The River Kings

Robert DeMott reminisces on his 20+ year friendship with Jim Harrison. The two formed a brotherly bond forged by fishing, feasting, and the oftentimes humbling pursuit of the authentic literary experience.

Jim Harrison, best known for his novel Legends of the Fall, passed away last year. His final book, A Really Big Lunch, was recently released to correspond with the one-year anniversary of his death. It’s a tremendous read, full of musings on food—he’s more of an “Italian trattoria guy” than French fine dining—and wine—he’s loyal to south of France reds, in particular Vacqueyras, Chateauneuf de Pape, and Bandol. In between snacks, he talks birds, dogs, books, and writing. For insight into the beloved author, I enjoyed a lengthy conversation with close Harrison pal, Robert DeMott. The Edwin and Ruth Kennedy Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Ohio University is a lauded writer in his own right and is the editor of Conversations With Jim Harrison. Harrison’s 2009 novella collection, The Farmer’s Daughter, is dedicated to DeMott.

Image courtesy Grove Atlantic

When and where did you meet Jim Harrison?

I met him in January of 1996. I went down to the annual Key West literary festival because it was on literature and the environment, organized by Jim’s long time friend Dan Gerber. I was teaching a graduate course on environmental literature at the time and I also had a graduate student, Patrick Smith, who was interested in writing a PhD. dissertation on Jim Harrison. I had taught a course on Harrison the previous year and Patrick  had gotten really excited about his work. Tom Mc Guane was there, and Richard Nelson and Annie Dillard. Gary Snyder was supposed to be there but at the last minute he couldn’t come. There were a number of other high profile nature writers there, too. I went to hear Jim talk and then there was a reception on the second or third night. I just walked up to him—he had a drink in his hand—and I said I had a student who wanted to do a dissertation. Our conversation segued from there to bird dogs—Jim had written quite a bit about English Setters—and we ended up talking for quite a while, as I was a few years into working a great young setter myself.

I asked him how we could get in touch with him and he recommended we contact his assistant, Joyce Bahle, and set up a time to meet. We had a hard time getting our schedules to mesh so Patrick and I didn’t actually go to Michigan and visit Jim until July of 1997. We stayed in Lake Leelanau and spent a few days talking non-stop in his studio behind his house. We went again in 1998 and I went back for a little follow-up in 2000. From those interviews we ended up with about 150 pages of typescript. I boiled it down to about 16,500 words. It was one of the featured interviews in Conversations with Jim Harrison. After we went up for that first long interview, we did a lot of walking together, and just became fast friends. We were simpatico, he told me later. (By the way, Patrick Smith’s dissertation was later published by the Michigan State University Press in 2002 as The True Bones of My Life: Essays on the Fiction of Jim Harrison.) We remained really close over the years. I knew him about 20 years and two months.

You’re a serious fisherman, and author of multiple books on fishing including your most recent, Angling Days. You’ve also written multiple volumes of critical analysis on John Steinbeck, who was the subject of your research during your tenure at Ohio University as a professor of American Literature. I know that you and Jim Harrison enjoyed fishing together. Those of us who fish are aware of the special kind of companionship that comes from embracing the stillness of watching and waiting. What were those moments like with Harrison?

Jim was an inveterate and life-long water watcher, among other things. The fact that fish are in the water was helpful. I started fishing with him when I would go out to Montana in the summers in the late 90s. During that period I used to stay with Jim and Linda in Livingston. We would mostly fish out of a drift boat with his close friend, Danny Lahren, who was a guide. It was a pretty amazing experience. Remember, he only had one eye so seeing things was kind of difficult but he was a very powerful caster. He usually sat in the back seat. I would always ask him to change, because he always let me sit up front, but he would say: no, you’re the guest. If you’re in the bow of a drift boat, you always have first shot at the fish, so even with that I always benefited from Jim’s generosity.

