Old Jim

A remembrance of Jim Harrison, legendary author and family friend

By Myers Reece

Several months after my wedding in 2013, a package arrived on my doorstep from Jim Harrison, the celebrated author of 39 books, including Legends of the Fall. The belated gift was a signed copy of his poetry collection, Songs of Unreason, inscribed with a note: “Dear Myers and Kate — Hope you’re still married. Love, Old Jim.”

Anyone who knew Jim would recognize the dry humor. But what struck me was the self-characterization. Indeed, he was getting old, and the book’s poems dwelled heavily on death. Health fading, he was staring down the beast with his one good eye. Then the light in that eye flickered out, and old Jim passed away earlier this year on March 26. American literature lost one of its finest living practitioners.

I was born and raised in Livingston, a literary and artistic enclave in south-central Montana. My dad is an artist, and I grew up surrounded by painters, sculptors, novelists, journalists, actors, and other questionably employed creative types. Family friends included the likes of Tim Cahill, David Quammen, William Hjortsberg, and Walter Kirn. I recall a party at my childhood home where Peter Fonda got onstage with the band and quickly, by unanimous decision, had his cowbell privileges revoked.

Thrust into this unsavory habitat, I acquired writing as a birth affliction, and as a boy dead-set on pursuing the craft, no two members of that extended tribe loomed larger than Thomas McGuane and Jim Harrison, longtime friends and towering literary figures. But Jim, with his own shelf of books and an ever-growing belly, cast the biggest shadow.

In certain literary circles and university creative writing departments, Jim is one of the most respected writers of the last half-century. Yet, he remains relatively unknown to broader audiences, in no small part because he wrote about rural America, a foreign land hidden from critics behind a wall of New York City skyscrapers.

Last weekend, a wake was held for Jim in Livingston, where his two daughters and their families live. His oldest daughter is one of my mother’s dearest friends. My hometown had already hosted his memorial service in May, which was widely attended, but the wake was an opportunity for his closest literary and foodie friends from across the country to gather in celebration of his life.

The night before the event, my mother helped prepare a private dinner for a group of Jim’s friends, including Mario Batali, the famed chef. Three days earlier, Batali had been in the White House as the hand-selected chef to cook the Obama Administration’s final state dinner. Needless to say, my mom paid particular attention to her spring rolls that evening. Batali loved them.

Jim was never a hands-on mentor to me. Other writers fulfilled that role. Rather, his sheer presence in my life helped take the mythology out of writing, but none of the magic. Here was this blind-in-one-eye, bulbous man, who once compared himself to a massive beetle, at my dinner table shoving food into his mouth with greasy fingers. Great literature felt close enough to touch, and you didn’t even have to wash your hands first.

I finished the manuscript for my first novel three months after he died. It had been a private dream for him to read it, because he’s a reason it exists, and it pains me that it never happened. I envisioned it as a thank you, a tribute, delivered through the human transaction he understood best: a story.

Instead, I’m left with these meager postmortem words. Jim, this is my package on your doorstep. I’m sorry it came so late.