“Wherever we go we do harm, forgiving
ourselves as wheels do cement for wearing
each other out. We set this house
on fire, forgetting that we live within.”
(from “To a Meadowlark,” for M.L. Smoker)”
― Jim Harrison
Jim Harrison passed away on Saturday, March 26, the evening before Easter. Harrison’s contributions to angling both anchored it and transcended it.
We undervalue artists in fishing culture, as we do so often in culture generally. We tend to give attention to painters, musicians, photographers, and writers only if they become so popular that their audiences have audiences of their own.
Audiences aren’t by any means irrelevant, but they are secondary. Some artists are embraced, others are left to struggle alone, but both results are necessary, if only because art is a domain where failure rules. Failure speaks loudly and confidently, and only fortunate artists find that their compulsion speaks more urgently. “The act of writing is like a boy hoeing a field of corn on a hot day,” Harrison once noted, “from which he can see either a woodlot or, more often, an immense forest where he’d rather be.”
Jim Harrison’s life overflowed with compulsions or, as some have already written, with rituals. He was never garlanded in the way the many popular authors are with a National Book Award or Pulitzer or Man Booker Prize. Recognition and criticism often came illustrated with examples of everyday impropriety, and suggestions that it was somehow representative of a “darkly comic” substrata. But along with this larger-than-life persona and a prodigious contribution of work, he represented a part of American literature that reached further, and deeper, than the median reader accepted.
As he once said, “You can put off a novel for a while but you can’t not write a poem because that particular muse is not very cooperative.” Harrison wanted to be only a poet, but poetry didn’t pay, and he adjusted (partly) and endured. Publicly he was the universal gourmand, a Balzac of 20th-century America, a celebrator of immoderate appetites. His writing embraced an awareness that we are all, undeniably, most attentive to our own wants. But privately, in poetry especially, his work is an acute reminder that the underprivileged and less visible live a marginalized but significant existence.
Much has been said about Harrison’s preference for wilderness over civilization. But he wrote to civilization about the uncompromising reality of nature, and that makes a huge difference artistically. Harrison became a conduit, as authentic as they come, to a fascinating world beyond ourselves as represented by birds, dogs, fish, trees, assorted spirits, and virtually every symbol of otherness that seems to exists only in deficit in modern life.
While the raw authenticity Harrison exuded may not have played well in a society carefully orbiting correctness, it is the currency anyone under the age of 25 trades in, and that bodes well for his legacy. That his literary adventurism lasted so long—from his years of teaching English in the mid-1960s to the non-literary 2010s—is itself a remarkable achievement. The longer he wrote, the more irreducible his process and his delivery became. This is especially true of his writing about nature, in which he made sure whenever possible to point out that the obvious is never obvious at all.
I’d like to suggest that Harrison’s attitude is more genuine than most of the common fictions surrounding environmentalism and conservation. In fact I’d propose that we bulldoze the ethos and start over with the kind of unprepared, unenculturated way of seeing what is around us that Harrison spent a lifetime perfecting. Even if we don’t owe Jim Harrison the writer this kind of adoration (though I’d argue in favor of it), we do owe the world the same wide-eyed wonder and awe that Harrison presented to us so authentically and lustily, without wistfulness or even a hint of wanting to pass a cultural sniff test. It’s something small to think about. Something Harrison himself managed, despite extraordinary odds, to do almost every day.