Sorry about the title.
Jim Harrison passed away somewhat unexpectedly two weeks ago, and I started this post but didn’t finish, and I’m just getting back to it now. Harrison has long been one of my favorite writers, but I didn’t come to him through the novella that made him famous. Back in the nineties, before the internet had decimated many subcategories of journalism they way it has since, there were a whole bunch of magazines for outdoorsmen (loosely called ‘hook and bullet’ magazines- Field & Stream, Outdoor Life, Sports Afield). There magazines are still limping along, but most of them have changed with the rise of the internet. Sports Afield was far and away to most literary of them, at least for the mass market magazines, and I was an avid reader of them all.
Sports Afield reprinted the introduction to a book by a french writer, Guy de la Valdene, called For A Handful of Feathers. It’s a beautiful little book about quail hunting. Valdene has written a bunch of other books, both fiction and non, but the intro, reprinted in Sports Afield, really grabbed me. In a short span of words it captured everything I understood about hunting, love of the land, eating, and the friendships that are predicated on those things. The byline read Jim Harrison. I had not heard of Harrison at that point, though the movie came out in 1994 and the titular collection of novellas had been published in 1978.
I couldn’t tell you which of his books I read first, but I have read most of what he has written over the years, often twice. His memoir, Off To The Side, is rambling, funny, and fantastic, with great vignettes from his foray into screenwriting, which paid for the the hunting, the eating, and the ranch in the Southwest. It includes the oft-repeated story in which a movie executive tells Harrison, “you’re just the writer,” and Harrison writes that on a little sign and pins it above his desk as a reminder of what he’s really up to.
Harrison was also a fantastic poet, as well as an essayist and a great food writer, though I think he will be remembered best as a master of the novella. He wrote with a sense of clarity, unflinching honesty (even about himself), and joy that I have not found in too many other writers. In his fans, I find that if you’ve heard of Jim Harrison, there’s a very high likelihood that you are like me, and have read everything you could get your hands on. He just published a new book, which I haven’t read yet, and I have no doubt that his passing will color my reading. Though not nearly as famous as some other Wester writers, say Wallace Stegner, Anne Proulx, or Cormac McCarthy, his take on landscape and the people in it was unique and powerful, and while I have one more book to go, and will probably re-read some of my favorites, the silencing of his prolific voice is a loss for us all.