There was always that sense that there was no place he would have rather been. Sometimes the fishing was good, sometimes slow. But it was a magical experience because he found great solace in it. He worked hard at writing, every single day. There were times in his life where he was fishing 90 days a year, but in the later years of his life his physical problems were very limiting. He had a very bad case of shingles and it was difficult for him to be out in the sun on a hot day. A couple of times he went anyway because he knew I wanted to go. That’s how he was. He never wanted to disappoint his pals. I fished with him for 12 years. I know that he also did an annual trip in September with Peter Matthiessen. He also fished with author Carl Hiaasen, who has a summer place near Livingston. And he fished a few times with David James Duncan, who wrote The River Why. And of course he kept up a lot with and fished with Chris Dombrowski, who is a fly fishing guide in Missoula but also a poet and essayist—just a fine writer. He enjoyed connecting with people that he had some history with. On other occasions we’d head over and fish the Big Hole River near Melrose. Jim loved the Big Hole, particularly in May and June. It has a wonderful population of brown trout. He loved the idea of hiding out—of being away from the maelstrom of publicity.

We’d fish for a couple of hours and then we’d pull over to the side of the Yellowstone or the Big Hole. Danny would open the cooler and we’d have lunch. That was always a big affair because we’d have salamis from Mario Batali’s father’s shop in Seattle or it would be cheeses from one of the fine food stores in Livingston, or maybe fried chicken from Albertson’s—Jim loved fried chicken. He’d cut the cheese with a pocketknife and there was usually crusty bread and a jar of Trappy’s hot peppers, which he also loved. In cooler weather he might bring wine or beer but in the hot summer we just drank water. Then a couple of vodka shooters for the ride home. It was unforgettable. He was so generous and ample with his time and presence.

In 2002, Conversations with Jim Harrison, part of the extensive literary conversation series published by University Press of Mississippi, was released. You edited an impressive collection of interviews—many are from academic journals but also Publisher’s Weekly, Chicago Tribune Magazine, and Men’s Journal. But my hands down favorite is Jim Fergus’ 1986 interview from The Paris Review, which I remember reading for the first time about six years ago. Fergus offers up this description of Harrison:

 Jim Harrison is a dark-skinned, robust man, with a Pancho Villa style moustache—oddly Latin in appearance, although he is of Scandinavian heritage. He’s been described as looking like a block layer (which he indeed was) a beer salesman, and a sumo wrestler; he bears himself with a most unique kind of physical grace, indescribable except to say it has something to do with a style of movement which is not exactly linear. His eye—blinded in a childhood accident—is sighted off on a different plane, increasing the feeling that Harrison is a man with his own unique sense of balance.

Yes, that Fergus interview is really great. Jim Fergus also did an excellent piece in Men’s Journal in the mid-1990s about Jim, Guy de la Valdene, (the painter) Russell Chatham, and Tom McGuane in Key West. The would all go fishing down there and then also in Montana. They were friends for a really long time. In the early 70s they did a film called Tarpon. It’s an atmospheric, lyrical cult movie shot in 1973 and is now available as a remastered DVD. It’s about their pioneering efforts fly fishing for tarpon in the Florida Keys. Guy wrote the script and his brother-in-law, Christian Odasso, did the filming. Jim is on it. So are Richard Brautigan and Tom McGuane. Their pal Jimmy Buffett wrote the accompanying music. I knew that Fergus was also someone that all those guys trusted because he was an accomplished writer himself. Conversations was a lot of fun. I can’t remember how it came about. I guess I queried Mississippi about it. I knew at the time that two of Jim’s favorite bookstores were Lemuria in Jackson where Mississippi Press is located and Square Books in Oxford. In his later years, when he did book tours, signings, and readings, he got to the point where he only wanted to go to independent bookstores.

Harrison had a strong fan base in France. Why do you think this kind of writing—let’s call it American nature writing—is so popular there?

I asked him about that one time, and Jim told me that he thought it was the fact that writers like Jim Fergus, Tom McGuane, Lou Owens, and Harrison himself didn’t stick with the urban experience of New York or Los Angeles. The French have Paris! It’s pretty hard to top Paris. What they really seem to like is the rural, peripheral details of the woods and waters and fields. Certainly, also, there was a sense that they glamorized Jim as a frontiersman or something. I know a French film crew went out to interview him in Montana, which is as much a physical place as it is a state of mind for the French. It’s alluring (to them) because they don’t have any place exactly like that. Also, you can’t read a page of Jim’s work without coming across a reference to literature, poetry, classical music, painting—his range is just unbelievable. Not to mention food and wine. And then this “wild guy in the woods,” thing. Jim was able to be all those ideas and versions of himself at once.

