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Dan O'Brien Remembers Jim Harrison

I spent all of Easter Day on an ATV to bring buffalo in from the east side of the Cheyenne River where they had spent the winter. It was a long day but not terribly strenuous. How tiring can it be to be miles from any other human being, in a piece of the Great Plains that could serve as a time machine, complete with antelope, deer, buffalo, migrating sand hill cranes, and waves of other birds heading north to begin the world over again?

Bison Herd

It was the kind of day that Jim Harrison would have greatly enjoyed and, with the finches, sparrows, robins, and juncos flitting in every drainage, I thought of him more than once. I knew Jim was in Patagonia, Arizona surrounded by the birds he loved so intently. He’d been on my mind because I knew that he was not well. A day like I was having might have done him good, it was peaceful and calm. Still, I was tired when I got back to the house and I went to bed about eight o’clock. Jill was at her desk catching up on emails, Facebook, and all that other stuff that accumulates on beautiful days when sane people are out of doors. I didn’t plan on talking to her until early on Monday morning but woke about 9:30 that night when I felt her sit down on the edge of the bed.

“Dan?” I struggled to consciousness. “I wouldn’t have woken you but I thought you’d want to know.”

I roused myself and sat up. “Know what?”

She flipped on the reading light beside the bed and touched my arm. “Jim Harrison died.”

We sat in the pale light for a moment. “I debated whether to wake you or not. You need your sleep.”

I waved her concern away. “I’ll be fine.” It was not a great surprise that Jim was dead. “When?”

“Yesterday.”

My next thought was that the birds that had flown over me all day had said goodbye to Jim a day or two before. “Are you all right?” Jill asked.

“Yea.”

“Are you going to able to get back to sleep?”

“Sure,” I said. But after she turned off the light and left the bedroom I found that I couldn’t close my eyes.

The last time I talked to Jim I was shocked at the frailness of his voice. The immediate problem then was that his wife, Linda, was very sick. He was deeply worried about her and sounded more depressed than I had ever heard him. We found out a week later, that Linda had died and Jill said what we were both thinking. “He won’t last long without her.”

I called a mutual friend and we agreed that we should get down to Arizona to see Jim. But winter got away from us and we never made it. On that warm Easter evening all I could do was lay in my bed and regret our procrastination. Another would’ve, could’ve, should’ve, sleepless night.

Every news outlet would do obituaries and they would dwell, not only on Jim’s huge contribution to American literature but also on his outrageous behavior. They would try to reconcile Jim’s writing with what many people saw as a rural crudeness. They might talk about his black humor but they would miss the hilarity of his worldviews. They would not mention his kindness and sensitivity to others. Those were the characteristics of Jim Harrison that I thought of on the night after his death.  

In the late nineteen nineties I knew almost no one in the literary world. I was living in the Black Hills of South Dakota, far off the beaten path, with neighbors who had no idea that I had even dreamed of writing a book. I would have sworn that no one would ever read the book I had just sent off to a publisher in New York. When I answered the phone and someone said it was Jim Harrison looking for Dan O’Brien, I just laughed. “Who is this?”

“Harrison, I read the galleys of your book. I wanted to meet you.”

He was passing through on his yearly migration from Michigan to Montana. He didn’t have to stop. He didn’t have to read the galleys. He didn’t have to call me or take me out to eat Chinese food. Of course he didn’t have to pour me a tumbler full of whiskey when I walked into his motel room or wink at the waitress when he told her “not to bother bringing any of those cardboard boxes because we’re going to eat everything you bring us.” The whiskey and the waitress stuff were the kind of reminiscences that would make the obituaries.

Few would know about the wise council he would give me and others over the years: how to deal with New York publishers, Hollywood agents, outsized appetites, and troubled wives. How to sit on the porch of an Upper Peninsula cabin and simply listen to the trout stream babble. He ate and drank too much. Sure, but that was just the love in him coming to the surface. To dwell on that part of Jim Harrison makes for great stories but obscures the man and clouds an understanding of his genius.

Red Poles and Finches

Jill came to bed sometime during the night and was still asleep when I walked out into our kitchen to make coffee. The south side of the room is mostly glass and looks out onto the Cheyenne River valley. The sun was pulsing red behind the bluffs on the other side of the river. It caught my eye as I measured the coffee and drew me toward the deck where redpolls and goldfinches fluttered around the bird feeder. There were more birds than perches for them to sit on. More birds on our deck than I had ever seen before.            

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38 comments

  • It’s been several months since “Brown Dog” is gone and I still have tear in the eye when I think of him. He was, sorry, he is and will forever be my favorite American writer even if I like what you write, dear Dan. Besides, I found a lot of him in your writing. Thank you for being there, dear Dan, and to perpetuate the legend of the great West !

