NEW YORK — Jim Harrison, the fiction writer, poet, outdoorsman and reveler who wrote with gruff affection for the country's landscape and rural life and enjoyed mainstream success in middle age with his historical saga Legends of the Fall, has died at age 78.
Spokeswoman Deb Seager of Grove Atlantic, Harrison's publisher, told the Associated Press that Harrison died Saturday at his home in Patagonia, Ariz. Seager did not know the cause of death. Harrison'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 The Ancient Minstrel, 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 was a sports writer and a man of extraordinary appetite who once polished off a 37-course lunch, a traveler and teller of tales, most famously Legends of the Fall.
"His voice came from the American heartland and his deep and abiding love of the American landscape runs through his extraordinary body of work," Grove Atlantic publisher and CEO Morgan Entrekin said in statement Sunday.
Published in 1979, Legends of the Fall 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 extending from before World War I to the mid-20th century, from San Francisco to Singapore.
"Late in October 1914 three brothers rode from Choteau, Montana to Calgary, Alberta to enlist in the Great War," reads Harrison's celebrated opening sentence, which author Vance Bourjaily would praise for establishing "both the voice and manner of the epic storyteller, who deals in great vistas and vast distances."
The book was a best-seller, and Harrison worked on the script for an Oscar-nominated 1994 film of the same name starring Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins and Aidan Quinn. Harrison's screenplay credits also included Revenge, starring Kevin Costner, and the Nicholson film Wolf. But he would liken the unpredictable and nerve wracking process to being trapped in a "shuddering elevator" and reminded himself of his marginal status by inscribing a putdown by a Hollywood executive, "You're just a writer," on a piece of paper and taping it above his desk.
Harrison could have been a superb character actor, a bearded, burly man with a disfigured left eye and a smoker's rasp who confided that when out in public with Nicholson he was sometimes mistaken for the actor'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.
"My characters aren't from the urban dream-coasts," he told The Paris Review in 1986. "A man is not a foreman on a dam project because he wants to be macho. That's his job, a job he's evolved into.
"How is it macho that I like to hunt and fish? I've been doing it since I was four."
Harrison had displayed numerous talents before the general public caught on to him. He was an accomplished poet and sports journalist and a fiction writer with a strong feel for open spaces and the pull and consequences of history. He set many works in the rural north of his native Michigan, including the detective novels The Great Leader and The Big Seven, and used Nebraska as the backdrop for one of his most acclaimed works, Dalva.
His other books included a volume of novellas, The River Swimmer; the poetry collections Songs of Unreason and Returning to Earth; and a memoir about food, The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand. He was voted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2007.
Harrison married Linda King in 1959 and had two daughters.
The grandson of farmers, and son of an agricultural extension agent, Harrison grew up in small Michigan towns — Grayling, Reed City, Haslett — where he developed a love of books and a primal bond with the outdoors, "bone- and marrow-deep." He would associate his childhood with simple pleasures and ongoing loss, a general longing for simpler times and the physical handicap of his blind left eye, injured at age 7 when a neighborhood girl jammed a bottle in his face.
In the 1950s and '60s, he drifted between studies at Michigan State University and the "Beat" scene in Boston, where he met Jack Kerouac, and New York City, where he taught briefly before returning to rural Michigan. In 1965, he debuted as a poet with Plain Song.
Life as an outdoorsman inadvertently made him a novelist. In the late 1960s, he slipped off a bank along the Manistee River in Michigan, injured his back, lapsed into a semi-coma and for some two years was forced to wear a corset. His close friend Tom McGuane suggested he try a full-length work of fiction since Harrison "could no longer do anything to avoid it." (Through McGuane, he would also meet Nicholson, when Harrison visited the set of The Missouri Breaks, a 1976 movie written by McGuane).
Harrison's first novel, Wolf: A Fake Memoir, came out in 1971 and he followed two years later with a work of fiction about the ecology, A Good Day to Die. But he was devastated by the commercial failure of his novel Farmer and was so broke he recalled, he couldn't pay his taxes and couldn't fill out a scholarship form for his daughter because he was required to include records from the IRS.
His turnaround involved a true Hollywood twist. Harrison was visiting his in-laws' home when he came upon the journals of his wife's great-grandfather, a mining engineer named William Ludlow, and was inspired to write a story. The completion of what became Legends of the Fall was made possible by a $15,000 loan from Nicholson.
"And now the one-eyed goofy, the black-sheep poet ... has inadvertently struck it rich," Harrison later wrote of his mid-life success. "After 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.
"I idly hoped he was happy in his work."