The highly emotional forward to A Really Big Lunch was provided by celebrity chef Mario Batali, one of Harrison’s favorite co-raconteurs. In it, he mentions the culinary book they were working on when he passed away, called Search for the Authentic. What do you know about this project and what might happen to it?

I know a little bit. From what I understand, they were dividing the country up into regions and Jim had gotten a start on the Midwest portion. But it will never be finished. It’s a shame because it would have been quite interesting. So much about Jim’s writing on food was rooted in the place he was. Of course, he wrote about France and Spain. But he also wrote about steak houses in Nebraska and down-home diners in Mississippi. He was very catholic in his tastes, that way. To find the truly authentic, what is not popularized or commercialized beyond recognition, would have been a very fitting book for Jim and Mario.

In the book there’s an unpublished essay from 1986 called “The Vivid Diet.” It’s fair to say that it’s a diet most devoted cooks would eagerly embrace—he insists on ample garlic, salt, lots of red wine, and fresh fish and game culled from local streams and forests, as the kind of food that one should consume to live and love more vividly. What was dinner like at the Harrison ranch in Livingston?

He always used to say, more red wine and garlic! Eating dinner at the Harrison house was always special. Linda was a fabulous cook too and I never had a disappointing meal in their house. In the summers, I left my drift boat in the back of Jim’s studio so I wouldn’t have to haul it back and forth to Ohio. Kate and I would go out there for about 4 to 6 weeks every summer. The first thing I would do when I got to Livingston was check on my boat. In the earlier years, I used to stay at the house but as they got older and physically challenged, I didn’t feel comfortable doing that. There was a bed and breakfast in Livingston where Kate and I used to stay—we liked it because we could have the dog with us. After I had fished all day, sometimes on my own, sometimes with Jim and Danny, he’d call us to come over for beverage hour for wine, cheese, olives, the latest charcuterie offerings, and then eventually we’d have some fabulous dinner. The wine—Domaine Tempier Bandol was one of his absolute favorites—always flowed liberally.

Jim had fans all over the world. One was a doctor in California and he sent some fresh abalone overnight to Jim one time. Danny Lahren knew how to open them and prepare them. We sat around the kitchen and drank wine and Jim sautéed the abalone in a cast iron pan with olive oil, salt, and pepper—the same way he cooked antelope steaks at my house in Athens when he visited in 2002. Hot, simple, and direct was the way Jim often cooked. The growing season in Livingston was very short but Linda always had a fabulous garden so there would invariably be something fresh—potatoes, tomatoes, herbs. It was frequently a family effort with Linda, his daughters Jaimie and Anna, sons-in-law Steve and Max, his grandchildren, and Dan Lahren, too. I couldn’t tell you how many times I was just bowled over—humbled, really—by the variety and quality of the meals. Jim and Linda were not just incredibly talented, but unstinting in their hospitality. Always.

Getting back to freshly foraged food, Harrison was proud to be a boy from rural Michigan who began hunting and fishing at a very young age. For him, pulling a trout out of a stream or shooting a bird out of the sky wasn’t so much about sport but almost a much-needed philosophical connection to the circle of life. This is a recurring theme when he writes about food. Was that something that was a big part of your friendship?

I grew up in an Italian household in southwestern Connecticut and my earliest memories were of the garden that my mother’s parents had. They had chickens and my grandfather and father made wine. We ate almost exclusively out of the garden in the summer and often one of the kids would catch a chicken and my grandfather would kill it and we’d eat it for Sunday dinner. We both grew up like that but he took it to an unbelievable level.