    Bertrand JUILLIARD
  • Wonderful essay about my all time favorite writer, to whom I’ll always be grateful for VOLUNTEERING to read my manuscript, then OFFERING to provide a jacket blurb—what incredible generosity! At some point while my book was in press, crossed my mind to wonder what the reviews would be like, but then I immediately thought, “What do I care? On the front is a jacket blurb from Jim, and lists him there as the author of my single favorite piece of literature!” I hope to stop by sometime, hand you my book, and talk of such things…

    Harry Greene
  • In Just Before Dark, Jim wrote of visiting you and the peregrine Dolly. Jim and Wendell Berry are the two most important writers in my life; I’ve been reading Jim’s work since 1982.

    I am so grateful for this big hearted, wise human being. I am very, very glad that he introduced me to your work through his writing. It brings me great solace that Wild Idea does the very important and beautiful work that you do. I greatly value Dan’s writing too.

    wishing you all at Wild Idea all the best,

    Shari Leyshon

    Shari Leyshon
  • FYI/For all Jim Harrison’s legion of fans: http://www.foodandwine.com/blogs/toast-jim-harrison?xid=NL_WINELIST041316ToastToJimHarrison

    Georgene
  • Our old friend Marty Hannan sent me a note suggesting I read your item about the passing of Jim Harrison. Nice one that especially the birds. Marty introduced me to his writings thirty years ago and I’ve never swum the same since.

    Garry

    Garry Cooke
  • Thanks, Dan, for the posting. Harrison was one of the reasons I loved living up there in Northern Michigan. I didn’t know him, but knew he was right around the bend, maybe in the tavern when I stopped, or just up the road. Made it better somehow knowing that. I loved his work and always read all as soon as it came out, having first seen it at a little bookstore in Suttons Bay on a family visit, His assistant helped me out when I was getting ready to move up there; she was the one who steered me toward conservation organizations. Funny how life’s connections fit together, ain’t it? P.S. I would not have believed it was him on the phone and/or would have fallen from my chair getting a call like that. Wonderful story.

    Christine
  • Great post, Dan. Even though I never met Jim, I’m feeling his loss. His writing means so much to me, and it’s hard to believe he’s not out there somewhere creating more of it.

    Shoot me an email if you get a chance. It would be great to catch up. I have fond memories of swinging through SD on my way to/from New Mexico.

    Hi to Jill!

    Paul

    Paul Bogard
  • Dan -

    Your account of not making the Arizona trip to see Harrison put me in mind of the song, “No Chance,” from my favorite Lou Reed album, “Magic and Loss,” wherein he laments not having said good-bye to a dying friend. I think both you and he elegantly patched up your respective holes of regret by such touching tributes.

    Bob
  • Dan and Jill, I started to read Jim Harrison a long time ago. I was taking a road trip through South Dakota, Wyoming on the way to Colorado and took my latest Esquire magazine with. I stopped along the way to rest and pulled out the magazine and a selection of Jim’s writing was featured in “Legends of the Fall” That along with all the rest of his books were chosen by me to read. Then I moved to Sioux Falls in the Summer of 1989 and found your book Spirit of the Hills and started to read your books too. I am very sorry for the loss of your dear friend Dan. Lan

    Lan Evenson
  • Condolences, Jill & Dan, on the death of your friend.
    A very fitting and generous memorial piece from you, Dan.
    You have a way.

    Only from his poetry and prose have I known Jim Harrison,
    but over the last 34 years that knowing seems in great measure
    as the hydraulics of his imagination, study, understanding &
    wisdom have flooded my life from time to time; his rational sourcing
    of confusion in changing times; his pulling me from the melancholic
    riverbank back into the flow; the downright celebration of all that a man
    can enjoy and the heralding well of all the beauty man did not create.

    I’ve still, now, nine titles of Jim’s to enjoy and with time passing a lot of
    the old is new again to me.

    Your large heart, Dan, can afford the price of love which seems to come
    due on parting. A wholesome debt that needs mixing I’ve found with sunlight,
    love of others and movement to get digested. You are a good man Dan O’Brien.

    Busher
  • Don’t know if your a listener but Garrison Keilor did a real nice tribute
    to Jim Harrison on his show today – NPR.,
    Look s like I have another author to put on my list.

    thanks

    Janis
  • Dan:

    Here’s a piece I did for The Lincoln Journal Star.

    My friend, the poet, novelist, essayist and screenwriter, Jim Harrison, died at his desk on Saturday, pen in hand, at his winter residence in Patagonia, Arizona. He was 78 and had been in failing health for the past few years. His beloved wife, Linda King Harrison, had passed away this past fall. He left behind his two daughters, his grandchildren, and tens of thousands of devoted readers all over the world.

