A late thanks to the last legend, Jim Harrison
Last week, LARB published Peter Nowogrodzki’s interview with Jim Harrison… it’s said to be Harrison’s last. Reading it prompted a return to the short “thanks” I wrote back in March.
I was a senior in college, bargaining through a philosophy and creative writing degree, asking the world if I could be a writer. Only By accident did I stumble upon the idea — a few good papers, transferring to a new school, and calling myself a student of writing.
But I wasn’t a bookish type. I was a golfer, a Michigander, smart but not highbrow, and still drinking syrupy Hazelnut coffee. I fell into a literary community — who read Austen and Woolf, compared Faulkner and O’Connor — and I was an outsider.
I wanted to be something I wasn’t.
I was dyed Midwest. Honest. Diligent. Sure words weighed true. As I started to read in earnest, I only found New Yorker writers, Southern Gothics, and the West Coast Beats.
Who knew the contours of the world that shaped my youth? Who Spoke the language of cold winters and quick summers? For a while it was Hemingway, a legend whose noble character seems to dissipate with every letter to Fitzgerald. As Jim said he was just, “a wood stove that doesn’t give off much heat.”
When a friend gave me Harrison’s memoir, Off to the Side, I was so delighted I read whole sections aloud in the library. His sharp eye, his plain tone, and his disregard for who he ought to be as a writer… who he ought to be as a person.
I was asking that same question of myself — who ought I to be? I was finally, “growing up,” and slipping away from a faith once marrow-deep. Who would I, now unmoored, become?
I picked up, The Shape of the Journey, a collection of his poems spanning the years 1965 -1998. Therein I found a man who spoke my own language. His metaphors grounded. His verbs and nouns thudded through stanzas. His conclusions soaked in the pragmatic midwestern wisdom that chokes nonsense.
But he did more than speak my language, he asked my questions. From his first book of poems, Plain Song, he was already making a conscientious effort to tell and understand his own story. In poems like, “Sketch for a Job Application — Blank” he legitimized his own desire to be a poet. In “Poem” he deemed a cold northern landscape worthy of poetic rumination.
By his own pen, Jim Harrison spent years answering the question. His refusal to be anyone but himself made him into a legend — even once claiming a night of lycanthropy. Late in life he admitted what readers already knew, “some people hear their own inner voice with great clearness. And they live by what they hear. Such people become crazy… or they become legend.”
It’s hard to write about writers. We love them because they make sense out of our confused minds… so I’m not sure exactly how to say it all… how to spell out my debt to this man I never met…
The closest I ever came to thanking him was finding a signed copy of one of his books in a Livingston, Montana bookshop. I asked the bookkeeper if she met Jim before his death. “Oh yeah,” she answered, “He was an old curmudgeon.” She handed me the book and added, “but he was a good man.”