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Remembering Michigan author Jim Harrison's writing legacy beyond 'Legends of the Fall'

Mar 28, 2016

Credit Atlantic Monthly Press (2002)

The literary world suffered a significant loss over the weekend when Michigan author and writer Jim Harrison passed away at the age of 78 at his home in Arizona.

Harrison wrote more than three dozen books, including novels like True North, Dalva, and numerous collections of poetry.

He achieved mainstream success when his novella Legends of the Fall (which he once said he wrote in nine days) was made into a feature film starring Anthony Hopkins and Brad Pitt in 1994. That same year, his first novel Wolf was adapted to the big screen starring Jack Nicholson.

Poet and writer Keith Taylor coordinates the undergrad creative writing program at the University of Michigan and joined Stateside to talk about his memories of the influential late author.

“For Michigan writers, Jim was a central figure,” said Taylor. “He wrote about where we live. He wrote about it in such a way that we had to move into it … he could be abrasive or obnoxious but he would always come back from that in such a way that it made our place important. It made the fact that someone worked here as an artist, central.

“There wasn’t anybody quite like him.”

For Michigan writers, Jim was a central figure. He wrote about where we live. He wrote about it in such a way that we had to move into it ... there wasn't anybody quite like him

Harrison was born in Grayling, Michigan, in the northern part of the Lower Peninsula on Dec. 11, 1937, and spent much of his childhood in nearby Reed City.

The outdoors was always a big part of his life, which laid the foundation of his writing career.

“He lost an eye when he was a little kid and he always said that that drove him into the woods, when he was 7,” said Taylor. “He was always comfortable in the Michigan woods … he was a hunter and a fisherman. He enjoyed sensory things, and that, of course, they’re all through his books and his poems and his novels, the fact that he could see things and enjoy them.”

While he had a modest upbringing, Taylor says the man lived very large.

“When he had enough money to eat well, he ate very, very, very well,” said Taylor. “He had a taste for alcohol that made me think I was always surprised he lived as long as he did.”

According to Taylor, in the 1980s while he was writing a food column for Esquire, the magazine once paid for him to travel to France to enjoy the most expensive meal in the world. It was an 11-hour, 35-course lunch in Paris that featured 19 different varieties of wine.  

“I would have died,” said Taylor. “But Jim didn’t and wrote a really cool essay about it.”

When he had enough money to eat well, he ate very, very, very well. He had a taste for alcohol that made me think I was always surprised he lived as long as he did

Taylor said later in Harrison’s career, he reluctantly turned to Hollywood screenwriting as a way to make money (and he made a lot of it), but he did not enjoy it.

The movie Revenge (a 1990 film starring Kevin Costner), Wolf, and Legends of the Fall received mixed reviews, while the latter was a commercial success and received several major nominations, including Best Picture at the Golden Globes. Despite that, Harrison wasn’t pleased with the film adaptations of his work.  

According to Taylor, Harrison’s voice in his work will be what lives on in his writing legacy.

“[His voice] is one of the reasons he got to this status,” said Taylor. “The voice is playful, it’s intense. It can be very, very serious, but it can also be very funny. It’s ribald, even bawdy. Some people would find it vulgar … earthy … but I think most people find that winning … but he had a luxurious style. You could move into those sentences and get carried away with them.”

Listen to the full interview below to hear Taylor’s recommendations for his favorite Harrison novels and his thoughts on the comparisons to Ernest Hemingway. Taylor also reads some excerpts from some of Harrison’s best work.