Remembering Jim Harrison

By Scott Westerman
“Some people hear their own inner voices with great clearness. And they live by what they hear. Such people become crazy… Or they become legend.” ~ Jim Harrison

Jim Harrison was, in every sense, an extraordinary Spartan. A Michigan boy, born in Grayling, high schooled down the road in Haslett and educated with both a BA and MA from Michigan State. He loved the outdoors, had an insatiable thirst for knowledge and made a mark in literature that some say eclipsed Hemingway. He didn’t care a lick about the notoriety that was a result of his monumental gift for the written word and was at his most joyful when hunting, fishing, cooking, drinking and eating. He was a self diagnosed manic depressive, described by others as alternately brilliant, eccentric, mercurial, funny, impatient, impulsive and thoughtful, plus another dozen or so sometimes opposing adjectives that define a man who grabbed life by the throat, shaking every last visceral sensation out of it. A close friend who came by to say farewell after a heart attack claimed him, reported that he died with pen in hand, still creating until his spirit finally fled from a body that could no longer contain him.

Photograph by Andy Anderson.
Photograph by Andy Anderson.

Those who saw him for the first time might have thought Jim Harrison was that crazy person who heard his inner voices with clarity. Some of his most famous photographs show his hair unkempt, missing and eye and a front tooth, his face often contorted into a perpetual squint. He was known to focus on the design and preparation of the evening meal with such intensity that any imperfection could generate a volcanic outburst of temper. With good reason, say those who ate with him. Jim’s cooking was legendary. There were times he drank too much. He made and squandered fortunes before coming to grips with the financial recipe that could nourish his artistry. He shared much in common with Jack Nicholson, who once sustained Harrison at a moment when the author considered chucking it all to become a teacher. “Here’s some money'”Nicholson reportedly said. Keep writing”.

When MSUAA Alumni Magazine editor, Bob Bao thought to impulsively visit Harrison’s Leelanau County farm, he found a foreboding sign at the entrance to his property that warned: DO NOT ENTER THIS DRIVEWAY UNLESS YOU HAVE CALLED FIRST. THIS MEANS YOU. But if you were able to get inside, you would likely to discover a warm and welcoming home and come away thinking of the experience as one of the most wonderful and memorable of your lifetime.

Arguably, Jim Harrison was happiest in Upper Michigan. The gifts of the Great Lake State are abundant there; fish, fowl, flesh and flora. He kept kit handy to coax each into his rugged hands and enjoyed the exercise most when it was shared with good friends.

And oh, how he could write. Harrison’s career began in poetry, a method that would always remain his favorite means of expression. It was only when he was laid up with a hunting injury that he considered prose. That piece of bad luck made some for some legendary output, including “Legends of the Fall”, his most recognizable work that he ultimately helped craft into a hugely successful film. But he also wrote detective stories, novelas and broad historic epics. And he wrote reviews and essays by the bushel, mostly about his two favorite topics, cooking and the outdoors.

Harrison claimed to have learned the concentration at the heart of creativity while engrossed in manual labor. “You got a lot of thinking done,” he said of his days hauling wheelbarrow loads of cinderblocks through frigid November weather. He thought out his tales beforehand and they seemed to flow from pen to paper without the need for re-writes or editing.

Jim Moore, another Spartan with the writer’s gift said of Harrison, “If you haven’t read his work, you are missing a man whose writing has immortality in it. He was, in my estimation, what Hemingway was trying to be.”

Hemingway, Faulkner, Raymond Chandler, John D. MacDonald… Harrison could dance in and out of their literary styles with the felicity of a piano virtuoso who could hear Mozart and create a composition of equal brilliance, rooted in his own imagination and, perhaps, even more compelling.

Bill Castanier, who knew Harrison well, talked with WKAR – Current State’s Mark Bashore about the real man behind behind the macho outdoorsman persona. “He was kind, gentle, would do anything for anyone and was extremely loyal.” He returned often to MSU’s Secret Garden near the Radiology Building, finding solace there, Castanier relates, after losing his father and sister to a drunk driver. His greatest love was his wife, Linda King Harrison, and his greatest fear was losing her before his own death, something that came true six months before his own passing on March 26.

Greatness sometimes requires a touch of insanity mixed with strong doses of creativity and experience. In this often uncertain realm, the edges of the envelope sometimes fray, revealing shards of insight. The trick is translating them into stories that inspire us to keep turning the pages.

In my lifetime, few were better at the task than Jim Harrison. He leaves a body of work that grants his literary soul an immortality that will manifest every time a lucky reader opens a book with his name on the cover.