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Jim Harrison, 'Legends Of The Fall' Author, Dies At 78

Originally published on March 28, 2016 8:37 am

In a career that began in the 1960s — and brought comparisons to Faulkner and Hemingway — Jim Harrison wrote more than three dozen books, including the novels Dalva and True North, the novella Legends of the Fall and many collections of poetry. He died Saturday in Patagonia, Ariz., at the age of 78, his publisher has confirmed to NPR.

"Our thoughts are with the Harrison family and his many friends all over the world," Grove Atlantic publisher and CEO Morgan Entrekin said in a statement. "Jim is gone but his work will live on."

Harrison set his stories in the untamed corners of America — the Big Sky country of Montana, the arid deserts of the Southwest, the swamplands and forests of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where he spent his summers.

Harrison described the "massive presence of Lake Superior" beside the "undifferentiated wilderness." There were rivers, creeks and beaver ponds. "I had a wolf right outside my cabin years ago," Harrison recalls. "It was a lovely experience."

In a 2007 interview, Harrison said he needed the wilderness. At the beginning of his career, he tried teaching at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, in the company of Alfred Kazin, Philip Roth and Louis Simpson.

"It was an exciting place," he recalled. "I enjoy intelligent company, you know? But I like outside better than inside. And there weren't enough places for me to feel free."

A life in the elements echoed in Harrison's rough-edged voice. He grew up in the farmlands of Michigan. When he was only 7 years old, a piece of glass blinded his left eye.

"That set me apart a little bit," he said. "So it seemed altogether natural to become obsessed, or feel that you had a calling for an art form in which you were also set apart."

"I always seem to be writing about semi-outcasts," he added.

Harrison's best known story is Legends of the Fall -- about three Montana brothers in love with the same woman. When the novella was adapted by Hollywood in 1994, it helped establish Brad Pitt as a leading man in the role of the nomadic outcast.

Novelist Colum McCann says Harrison was one of his heroes and that he'll be remembered as a "writer's writer."

"There's a poetry in each sentence," McCann says. "You can tell every sentence has been looked at. I heard one time that Jim spent a couple of weeks looking for a word that he was convinced that he had repeated in an earlier part of the novel — literally trawling through page after page to make sure that he hadn't repeated the exact same image. And that's craft."

Harrison appreciated the hard work that went into writing.

"It isn't easy when it's good," he said. "It takes your whole life to do it."

Harrison's life was the subject of his 2007 poem "Water."

Before I was born I was water.
I thought of this sitting on a blue
chair surrounded by pink, red, white
hollyhocks In the yard in front
of my green studio. There are conclusions
to be drawn but I can't do it anymore.
Born man, child man, singing man,
dancing man, loving man, old man,
dying man. This is a round river
and we are her fish who become water.

Harrison said more than anything else, he wanted his writing to be convincing.

"The very best writers have echoes beyond where their lives begin and end," says McCann. " In particular I think his poetry is going to resonate for a long time."

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DANIEL ZWERDLING, HOST:

The man who wrote "Legends Of The Fall" has died. Jim Harrison was 78 years old. He wrote more than three dozen books, including poetry and sprawling epics and essays on food, books like "True North" and "Warlock" and "The Raw And The Cooked." Critics have compared Harrison to William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. Tom Vitale looks back on his life from New York.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: Place is what Jim Harrison's writing is all about. He set his stories in the untamed corners of America, the big sky country of Montana, the arid deserts of the Southwest, the swamplands and forests of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where he spent his summers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JIM HARRISON: It's sort of an undifferentiated aided wilderness and then the massive presence of Lake Superior.

VITALE: In 2007, Harrison told me he needed the wilderness. At the beginning of his career, he tried teaching at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

HARRISON: Alfred Kazin was there, Philip Roth and Louis Simpson. It was an exciting place. I enjoyed the intelligent company, but I like outside better than inside. And there weren't enough places for me to feel free.

VITALE: A life in the elements echoed in Harrison's rough-edged voice. He grew up in the farmlands of Michigan. When he was only 7 years old, a piece of glass blinded his left eye.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

HARRISON: And that set me apart a little bit, so it seemed altogether natural to become obsessed or feel that you had a calling for art form in which you were also set apart. You know, I always seem to be writing about semi-outcasts.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LEGENDS OF THE FALL")

GORDON TOOTOOSIS: (As One Stab) I think it was the bear's voice he heard deep inside him, growling low of dark, secret places.

VITALE: Jim Harrison's best-known story is "Legends Of The Fall" about three Montana brothers in love with the same woman. When the novella was adapted by Hollywood in 1994, it helped to establish Brad Pitt as a leading man in a role of the nomadic outcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LEGENDS OF THE FALL")

BRAD PITT: (As Tristan Ludlow) Tell Stab there are creatures here that cannot even be found in books. And I have killed them all.

COLUM MCCANN: The very best writers have echoes way beyond where their lives begin and end. In particular, I think his poetry is going to resonate for a long time.

VITALE: Novelist Colum McCann says Jim Harrison was one of his heroes. McCann says Harrison will be remembered as a writer's writer.

MCCANN: I heard one time that Jim spent a couple of weeks looking for a word that he was convinced that he had repeated in an earlier part of the novel and literally trolling through page after page to make sure that he hadn't repeated the exact same image. And that's - that's craft, and it's hard work as well.

VITALE: And Jim Harrison appreciated the hard work that went into writing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MCCANN: It isn't easy when it's good is what I'm saying. It takes your whole life to do it.

VITALE: Jim Harrison's life was the subject his 2007 poem "Water."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

HARRISON: (Reading) Before I was born I was water. I thought of this sitting on a blue chair surrounded by pink, red, white hollyhocks in the yard in front of my green studio. There are conclusions to be drawn but I can't do it anymore. Born man, child man, singing man, dancing man, loving man, old man, dying man. This is a round river and we are her fish who become water.

VITALE: Author Jim Harrison - he said more than anything else he wanted his writing to be convincing. For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.