For the hunting and fishing that Jim writes about in the Upper Peninsula (of Michigan), he had a lot of willing cohorts. Guy de la Valdene is a wonderful cook. Russell Chatham was the same way. All those guys were plugged into the same idea—if you had your choice of fast food or food you caught or shot and cooked yourself, it was always the latter. I traveled a lot with Jim over the years and I can’t ever remember him ever suggesting that we stop at a McDonalds. There were certain things he loved—like the Albertson’s fried chicken—but he preferred to patronize the artisanal food stores. When we’d go to Melrose, we’d always stop in Butte at the Main Street Market. It was an Italian market and we’d get fresh and imported items there. He also used to write a lot about an Italian grocery called Folgarelli’s Market in Traverse City. It’s still there and he loved that place, too. He would buy imported cheese, salami, and olives. For me it was like revisiting the Italian family markets of my youth.

If you think about it, these guys were way ahead of the curve on the farm to table or field to table movement. It’s gratifying to harvest your food yourself. It’s making a comeback in a lot of places and it’s honorable. When I bird hunt, I eat every bird. I use the feathers to tie flies and I send the woodcock wings to the migratory bird center in Laurel, Maryland for scientific and census study. There’s a way in which you can do those things that makes sense. Jim was onto that early on.

One of Jim Harrison’s recurring obsessions was finding the missing papers of late Spanish poet, Antonio Machado. He also talks a lot about the influence that Faulkner and Steinbeck had on his writing, the latter being the focus of your research. What of Steinbeck do you see in Harrison’s writing?

A number of years ago, I published the journal that Steinbeck kept when he was working on The Grapes of Wrath. It came out in 1989 and made a splash. I had read, years before I ever met Jim, that his father, who was an agricultural agent in Michigan, was a big Steinbeck fan. So I sent a copy of Working Days up to Jim. I just sent it blindly. Apparently, he got it. He told me years later that it took him about a year or two to realize that I was the one who had sent him that book. Later he told me that it was one of the very few books that he would dip into when he felt blocked. He kept the book up at his cabin in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I think we had that connection. But also, I see that his characters are Steinbeckian—they tend to be blue-collar people with affinities to Steinbeck’s roguish paisanos in Tortilla Flat and Mack and the Boys in Cannery Row. Particularly Brown Dog. He doesn’t have a driver’s license or a social security card. Jim loved people who lived close to the land—most of us don’t in this technological age. I remember in the Jim Fergus interview, he asks Jim (Harrison) about Steinbeck and how he was always taking it on the chin from Eastern critics and Jim said something like: ‘He shouldn’t worry about that. They haven’t even written the Grapes of Goofy. They have no right to complain.’ That line really stayed with me as a poke in the eye of every hyper-cerebral urban lit critic.

Much of Jim’s work is really dynastic. Faulkner wrote about the same families over and over—and Jim’s work has that same capacity. Characters turn up in more than one novel, families, as well. In the opening section of a number of his novels, he would kind of show off by writing a two-page sentence. I think that’s the Faulkner influence. More than Hemingway. He was wary of Hemingway. They were both very gritty and loved to hunt and fish and didn’t romanticize what goes on in that world. But I would say Faulkner was the bigger influence. The Machado thing is interesting. I will admit, I never read much of Machado other than a few poems here and there so I don’t have much to say about him.

I didn’t know anything about Machado either. I did a little reading about his life and read some of his poems. I was struck by a passage towards the end of A Really Big Lunch when Harrison is talking about his own wife passing away and he mentions Machado’s life-long grief for the passing of his young wife, Leonor. Machado is also known for having carried his own elderly mother on his back while fleeing Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. It seems like Harrison really identified with Machado’s enduring grief and emotional unrest.

In a lot of ways, I think Jim thought of himself as more of a poet than anything else. If you look at his collected poems, The Shape of the Journey, it’s a truly impressive collection. A lot of people would have been happy if that was their life’s work. But for him, it was that plus all the novels, novellas, and essays. At heart, I think he was a poet. I think that’s how he thought of himself. I think he had that kind of a soul. In his case, I know he (Harrison) felt wounded by losing his father and sister in an accident. He had much that figured into the wounds of his consciousness. A lot stayed with him and I think that’s why he identified with Machado. I do remember that he talked frequently about that scene of Machado carrying his mother. Those are the kinds of improbable things that you don’t normally see in everyday life. At least, for most of us. He was really drawn to those kinds of knotty, improbably complex moments. They kept him up at night and became the material for so much of his best writing. “I’m just trying to figure out the universe,” he used to say.

