By Kevin Rabalais
In my years as a bookseller, I’ve found that there has always been one writer that readers—and they’re typically European—always expect us to stock, and to know and love as much as they do. They usually come in with plans to buy this work as a gift, passing along a favorite novel or volume of poetry to a friend. If we don’t have any of this work in stock, they grow baffled, sometimes angry.
“But Jim Harrison is a legend in France,” they say.
“Everyone in Germany reads Jim Harrison.”
“In my country, the publication of a new Jim Harrison novel is treated like a cultural event.”
Harrison—the American novelist and poet whose body of work includes nearly two dozen novellas (among them Legends of the Fall and a beloved series about a Native American named Brown Dog, often called a twenty-first-century version of Huck Finn), more than a dozen novels, among them Dalva, True North and The Great Leader, and nearly twenty volumes of poetry—died last week at age seventy-nine. Many obituaries have compared his work to both Hemingway and Faulkner. Those writers, of course, mark opposite poles of twentieth century American prose style, but when you are as prolific as Harrison, and when your obsessions are the outdoors and one specific region—Michigan’s Upper Peninsula—the two Nobel Prize winners seem not only obvious influences but peers for a writer Dwight Garner of The New York Times has called “Among the most indelible American novelists of the last hundred years.”
Many readers, and I am one of them, first encountered Harrison’s name through the film version of Legends of the Fall. Whatever you think of that big-budget Hollywood extravaganza, do yourself a favor and read Harrison’s 1979 book of the same title to witness how a writer compresses an epic’s worth of material, along with several generations of characters and their pangs and hopes, into a novella. Here and throughout his productive work in prose, Harrison maintained the soul of a poet.
In Letters to Yesenin (1973), my favorite volume of Harrison’s poetry, the author addresses the Russian poet who hanged himself in 1925 after writing his farewell poem in blood. Living in poverty in the early 1970s and with his own suicidal urges, Harrison began writing daily prose-poem letters to Yesenin.
I wanted to feel exalted so I picked up
Doctor Zhivago again. But the newspaper was there
with the horrors of the Olympics, those dead and
perpetually martyred sons of David. I want to present
all Israelis with .357 magnums so that they are
never to be martyred again. I wanted to be exalted
so I picked up Doctor Zhivago again but the TV was on
with a movie about the sufferings of convicts in
the early history of Australia. But then the movie
was over and the level of the bourbon bottle was dropping
and I still wanted to be exalted lying there with
the book on my chest…
In Letters to Yesenin, as in much of his work, we find Harrison struggling with how to live in the world, among others, and with the ghosts of ancestors and idols. Throughout his life, he lived in rural settings. He captured all of the drama and humor of that life in characters such as David Burkett, the troubled and all-too human narrator of True North, who struggles to understand himself and his inheritance as the fourth generation of David Burketts in the Upper Peninsula.
In a miraculous late-career productive streak, Harrison published more than a dozen books in his final ten years. A new volume of poetry, Dead Man’s Float, appeared at the beginning of this year, and The Ancient Minstrel: Novellas was published last month. Life is short and reading is long, to paraphrase Hippocrates. Or, to put it another way, literature has no expiration date. A writer lives on through his work. Some, like Harrison, will only get the readership they deserve after they die.