Jim Harrison’s Life Story

We admired Jim Harrison for his appetite as well as his art. Word of his death had us turning turning to his poetry — “Sketch For A Job-Application Blank” from his 1965 collection Plain Song and “The Quarter”  (“maybe the problem is that I got involved with the wrong crowd of/gods when I was seven.”) a prose poem from 2009’s In Search of Small Gods —  and his memor Off to the Side— remind us of the powers of his singular intellect and his one good eye. Our interview came out sometime after the memoir was published (memory doesn’t always serve) for the now defunct, in spirit as well as form, Bozeman, Montana Tributary and reminds us how honest he could be when discussing the why of his life:

–A conversation with poet-novelist-screenwriter Jim Harrison seldom strays from two subjects: dogs and food. A discussion of last season’s fishing on Montana’s Big Hole River leads Harrison to the sandwiches with aged provolone and imported meats sold at a certain Italian deli in Butte. “Not like the usual bung fodder they serve you at those commercial places,” he says scornfully.

Last summer, he rented a house in Livingston, the first time he’s lived in a town for decades. More a creature of rural surroundings, Harrison describes the ordeal in dog terms. “It took them a couple of months to adjust,” he says during a Sunday morning phone call from his “casita” near Patagonia, Arizona. He speaks in unmistakable tones—deep, considered, wiry—a sound that anyone who’s heard him read will never forget.

“It was enlivening. The dogs like the alleys more than yards because there were more interesting smells, garbage to sniff, things like that. Also there were strange things to hear there that attracted them, like stray cats. Country dogs aren’t that social. My bird dog, the English setter, had real doubts about the mixed breed dogs you find in town. After a couple of months, they didn’t like it.”

Both canines and cuisine play a leading role in Harrison’s new memoir Off To the Side (Atlantic Monthly Press). In lesser roles are the Hollywood types Harrison knows, including Jack Nicholson, John and Angelica Huston, the painter Russell Chatham, chef Mario Batali and writer Tom McGuane. Early on in the book, he cites the various pooches he’s owned, many now “permanently asleep,” as a touchstone to his history. Unlike the poet T.S. Eliot, who measured out his life in coffee spoons, Harrison writes that he keeps track of the past “only by what dogs we’ve owned at the time.”

Author of some 30 volumes of fiction, poetry and essays, Harrison first rose to attention in the 1960s when poet Denise Levertov discovered the handful of poems he’d then written. She urged publisher W.W. Norton to print his first collection Plain Song.


Harrison is often credited with reviving the novella form. The 1979, Montana-set novella Legends of the Fall led to the film of the same name, featuring Anthony Hopkins, Brad Pitt, Julia Ormand and Aidan Quinn. It was also the start of Harrison’s lucrative if not troubled association with Hollywood. The story’s paternal lead, William Ludlow, was inspired by the name-sake great-grandfather of his wife, Linda. Harrison says he recently discovered that the real-life Ludlow had a hand in the creation of Yellowstone Park.

Harrison, renowned for his appetites, has a legacy of his own, part literary, part screen play. He wrote several drafts for the Jack Nicholson-Michelle Pfeiffer vehicle Wolf, adapted from his 1971 novel. In 1998, four decades of his poetry were collected in the Copper Canyon Press book The Shape of the Journey. The hairy-chested food criticism he wrote for Esquire magazine was published in 2001 under the column’s name, The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand. His ambitious, related novels, Dalva and The Road Home, trace five generations of Americans, native and immigrant, rooted in the sandhills of Nebraska.

Now 65, Harrison has written his memoir to reveal more than you might expect. Sure, he narrates the events of his life, with particular emphasis on his hard-scrabble youth. But he goes beyond simple chronology. In a middle section entitled “Seven Obsessions,” he discusses his passions and vices, everything from alcohol to road trips, fishing to strippers. Not many writers of such rank, sentenced to live in self-righteous times, would dare extol a fondness for strippers.

But honesty and pragmatic observation are a Harrison trait, despite the declaration in the memoir’s introduction that he isn’t sure he’s “equipped to tell the truth.” Though blinded in the left eye at the age of seven when a neighbor girl thrust a broken soda bottle in his face, Harrison has a clear vision of off-the-freeway America and its people, past and present. With a shrewd, unsentimental knack for portraying the natural world, he is able to find myth and meaning among a gathering of ravens or the sighting of a single track in snow. His characters, swollen with human foibles, are tied to the land and suffer the effects when they are uprooted.

At one point in the memoir, Harrison reduces his book to a single sentence: “The young man, really not much more than a big boy, hitchhikes to New York City to be a poet, then forty-five years later as a geezer tries to deeply consider what has gone on in between.” These deep, “between” considerations, buttressed by anecdote, give the book its weight.

Harrison was born and raised in Michigan, his childhood rich in experience if poor in material and economic advantage. His early love of the woods, lakes and thickets of the north country is reflected in much of his work. In the memoir, he states, “I write best calling on my boyhood.”

Why is that?  “I sometimes think that those early things are particularly vivid only because they are long enough ago that their essence arises to the surface,” he says. “You’re far enough away from events so that you actually see them. Because I spent so much time in the woods, some of my work reflects that landscape, the natural setting, what I cared for the most.”

Indeed the north woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula have framed some of his most memorable tales. In his trio of novellas, the 2000 collection The Beast God Forgot to Invent, Harrison follows a brain-damaged young innocent, more beast than man, through the forested setting. The comic-heroic figure Brown Dog, subject of three novellas published since 1990, roams the U.P. and falls hilariously out-of-place when he leaves it, dropping into trouble as easily as a cap is twisted from a beer. Harrison promises a fourth installment of the Brown Dog saga will be published soon.

