toward her on the Davis campus. "He wrote Dalva?" I said, "Yeah, he's the guy who wrote Dalva." And she said, "I can't believe he had such sensitivity to that woman. She thought you were–"

Jim Harrison: A beast.

Gary Snyder: Well, she just–she thought that you had captured a certain kind of female consciousness like nobody else had. And then seeing you threw her off. (The Etiquette of Freedom)

A considerable measure of Harrison's appeal, for me at any rate, lies in passions that run every bit as deep as the well-documented love of the outdoors, keenness for hunting and fishing, and appetite for food and drink.

If all I did was pretend I was Wilderness Jimmy I would go stale. You know, I fish maybe 100 days of the year and bird-hunt, but if I didn’t go to Paris once or twice a year, I’d be crazy. (Avlon)

He was conversant with the likes of Kant, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Freud, the Western literary tradition, the allure of rivers, and the ins and out of fishing for brook trout. Conversations with Gary Snyder in The Etiquette of Freedom show a more than passing acquaintance with Zen Buddhism and Chinese history and culture. The gallery of friends and acquaintances ran quite a gamut, including Snyder, the novelist McGuane, poet Robert Duncan, composer John Cage, and the Hollywood crew, Jack Nicholson, John Huston, and Bill Murray.

He read widely and well while for the most part steering clear of academia and an Eastern literary establishment that he saw smacking the brand "regional writer" on any writer who lives in any other part of the country.

His advice to young writer was to "Just start at page one and write like a son of a bitch." And read. "A large part of writing is a recognition factor, to have read enough to know what good writing is." (Paris Review)

[Gary Snyder]: If I disagree with the idea of an aristocracy of consciousness, I also identify with the idea that poetry involves a deep connection with a lot of information.....But it strikes me, what we are talking about is this little historical period that you and I both belong to–when it was more taken for granted that a part of the work of a writer was to know a lot, and to have read and explored the literature a lot...

[Harrison]: I've asked current professors in writing schools what they think of this, and they're not really with me. I said, "You're making them spend too much time ready each other's work," whereas the fundamental duty, it seems to me, is to learn the best in all Western and Eastern literature before you start thinking about or reading each other's work. (The Etiquette of Freedom)

The Big Seven

by Jim Harrison

Grove Press, 403 pp., 2015

Sunderson is a sixty-six-year-old retired Michigan State Police officer living in Marquette in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. I believe his first name comes up once in relation to a peripheral character with the same name, whereupon it is noted that Sunderson never liked it. Unfortunately I failed to make note of the name. You will have to read the book to find out what it is.

The title refers to the Seven Deadly Sins. Sunderson is partial to lechery, with gluttony running a sometimes close second. The novel opens when his fishing trip is interrupted by a phone call from his ex-wife Diane, for whom he still carries the torch, as she does for him, she just cannot live with him. Their adopted daughter, Mona, has dropped out of the University of Michigan and run away with the drummer in a rock band from Los Angeles headed for New York City. The word from Mona's roommate is that the band members are "lowlife scumbags."

Sunderson and Diane adopted Mona a few years earlier when she was abandoned by her parents who lived next door.

[Sunderson] loved this lost girl, his neighbor for most of her life, abandoned by her parents, then adopted by him and Diane simply because they all liked each other and thought they might as well become a family since her own parents were utterly indifferent.

The relationship between Sunderson and Mona, related in the earlier faux mystery The Great Leader, was complicated by his discovery of a hole in the back of a bookcase pushed up against the window that enabled him to surreptitiously watch as she did nude yoga in the morning before going to high school. Mona caught on and kept doing it to mess with him.

Diane makes flight and hotel arrangements for Sunderson to fly to New York and rescue Mona. There he bumbles through a series of chance encounters and fortuitous leads as he tracks her down only to find that she does not wish to be rescued. Along the way Sunderson tries to delay the band's departure for its European tour by blackmailing the drummer's weathy mother with a concocted tale that her son boffed an underage girl in Westwood. He later infers from conversation with the mother that something very like the fabricated incident may well have happened.

Nervous about carrying $50,000 in blackmail loot around New York, a city he never visited before, he buys a Peanuts fanny pack at a dollar store. When a young woman with whom he takes up after meeting her at a coffee shop advises him to "put it in a bank you dipshit," he tells her he does not know how, his wife did the banking, which for Sunderson explains everything.

As his failed mission comes to a close, Sunderson takes Sonia, the girl from the coffee shop, out for a drink at the Toad in the Hole, a dive where the band hung out that "smelled like a very dead toad in a very shallow hole." There he is badly beaten by a pair of heavies associated with the band. Sonia saves his bacon by biting the hand of the guy hammering on Sunderson with a baseball bat until the hand bleeds and he drops the bat, whereupon "Sonia was on him like a cat and swinging the bat at his head. He dropped with a resounding crack, saying goodbye to the world with a thunk." This is in keeping with a pattern whereby Sunderson the tough ex-cop is rescued by the damsel rather than the more conventional scenario.

The episode with Mona and the band is by way of prologue, concluding with Mona going to Paris with the drummer and Sunderson to the emergency room with a fractured back and shoulder. Sonia is exonerated by the grand jury and cares for him while he rehabs in an expensive facility arranged by Diane, a hospital administrator with connections and wealthy herself by virtue of inheritance from her father. Sunderson has no idea how wealthy, tending to be oblivious and indifferent to such things, though grateful for her help. By the bye, he falls for Sonia and they enjoy a brief affair.

Upon returning home Sunderson uses some of the blackmail proceeds to purchase a small hunting cabin in a remote part of the U.P. Among his new neighbors are the Ames clan, three families in the fourth generation of miscreants, sociopaths, child molesters, casual rapists, and inept criminals who terrorize the local community and consume vodka, purchased in bulk gallons, in quantities that stun Sunderson, far from a teetotaler himself.

