I’m starting with Jim Harrison as a subject, and for my first post in a while, for a reason: for me, there has been no one who has embodied as much of a philosophy of living — rustic, philosophical, literary — as Harrison. My ties to Harrison include the personal, and the tangential, but they also embody a respect for the man whose life and writing remain an indelible inspiration to many, including among those whom you might least expect.
The first issue to put to final rest: Some have made the mistake of comparing Harrison to Ernest Hemingway — both lived in northern Michigan and wrote about it; both had a rapacious love for good food and good wine…and both had a passion for life and all things outdoors. But Hemingway always seemed much more self-conscious; his solipsism, demons from depression and alcoholism, and need to remain larger than life seemed to detract from his work and even subsume his hard-won talents. I still cannot think of Hemingway without thinking of the influence of other writers and mentors, such as Sherwood Anderson and Gertrude Stein. That and the “code hero” mythos he insisted on living until his death.
Despite some of the greatest work in American literature, which still remains most poignant for me in his Nick Adams stories, like “Big, Two-Hearted River, Parts I and II” when Nick comes back from WWI, or A Moveable Feast, which I remember a professor in college reading from aloud, about Hemingway’s rabbit’s foot, so worn that he could feel the claw and the tendons, with barely any hair left — this as I reached into my own pocket at that moment, feeling my own rabbit’s foot attached to a keychain, similarly worn. I found myself tearing up in the middle of class, the literary having become visceral, tangible, and very real.
I also cannot deny the impact of The Old Man and the Sea…which seemed so much the well-recognized metaphor for Hemingway himself…his desire for simplicity, for the capacity to still reach deep within his subconscious for truth and one more great story, only to have his critics eat away at the carcass of his work like sharks, smelling blood in the water and shredding the last of his dignity.
In any case, Hemingway’s self-consciousness seemed to foreshadow his undoing. Harrison, on the other hand, seemed to be able to look at himself, his life, his family, and his work with a sense, ultimately, of understanding. There was a sense of always needing to walk the line and understand the part varying elements of life had to play, like hues on a broader canvas. He seemed to inherently understand the hermetic: the notion of microcosm and macrocosm and how one ultimately reflected the other, knowing that this was essential to knowing one’s place in the larger whole. His work was also wholly visceral, always with Nature as a major character, with an inherent respect for the elemental. He had famous friends like Jack Nicholson, his works were also made into Hollywood films (among them Revenge, Legends of the Fall, Wolf, Carried Away, which was based on his novel, Farmer)…but there was a very real sense he understood the part these played, and he could still get back to his work, knowing that he was not just a writer, but he was a man and a human being who understood the value of each element in his life, with an attempt, always, to find some kind of balance, even if it was, at times, irritatingly elusive.
I remember living for a time in northern Michigan, in Leelanau County where Harrison once lived, and where my sister also lived, where I was writing, driving for hours through the hills, vineyards, and forests, hiking the Sleeping Bear Dunes, hanging out in the county with people whom my sister had introduced me to: artists such as the revered portrait artist Fred Petroskey (who would do a painting of me as a Viking/Celt warrior during those years in my 20’s) and his wife, Molly, who became good friends. I worked one summer at the Suttons Bay Bookstore with family friend Mallie Marshall, and became friends with Jim Harrison’s personal assistant, Joyce, who would later become a kind of touchstone when in the county after moving away — she who Jim seemed a little afraid of at times for her lack of bullshit, even though she was always full of good humor, such as when I and one of my best friends ran into Jim in Key West, and he admitted to being hung over and concerned Joyce would find out. We spoke to her later, and she just let out a wry chortle, saying he had been trying to diet and cut down on drinking — and it wasn’t working. I remember thinking, no human being who is the embodiment of living a good life could become so “good” so easily. It would seem to be antithetical to the very soul of one whose work depended upon such nuance and subtlety — like the fragrant notes in a good wine (and here I think of the sensuous strokes of lavender, currant, and smooth, subtle smokiness of a good Bordeaux) or the flavors of the gourmet and rustic cuisine, often including wild game for Harrison, that acted as a poignant corollary to his respect for Nature herself.
