Jim Harrison: Literary outlaw

By Douglas Hare EBS Staff

Jim Harrison passed away almost two months ago of cardiac arrest, pen in hand, finishing a poem at his desk in Patagonia, Ariz. The renowned writer spent winters there, and summers near Livingston, Mont.

Harrison was 78 and had been at his craft since discovering his vocation at the age of 14. The literary world mourned the loss of a giant: a poet, novelist and screenwriter of international acclaim who lacked pretense or concern for his critics.

When I saw his obituary called “Mozart of the Prairie,” in The New York Times, I happened to be reading his 1991 book “Just Before Dark,” a collection of nonfiction—Harrison was a journalist, essayist, and literary critic as well.

The author of 14 collections of poetry, 21 works of fiction, a memoir and a children’s book, Harrison was so prolific for so long that it’s hard to know where to begin.

Some writers have recommended his first novel “Wolf: A False Memoir,” which has stood the test of time. Or “Legends of the Fall,” a collection of novellas for which he is most famous. As for his poetry, “Letters to Yesenin” and his last collection, “Dead Man’s Float,” have been universally praised.

But “Just Before Dark” is worth its slot on any bookshelf. You can pick it up on a whim and read piecemeal or devour it whole. In this collection, Harrison’s prodigious gifts, memory and erudition are on full display. The book is divided into three sections: Food, Travel and Sport, and Literary Matters.

“An artist … consciously or unconsciously takes a vow of obedience to awareness,” Harrison wrote in the first section. His vow was a conscious one, and he continued to refine his powers of perception throughout his lifetime.

He was undeniably a man of large appetites. “Small portions are for small and inactive people,” he wrote in “Consciousness Dining.” A gourmand at heart, Harrison writes about cooking, eating and drinking with passion that sometimes blurs the distinction between nourishment and sexual gratification.

Whether discussing French cuisine, the absurdity of ice fishing, his passion for bird hunting, playing bar pool, or taking a long walk at twilight, Harrison had an uncanny ability to transform the mundane into the profound within the span of a few pages.

Like his fiction, the stories of “Just Before Dark” bring out nuanced perspectives on rural American heritage, a Thoreauvian naturalism and sense of place, a love for the sporting life and a unique criticism of modernity.

My favorite piece from “Just Before Dark” might be his review of Hemingway’s “The Nick Adams Stories” because so many superficial comparisons have been made between the two men: both from the U.P. of Michigan, both avid hunters and fishers, and both chroniclers of American masculinity.

Another gem is his “A Natural History of Some Poems,” which offers a candid glimpse into the creative process as he saw it.

The whole collection is infused with such raw autobiographical insight that the reader can’t help but see a portrait of an artist growing old.

“Just Before Dark” offers an intimate exploration of a man who wrestled with his own human foibles, limitations, and excesses. It documents the inherent absurdities of society with dark humor and sharp wit that, combined with an indefeasible joie de vivre, kept Harrison from becoming cynical or defeated in old age.

He lived and wrote deliberately and exuberantly. Even when suffering from gout and shingles during the dusk of his life, just before dark.

Zona

My work piles up,
I falter with disease.
Time rushes toward me—
it has no brakes. Still,
the radishes are good this year.
Run them through butter,
add a little salt.

–Jim Harrison, “Dead Man’s Float”

Doug Hare is the Distribution Coordinator for Outlaw Partners. He studied philosophy and American literature at Princeton and Harvard.