Sunderson ventures into the Ames's orbit when he hires Lily Ames to clean the cabin for him twice a week as she had done for the previous owners. He notices her comeliness, but before he has time to make any foolish moves he receives news of a shoot-out among Ameses, a duel with AK-47s where Lily was killed by her cousin, who had been raping her since she was a girl. They stood off at fifty yards and opened fire. The cousin survives with both thighs blown apart only to die in the hospital a few days later—but not from his wounds, as the medical examination reveals foul play was afoot. In the days and weeks that follow other Ames men turn up dead, victims of the same manner of foul play.

After Lily's death her nineteen-year-old sister Monica offers to take over the housecleaning duties and brings Sunderson food to boot. It turns out that she is an exceptional cook with ambition to be a chef in a five-star New York restaurant. For his part Sunderson is a terrible cook but an enthusiastic eater. Like her sister Monica is intelligent, attractive, and remarkably together for someone who has endured the rape and other sexual abuse to which Ames girls were routinely subjected from the time they were old enough to be of interest. The Ames mothers seem generally relieved when someone else is the object of these deviants' attention and at any rate are too anesthetized by vodka to pay it any mind.

One day Lemuel Ames drops by to ask Sunderson to critique a chapter in a crime novel he is writing. Lemuel is Monica's uncle, a bank robber in his early forties who has spent much of his adult life in prison because he is not very good at his chosen profession. While in prison he read a lot, became known as something of a jailhouse lawyer, and hit on the idea of being a writer, picking crime fiction as his genre because that is what he knows.

This gives Harrison, or Sunderson, an opening to weigh in with some views about writing. It is a good rule of thumb to be wary of ascribing a character's words and thoughts to the author. Is this Harrison speaking when Lemuel shows up with a piece of a manuscript called "Thoughts of a Writer"?

"I always wondered what Raymond Chandler actually thought," said Lemuel naively.

"What he thinks is the whole of the novel," Sunderson said with ire. "A novel is a different form of thinking."

Or is it Sunderson? Does it matter? The proposition is intriguing, as is speculation as to where it might fit in with Harrison's personal thoughts on the subject. That is fine. Not every issue lends itself to definitive settlement, nor need it do so.

Appalled by the Ames family, Sunderson takes up the pen to write about an eighth deadly sin, violence. Diane encourages him when he has difficulty getting started and offers good advice that happens to be at odds with Harrison's description of how he wrote Legends of the Fall and other works. She tells him to get a journal and write whatever comes into his head. He should do nothing when he gets up in the morning but drink a cup of coffee until he's written a page. The thing will take shape later. "In short," she says, "writing causes writing. Thinking causes more thinking and is not necessarily helpful. Just write an hour or so each day." Lemuel's novel appears to draw heavily from real life, his characters thinly disguised Ameses. Sunderson finds the writing is not particularly good, and as more Ames men die, he wonders if Lemuel is killing them to have something to write about.

Meantime, he succumbs to Monica's overtures, the occasional pang of conscience notwithsatnding, and finds himself with a girlfriend almost half a century younger than he is. This does not deter him from noticing that his neighbor in the house next door, the one previously owned by his stepdaughter's family, chooses provocative attire for working in her garden. He also observes that like Mona she is a devotee of nude yoga, perhaps not uncommon in upper Michigan. One day he invites her over for a drink, whereupon she discloses that she and her husband have an open marriage. Sunderson in his usual fashion bumbles into the sexual encounter that follows.

The faux mystery plays out with Sunderson poking around in the police investigation of the Ames murders as he struggles to come to terms with violence and grasps at every straw that gives hope for a reunion with Diane while bumbling into one temptation after another until at last he is "tired of being ridiculous as a twelve-year-old boy, an aimless prisoner of sex."

Sunderson is generally hapless but with a good heart. The people in his life pick up on this and make allowances for shortcomings and escapades that are more than a little absurd and push the willing suspension of disbelief almost to its limit. The less charitable among us may ask if these are anything but the lecherous fantasies of a randy old man. Maybe there is some of that, and maybe Harrison is having some amusement with an exuberant exploration of human folly that deliberately runs afoul of the puritanism still present in American culture.

I came to Jim Harrison in the late 1970s with Legends of the Fall, a collection of three novellas, and the three early novels Wolf, A Good Day to Die, and Farmer. I recall talking about him with a regular customer at the bookstore where I worked at that time, an articulate, soft-spoken man with neatly trimmed white hair and beard who bought books by people like Robert Stone, Thomas McGuane, and Harrison. At some point he remarked simply, speaking of Harrison, "He is one of our finest writers."

Jim Harrision kept at it for the duration. The Ancient Minstrel, three novellas, and Dead Man's Float, a collection of poems, were published earlier this year. He was in his study at his home working on a poem when he died (Avlon, editor's note). In the Paris Review interview he speaks of the original dream he had when he was nineteen, the dream of being an artist and "the integrity of the total mission. It’s a 'calling' in religious terms. You feel called to be an artist, and the worst thing is the refusal of the call." Jim Harrison accepted the call. He remained true to the dream in a life marked by artistic integrity and intellectual curiosity. Yes, he is one of our finest writers and a fine exemplar of the writing life.

Memo from the Editorial Desk

Minor edits were made to this piece after publication.


John Avlon, Jim Harrison Can Make You a Better Animal, The Daily Beast, June 23, 2010

Paul Ebenkamp, Ed., The Etiquette of Fiction: Gary Snyder, Jim Harrison, and The Practice of the Wild, Counterpoint Press, 2010

Margalit Fox, Jim Harrison, Poet, Novelist and Essayist Is Dead at 78, The New York Times, March 27, 2016

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