    He was, to steal some words from Willa Cather, “one of ours,” in that he loved Nebraska and visited here many times. His fine novel, Dalva, was set in Cherry and Keya Paha counties, and in my opinion it should be on all Nebraskans’ bookshelves next to My Antonia , Old Jules, and Black Elk Speaks. Harrison did research for Dalva with the help of the late John Carter of the Nebraska State Historical Society, and it was Carter who introduced me to Jim some time in the mid-1980s. And Jim had a devoted Nebraska follower in Beef Torrey, also now deceased, a psychologist from Crete who founded a national Jim Harrison Society.

    Jim loved the sandhills and the Niobrara valley and told me once that he thought Route 12 from Springview to Valentine was one of the most beautiful roads in the country. One of my favorite memories of him was of an early morning we spent at Fort Niobrara peering through the mist at the burrowing owls. He had only one good eye but could tell you the species of a bird from fifty yards away.

    He could be gruff as a bear and suffered no fools but was, to those he liked, immensely generous and tenderhearted. I was greatly honored by his collaboration with me on a book of poems, Braided Creek; A Conversation in Poetry, and one of my other books, Winter Morning Walks, was Jim’s idea. It’s a collection of poems on postcards that I mailed to him when I was recovering from cancer surgery and radiation.

    His novella, “Legends of the Fall,” was the basis for a great American movie with Anthony Hopkins and Brad Pitt, and it made him famous, but what was always most important to him was his friends and family, and that’s the Jim Harrison I will always remember.

    All the best to you and Jill, Ted

    Ted Kooser
  • ❤️

    Nicole Delzer
  • Dan below is a short remembrance of Jim published in StarTribune today. I pasted it in cause you’ll see I touch on the main point you do – the wide, generous currents under his public, gourmand enthusiasms, and Linda, who made it all possible. Thx, Jim
    JIM HARRISON, NOT GONE
    by James P. Lenfestey

    Back in the mid-70’S, when my “office” was the Minneapolis Central Library, I noticed a novel on display ¬– ‘Farmer,” by Jim Harrison. I confess I was attracted because the setting was Michigan, a rare novel of the Upper Midwest at the time. That began my 40-year love affair with Harrison’s writing.

    He became the American master of the novella, most famously “Legends of the Fall,” a Brad Pitt film vehicle (Harrison’s story much better), but many others, with titles like poems, “The Woman Lit By Fireflies,” “The Beast God Forgot to Invent.”

    Harrison grew up in the Upper Peninsula, and most of his exuberant stories and poems are set in the forests, rivers and tree stumps where he often sat for hours to orient himself in their company.

    I recall two conclusions from his marvelous autobiography, “Off to the Side.” His self-assessment of his success, though he didn’t call it that, was his “prodigious” capacity for work. And after he moved to Hollywood (where he made the money fiction and poetry never paid), the producers said they invited him not because he made great stories, but great characters.

    So true. Among the most memorable, who shows up repeatedly in his novellas, is Brown Dog, an amoral hilarity of inadvertence, appetite, and tender heart.

    Two facets of Harrison are generally under-appreciated in the whirlwind of his very public gourmand enthusiasms. First, his women. In spite of his regular attendance at girlie shows and his overt delight in women’s “bottoms,” his female characters, sexually-liberated as men, were usually the sharper knives, smarter and more humane than the men, who were often appetite-driven animals or exploiters wounded by dissipation of fortunes from north country mining and clear-cut forests (don’t miss his grand novel “True North”).

    Second, his poetry. Poems flowed from him fast as the rivers of his robust prose, but banked by his deep knowledge and respect for Zen poetry practice and tradition. I once invited Harrison to Minnesota to read his poems. I offered $1000 – negotiable! – plus expenses from Montana, where he had moved to be near his daughter. After several months, I received a response. ""First, that’s not nearly enough money. Second, I’d rather piss down my leg than fly." I took that as a no.

    Just this week I bought Harrison two newest books, “The Ancient Minstrel” (three novellas), and “Dead Man’s Float,” poems. I look forward to more astounding characters from Harrison’s imagination, his muscular sentences, and, are you ready, his delicate sensibilities for women and the land he called home.

    As his physical life ends, it must be said, as he would, that he had in his wife one of the great partners in a writing life. She bore his children, his eccentricities, depressions, obsessions, his long absences and who know what else, with a steadfast heart. Thanks to her, readers have a long shelf of some of the most memorable sentences and characters in modern fiction, and poems that, like his beloved landscapes, will endure.
    30
    James P. Lenfestey is a poet and former editorial writer for the StarTribune. He reviewed several Jim Harrison novels for these pages.

    Jim Lenfestey
  • Sorry for your loss, Dan. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Know that Jim will be in your heart as long as the birds fly north.

    Liz Aicher

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