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Remembering author Jim Harrison in his own words

March 28, 2016 at 6:20 PM EDT
Jim Harrison, a prolific and influential writer of fiction and poetry, was known for his preoccupation with rural American life and his eclectic professional pursuits: he’d been everything from a Hollywood screenwriter to a food writer for Esquire Magazine. Harrison died over the weekend at age 78. Jeffrey Brown looks back on his 2009 interview with Harrison at his home in Montana.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: remembering one of the nation’s most versatile writers.

Jeffrey Brown has the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jim Harrison was a prolific writer of fiction and poetry, most often of men and women in the drama of rural America and the natural world. Among his best known works are “Legends of the Fall,” “Dalva,” and the more recent “Brown Dog.”

A new novel, “The Ancient Minstrel,” came out just this month, and a new volume of poetry, “Dead Man’s Float,” earlier this year. He’d been a Hollywood screenwriter, a food writer for “Esquire” magazine, a man of many pursuits who lived large and died this weekend at age 78.

In 2009, I visited Harrison at his home in Montana. Here’s a look back.

JIM HARRISON, Author: Other than fishing and a little bird-hunting, all I do is write.

JEFFREY BROWN: Harrison is a determined outsider, in all senses.

JIM HARRISON: You really get a hang of the country, rather than be stuck in what I call the geo-piety of the Eastern Seaboard.

JEFFREY BROWN: Careful, because that’s where I am.

JIM HARRISON: I know it, but you deserve it, too. But it does happen.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now 71, Jim Harrison is a Falstaffian figure: blind in his left eye from a childhood accident, chain-smoking his American Spirit cigarettes, part wild man, part cultivated literary lion, who peppers his speech with talk of birds and great poets of the past.

It’s poetry, in fact, that has remained Harrison’s first love. His new collection is called “In Search of Small Gods.”

JIM HARRISON: You sense those spirits in certain, often remote places, whether it’s the spirit of animals, the spirit of trees. So those are the small gods.

JEFFREY BROWN: And they appear throughout these poetry, so it sounds like they’re coming from the walks.

JIM HARRISON: I think that’s true, you know, because sometimes you have little breakthroughs. I’ve known this group of ravens for 19 years, for instance, Chihuahuan ravens, Mexican ravens. And last year, several times, they began to take walks with me.

JEFFREY BROWN: But then you put them into poetry?

JIM HARRISON: Yes, then you do. You know, what is it that Blake said? How do we know but that every bird who cuts the airy way is an immense world of delight close to our senses five, that perception? What is possible in the natural world?

I have been inordinately productive in the last five or six years, and I think it was boiling down your life.

Dhogan, an old 14th-century Zen philosopher, talked about cooking down your life. You cook down your life and then the sauce is just right, so you can let go.

JEFFREY BROWN: There is, in fact, much about loss and grief in Harrison’s writing these days. His brother and a number of friends have died in recent years. And on our walk near Antelope Butte, he told me of a talk he’d had with one of them, a Native American, just before his death.

JIM HARRISON: And I was really falling apart, and he says: “Don’t be upset. These things happen to people.” Isn’t that an incredible thing to say?

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

Of course, a lot of characters in your books…

JIM HARRISON: … are like that, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: … are like that, huh? “These things happen.” They go through all kinds of tragedies.

JIM HARRISON: Well, that is that Native American stoicism. You know, they tend to see the whole arc.

“Moving higher my thumping chest recites the names of a dozen friends who have died in recent years, names now incomprehensible as the mountains across the river far behind me. I will always be walking up toward Antelope Butte. Perhaps, when we die, our names are taken from us by a divine magnet and they are free to flutter here and there within the bodies of birds. I will be a simple crow who can reach the top of Antelope Butte.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you can watch Jeff’s full profile of Jim Harrison on our home page. That’s PBS.org/NewsHour.

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