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.”