There’s a 2004 essay reprinted from Brick called simply “Tongue.” In it, Harrison writes about what he calls the business of writing and says: There are many who think that all of the social activities surrounding literature are part of literature. They aren’t. Nothing matters but the work itself. We live in a culture where exposure is touted as essential to success and creative folk are constantly counseled to cultivate their “personal brand.” I often struggle with the authenticity of that idea.

I think you’re right about the branding thing. Now it’s all about the ancillary elements of being a writer. Jim just didn’t have any sympathy for that. He said this over and over—unless you are willing to commit your life to writing, I don’t even want to talk to you. That’s what he did. And that’s a rarity. There’s a tiny percentage of writers in America who follow that path or who have the means where they don’t have to teach or find another means to support themselves. He was relentless about that. He said many times that MFA programs should have a year where students go out and do manual labor for a year to get that sense of reality about how people actually think and talk. That’s not really how a lot of writers live anymore. It’s hard to know how much his predilections, his singular way of thinking, will translate to contemporary times.

A few years back, you edited a collection of writing about bird dogs, entitled Afield: American Writers on Bird Dogs. Naturally, Jim Harrison was a contributor, as he is a great lover of dogs—bird dogs for sure, but also Labradors, Airedales, and assorted others. There’s an essay in A Really Big Lunch, entitled, “Don’t Go Out Over Your Head,” in which Harrison muses with much affection about dogs, without ever slipping into the cloying infantilization that so many Americans confer onto the regal canine. Harrison nails the Existential otherness of the dog as the key criteria for what makes him or her such an ideal human companion.

In order to clearly see a dog’s soul, you must give up the hopeless baggage that is your personality. Dogs and other creatures are made nervous by our errant personalities that herky-jerkily infest the atmosphere. Forget your ninny self-profile and become as accepting as your dog. You must totally absorb the dimension of stillness to fully meet the otherness of this creature, at which point you’ll have at first what you think is a metaphysical experience but later realize is a birthright, because you are nature too. Not surprisingly, this attitude or state of being is also of great advantage in writing poems or novels, or cooking. Why get in the way of the natural ingredients?

I read this passage multiple times, obviously as a dog lover, but also as a writer and a cook. I can’t help but think it lends us a real window into the soul of a man who was, until his last days, totally in awe of the wisdom of the natural world.

He had a fascination for it but also a humility. He used to talk about this a lot. In his own way he was kind of Zen Buddhist. He believed in being in a place and being part of a moment. Sitting still and watching—Jim was really great about that. I think anyone who spends time behind dogs or fly fishes understands those moments. You become part of that world that is larger than you are. It is dwarfing, very humbling. But it’s also magical. I know he felt that way about hunting and fishing but also poetry and cooking. All of it becomes an ancillary metaphor for writing. Which he did, day in and day out, all his life. Very few people ever attained that level of sustained productivity. When he wasn’t writing fiction, he was writing poetry. Or he’d switch over to essays for a bit as a change of pace. Whatever he wrote, it was all part of the same reservoir of beset consciousness.

But he used to always come back to the metaphor of the river—for time, fluidity, and movement forward. He was very suspicious of anything artificial. He had an enormous cautionary quality, like Steinbeck. He was on a different, more dialed-in wave length than most of us. He punctured a lot of ill-advised, middle class beliefs. I never saw him take a selfie or use a snowblower or cut the grass or wash his truck. I never saw him wear a watch or even use a computer. He handwrote everything and Joyce (Bahle) would type it up and send it back so he could make corrections. You can’t help but respect that. He was the older brother I never had. From the first moment I met him, I knew he was a truly brilliant, remarkable, unique person, and—like so many others who had a similar personal realization about Jim—I never waivered from that belief. I did not know him the way his life long compatriots and family knew him, but I was honored and flattered and humbled, too, to have been considered a valued friend. There were parts of his life I didn’t exactly agree with but there was something about knowing that he was alive in the world that made a profound, seismic difference to me. Not a day goes by when I don’t miss him. Now, there are always the poems, fiction, essays to rely on for his wisdom, his incomparable voice, his insights to what truly matters. The life is gone but the literature remains.

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