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Copyright © 2003 Express Publishing Inc.
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Wednesday, May 12, 2004


Iconoclast beguiles Hailey audience

Harrison journeys to ‘literary capital’

Express Staff Writer

Welcome to the literary capital of the American West, said Idaho Humanities Council Chairman Marc Johnson.

Johnson made the comment Sunday while interviewing renowned iconoclastic author and poet Jim Harrison at the Community Campus in Hailey.

Jim Harrison Express photo by Willy Cook

Harrison is the author of 10 collections of poetry, seven collections of essays, eight novels, including "Dalva"; four volumes of novellas, including "Legends of the Fall"; a children’s book, two collections of nonfiction, including "The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand"; and a new memoir, "Off to the Side."

The presence of Harrison in Hailey was cheered as a boon to the Wood River Valley’s reputation as a literary enclave. After all, Ezra Pound was born in Hailey and Ernest Hemingway, who helped put Sun Valley on the map, died in Ketchum.

Harrison, who credits Pound with influencing writers from T.S. Elliot to himself, drove over from his home in Livingston, Mont., for the talk in Hailey, a dinner at the Hailey Cultural Center, and a talk with valley high school students.

The event, sponsored by Iconoclast Books, The Works of Grace Foundation, Silver Creek Outfitters and the Idaho Humanities Council, benefited the Hailey Cultural Center.

First, a grizzly and impish looking Harrison admitted he didn’t do public appearances but, "I couldn’t resist Hailey because of Ezra Pound … They tried to get me to include Boise. No, no, Hailey is far enough."

Laughing—something he does and inspires often—Harrison continued: "I’m beginning my book tour in Hailey; it has seminal importance in American literature." In many of his jokes and stories, he moves from comic to serious in split seconds.

"Pound is so meaningful to all of us, Elliot, Yeats, Hemingway … he broke us from the onus of the Victorian era, and was the influential center of that generation. You really had to rebound from Pound to function."

Harrison considered his own remark then added wryly, "He had an improbable brain, but I’ve never looked to writers for wisdom."

Harrison read from and discussed aspects of his new novel, "True North."

"I think you might like the book. It’s a happy book." This evinced a laugh from audience members since the book, albeit with comic moments, is both tragic and deadly serious about the environmental destruction caused by early logging tycoons in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

He is already at work on a companion volume. It is told from the point of view of the Finnish and Cornish miners and the Chippewa Indians in that same area.

"I am devoured by the need to write novels and poetry, but I haven’t exactly been a hermit," he laughed. Indeed, Harrison’s lust for life is one of his most marked characteristics.

Though he jokingly called the French, "Cheese-eating surrender monkeys," he is clearly fond of France in all ways. His favorite meal in recent memory was an 11-hour, 37-course meal in France, which, he said, "doubtless cost the equivalent of a new Volvo station wagon." He is a best seller there three times over, never having attained that distinction in his own country, even once.

"In American literature they either think or act, though not at the same time," he said.

Harrison’s novels tend not to follow that dictum. A great raconteur, he is deeply, and, at first, deceptively intellectual. Like a good fish tale, his stories include endless and circuitous references to philosophy, science, religion and pop culture.

Harrison claims not to be "from" Montana, though he’s owned a home and lived there off and on since 1968. He first went to Livingston at the insistence of his friend, author Tom McGuane, to fish for brown trout. Along with their friend artist Russell Chatham, their main focus was fishing. Of course, they were all notorious for their wild lifestyles as well.

"We appointed each other as our psychiatrmap>" he said. And paused. "Of course, it didn’t pan out."

After the talk and book signing, an intimate sit-down dinner, catered by an inventive Ric Lum, was held at the Ezra Pound birth house, now known as the Hailey Cultural Center. Lum served a selection of Idaho game, produce and native edible plants. Harrison is a well known gourmand.

"It was big fun," Iconoclast owner and Cultural Center Vice-President Gary Hunt said. "He was everything that I thought he’d be and more. I thought he’d be sort of surrounded by the legend and wondered whether he’d live up to it. But boy he did," Hunt cackled. "And he was really great at the high school the next day."

On Monday morning, after a late and decadent night of food, wine and raucous storytelling, Harrison spoke at the Wood River High School to 60 upper class English students from both the WRHS and The Community School.

"He was very, very well received," Sarah Hedrick, event coordinator for Iconoclast, said. "What a great opportunity. That part was sponsored by Works of Grace Foundation. It was huge gift.

"I don’t think there will be any trouble getting Jim Harrison back to the valley. He had a great time," Hedrick added.


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