I remember, too, at that time, going into the Bluebird in Leland, sitting at the bar before Cy, the Bird’s infamous bartender, who often with his brusque, similarly no bullshit demeanor, would ask about my own work, and when I would tell him I was stuck, he’d lean forward, pouring me another single malt Scotch (as I was one of the few women he knew who drank it, taught well by my father), saying, gruffly, but with a twinkle in his eye: “I’ll tell you what I tell Harrison. Just finish the fucker.” And then he’d throw away my tab, not charging me for the rest of the night.
It was only later, when reading more than Harrison’s fiction and poetry or articles in Esquire, that I started to appreciate his writing about certain foods and cuisine, showing an almost encyclopedic knowledge of wine, the arguments over how to cook something correctly, and the number of friendships that were instances of not just communing over a meal, but how every element incorporated the depth of a personal philosophy few these days seem to embody. It were as though he was a throwback to the true greats of every imaginable tradition, whose voraciousness of both life and knowledge had seemed to create a human being of incomparable substance. In Harrison’s case, he seemed a man who knew his faults every bit as well as those things which supposedly made him so revered, but he couldn’t be bothered with thinking about any of it too much — self-consciousness was a waste of time, as there was a good life to live among friends, family, and others who represented resonances of something far more indelible. And then, there was also the work, work that was as much a part of him as blood and bone.
One of the more poignant representations of Harrison was via Anthony Bourdain, when in No Reservations he visited Harrison in Livingston, Montana. Seeing Bourdain so genuinely humbled, as though knowing he was before one of the truly great artists of life as well as on the page, seems almost a glimpse into the essence of vulnerability. It was wonderful to watch, but it is also the true essence of being around someone like Harrison; just being in his presence, you knew your mettle could be tested by someone whose life experience, no matter what, would match if not transcend your own. Philosophically, artistically, rustically, and again, in terms of sheer substance. But again, without bullshit.
In GQ, this vision of Harrison was described in 2010:
This ribald, self- professed “roving gourmand,” whose The Raw and the Cookedmay be the best food writing since ol’ Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, has supped with men as mighty as the Olympians, eaten as widely and wildly as you can imagine, and lived to tell about it. To wit: After one particularly strenuous bout with caviar and foie gras in Paris Harrison’s table-mates Huston and Orson Welles simultaneously feigned heart attacks to get out of paying the several thousand dollar check.
Such irreverence notwithstanding, one had to image that such men as Huston and Welles, quintessentially larger than life, knew they had met their match; the same could be said for such friends like Jack Nicholson. Those who are larger than life know when they’ve met one of their own — and it’s either a case of getting on famously, or hating one another’s guts. Luckily those with enough heart, and not solely beset by an attack of the ego, can make room for one who is, essentially, salt of the earth to a colossal degree, knowing if they don’t it’s basically a testament to inveterate ego, ignorance, and a profound lack of character. Around Jim, if one didn’t understand the character of the man enough to know he was in the presence of one of the greats on myriad levels, one had to also be tragically oblivious. And such a description is not hyperbolic. This is incredibly rare, as these days, writing about such characters always seems inherently hyperbolic, with far too many given far too much credit. To meet one who deserves every lauding word is rare…and necessary, if even as a means of comparison. Why Bourdain’s reaction to Harrison in life, and in lamenting him at his death, was so amazingly poignant.
Because this will be a forum for commentary about just such matters — and especially about the substance of the rustic in life and perspective, it seemed incredibly important, as well as personal, to start this off with Jim — as a testament to his character, as inspiration, and to suggest there is much to learn from one who lived his life so completely. The visceral qualities of nature, food, wine, work that hits to the marrow, and the substance of a good life should mean something. It is my hope to do my own part in perhaps keeping something of this perspective alive.
K.J. Wetherholt is the Publisher/Executive Editor of MIPJ, Humanitas Media Publishing, and Humanitas, for which this is the first post. She currently also writes about war and humanity, a book about war correspondents on the Western Front during WWI, The Illumination: A Novel of the Great War, being re-released with additional content Memorial Day, May 27, 2019. An upcoming monograph on the ELN in the Colombian civil war will be published later this year.