Early on, Harrison fell in love with poetry, not what you’d expect from a young man growing up poor in the north woods. “That’s because, let’s face it,” Harrison, always the cultural critic, explains, “all of our lives turn on the work of a few teachers. There are places like Montana, in Arizona a few miles from the Mexican border where I am now, where teachers are paid abominably. You have a governor in Montana who suggests that home schooling is best. It’s obscene.

“I had a key teacher, a couple of them, and that’s how the [poetry] obsession starts. Also there were so many books in our house. Those enthusiasms engendered by teachers and parents early on tend to last. When your school has Audubon cards of beautiful birds that you see at age seven, years later you’re still interested in birds.”

Harrison married early, struggled with academia  (though he was extremely well-read) and generally had a hard time making a living. Much of that changed when he was discovered by Hollywood. Unlike F. Scott Fitzgerald and others, his long association with the film industry, despite its frustrations and temptations, didn’t kill him, his craft or his marriage.

“No, I don’t think L.A. is evil,” he says, “even if you do look like road kill smear after being there a while. It’s your own greed that ruins you. Anything else is whining. It’s not a place of evil anymore than Bozeman or Billings is. But it is the center of the dream factory and, like Wall Street, the greed and availability of money enables people to act very badly. It takes you a while to figure that out and that’s when you quit the film business and go to the airport and leave.”

Though he struggled with the industry got along well with its players. The memoir’s section on Hollywood is heavy with name-dropping. Personalities ranging from Francis Ford Coppola to Danny DeVito, Bill Murray to Catherine Deneuve are referenced, with special emphasis on best buddy Jack Nicholson. The amazing thing is that Harrison, from the wooly woods of Michigan and not a pretty man by any means, fit in so well with this crowd. Maybe it was the shared joy of drink or his taste in food. More likely, it was his intimidating knowledge of literature.

“These are very large people, people who have a largeness of soul,” he says of his Hollywood connections. “They’re very well read, the same kind of people you would like if you met them in Bozeman. And they are very good at what they do.”

Harrison is even willing to cut the most loathed figures in Hollywood, the producers, some slack. “What’s the point to pretending that all producers are evil? Some are very interesting people. But it’s also true that some are the same sort of egregious assholes as your average real estate developer in Gallatin County.”

Harrison is no stranger to Montana. Both of his daughters live here. He gave a reading at the Country Bookshelf late last fall when the memoir was released and, earlier in the fall, he was arguably the most prominent author who participated in the “One Fine Page” event that the local writing community threw at the downtown book store. He read a poem of ironic nostalgia, “The Old Days,” which closes Off To the Side (“In the old days it stayed light until midnight/and rain and snow came up from the ground/rather than down from the sky. Women were easy….”).

His first look at Montana came on a 1969 road trip with Tom McGuane, a fellow student at Michigan State University. Though he has strong feelings about the pace and form of development around here, he says he’s neither encouraged or discouraged by the changes he’s since seen in Montana. “It’s just what happens.

“I hadn’t been in the (Hamilton) area since (the ’69 trip) and what’s happening there and around Missoula is certainly a horror show, the same kind of sprawl that’s happening around Bozeman, where the growth pattern is that of a cancer cell. It’s utterly berserk. Certain towns, like Kalispell and Bozeman, act as a vacuum, attracting people out of the country. The only thing that limits that type of development is the large extent of public land. But Montana is a fabulous place for getting away from it all. Towns like Twodot and Martinsdale are wonderful places.”

Claustrophobia and a general restlessness coupled with a love of hunting, fishing and otherwise being outdoors have kept Harrison out of big cities. “The media is telling us that television has made us all the same. But these [media] people never get out of New York, never get off the freeway unless there’s a major explosion. If 9/11 had happened in Casper, Wyoming, they wouldn’t be talking about it anymore. Or [the media] does strange things, they go on a trip and discover there are insects in the world. I read a travel piece in the New York Times about some people who went to Mexico and left because they found insects there.”

His claustrophobia, discussed at length in the memoir, and his family brought him to buy a farm house outside of Livingston and make it his home. “(Claustrophobia) is why I left the farm in Michigan after some 30 years. We lived on a beautiful peninsula that juts out into Lake Michigan. It was mostly agrarian when we moved there but it’s become commercial, simple real estate.  I’d gone from isolation to being surrounded by a bunch of rich Republicans.”

With Harrison’s testosterone-powered reputation and love of manly pleasures (hunting, fishing, strippers) it surprises some that he writes sensitively of women. The memoir drops a number of lines regarding female superiority and some of his stories (Dalva, Julip, The Road Home) are told in part from a woman’s perspective. He suggested at his Bozeman reading that living around his wife, daughters and five aunts gave him an understanding of the female psyche. But, he says, applying it isn’t easy.

“The problem is to remain vulnerable, to access—I hate that word ‘access’—the state of being, of mind, in which that vulnerability that women feel becomes part of your character. And that’s something (men) are phenomenally not good at doing.”

The former bad-boy of letters, now a self-described “geezer,” no longer sees the need to struggle with success (a later poem observes, “As a geezer, one grows tired of the story/Of Sisyphus. Let that boulder stay/where it is…”).

“I set a goal for myself early-on, to have my books stay in print, and they have. A ‘geezer’ is what you become when you achieve a kind of independence, because you’re old enough that you don’t care anymore. I no longer particularly care about literary matters as much. So you wander around doing what you want and make a living. I’m more off to the side now than ever. But that’s because I have an SUV and I smoke.”

And with that, Jim Harrison allows himself a chuckle.




Leave a Reply