Jim Harrison, the fiction writer, poet, outdoorsman and reveler who wrote with gruff affection for the countryâ€™s landscape and rural life and enjoyed mainstream success in middle age with his historical saga â€œLegends of the Fall,â€ died March 26 at his home in Patagonia, Ariz. He was 78.
Deb Seager, a spokeswoman for his publisher, Grove Atlantic, confirmed the death. She did not know the cause. Mr. Harrisonâ€™s wife of more than 50 years, Linda King Harrison, died last fall.
The versatile and prolific author completed more than 30 books, most recently the novella collection â€œThe Ancient Minstrel,â€ and was admired worldwide. Sometimes likened to Ernest Hemingway for the range and kinds of his interests, he was a hunter and fisherman who savored his time in a cabin near his Michigan hometown, a drinker and Hollywood scriptwriter who was close friends with Jack Nicholson and came to know Sean Connery, Orson Welles and Warren Beatty, among others. He wrote about sports and was a man of extraordinary appetite who once polished off a 37-course lunch, a traveler and teller of tales, most famously â€œLegends of the Fall.â€
â€œHis voice came from the American heartland and his deep and abiding love of the American landscape runs through his extraordinary body of work,â€ Grove Atlantic publisher and chief executive Morgan Entrekin said in statement.
Published in 1979, â€œLegends of the Fallâ€ was a collection of three novellas that featured the title story about Montana rancher Col. William Ludlow and his three sons of sharply contrasting personalities and values. The narrative extended from before World War I to the mid-20th century, from San Francisco to Singapore.
â€œLate in October 1914 three brothers rode from Choteau, Montana to Calgary, Alberta to enlist in the Great War,â€ reads Harrisonâ€™s celebrated opening sentence, which author Vance Bourjaily would praise for establishing â€œboth the voice and manner of the epic storyteller, who deals in great vistas and vast distances.â€
The book was a best seller, and Mr. Harrison worked on the script for an Oscar-nominated 1994 film of the same name starring Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins and Aidan Quinn. Mr. Harrisonâ€™s screenplay credits also included â€œRevenge,â€ starring Kevin Costner, and the Nicholson film â€œWolf.â€ But he would liken the process of screenwriting to being trapped in a â€œshuddering elevatorâ€ and reminded himself of his marginal status by inscribing a putdown by a Hollywood executive, â€œYouâ€™re just a writer,â€ on a piece of paper and taping it above his desk.
Mr. Harrison could have been a superb character actor, a bearded, burly man with a disfigured left eye and a smokerâ€™s rasp who confided that when out in public with Nicholson he was sometimes mistaken for the actorâ€™s bodyguard. Erudite enough to write reviews for The New York Times and to quote Wallace Stevens from memory, he also had a strong affinity for physical labor and a history of writing stories for and about men.
â€œMy characters arenâ€™t from the urban dream-coasts,â€ he told The Paris Review in 1986. â€œA man is not a foreman on a dam project because he wants to be macho. Thatâ€™s his job, a job heâ€™s evolved into.â€
Mr. Harrison set many works in the rural north of his native Michigan, including the detective novels â€œThe Great Leaderâ€ and â€œThe Big Seven,â€ and used Nebraska as the backdrop for one of his most acclaimed works, â€œDalva.â€
His other books included a volume of novellas, â€œThe River Swimmerâ€; the poetry collections â€œSongs of Unreasonâ€ and â€œReturning to Earthâ€; and a memoir about food, â€œThe Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand.â€ He was voted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2007.
He married Linda King in 1959 and had two daughters.
Mr. Harrison was born Dec. 11, 1937, in Grayling, Mich. His father was an agricultural extension agent.
He developed an early love of books and the outdoors. He lost the sight in his left eye at the age of 7, when a neighbor girl thrust a bottle in his face.
In the 1950s and â€™60s, Mr. Harrison drifted between studies at Michigan State University and the â€œBeatâ€ scene in Boston, where he met Jack Kerouac, and New York City before returning to rural Michigan. In 1965, he debuted as a poet with â€œPlain Song.â€
In the late 1960s, Mr. Harrison slipped off a bank along the Manistee River in Michigan, injured his back, lapsed into a semi-coma and for two years was forced to wear a corset. A close friend, the novelist Tom McGuane, suggested he try a full-length work of fiction.
In 1976, Mr. Harrison visited the set of â€œThe Missouri Breaks,â€ a 1976 movie written by McGuane, who introduced him to Nicholson.
Mr. Harrisonâ€™s first novel, â€œWolf: A Fake Memoir,â€ came out in 1971, followed two years later by â€œA Good Day to Die.â€ When his 1976 novel â€œFarmerâ€ failed to sell well, Mr. Harrison said he was so broke he couldnâ€™t pay his taxes.
His turnaround came after he was visiting his in-lawsâ€™ home and came upon the journals of his wifeâ€™s great-grandfather, a mining engineer named William Ludlow. Mr. Harrison was inspired to write â€œLegends of the Fall,â€ supported by a $15,000 loan from Nicholson.
â€œAnd now the one-eyed goofy, the black-sheep poet … has inadvertently struck it rich,â€ Mr. Harrison later wrote of his mid-life success. â€œAfter the first full year of this experience I was sitting on the porch of our recently remodeled farmhouse, triple the estimated time and expense and a thoroughly enervating process, reading the Detroit Free Press and noting that I had made more money in the last year than the President of General Motors, Harlow Curtis.
â€œI idly hoped he was happy in his work.â€
â€” Associated Press
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