Jim Harrison and SUMAC magazine

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Jim Harrison (December 11, 1937 – March 26, 2016)

I received a note from an acquaintance on Facebook that Jim Harrison had died, and I couldn’t resist scanning a couple of obituaries to see if they mentioned the magazine he’d co-edited with Dan Gerber. It wasn’t surprised to see that Sumac did not get mentioned, though it certainly deserved to be part of a passing summary. It was one of the first literary magazines to catch my eye in the early 1970s. Though the issues contain poems and stories by writers who went on to considerable notice, Harrison was open to the writing of younger, unknown poets, too. One of these poets was Robert (Bob) Kuntz, who went on to edit an anthology of young American poets in Japan in the mid-1970s that included my poems along with those of William Matthews and Louise Gluck.

In retrospect, Harrison will be remembered for his stories and prose more than his poetry. His ghazals, which seemed to be quirkily agile when they first appeared, now seem to flounder about on the stage of their own headiness. The obituary in the New York Times devoted a fair amount of time to Harrison’s hypermasculinity, but it is ultimately a trap to engage in a defense of his effusive appetite. To do so would only belabor an aspect of his character that is overemphasized to begin with. Instead, I would rather remember him today as one of the few major writers who spoke up for Southern California, or at least that’s the story I heard from a reliable source well over 30 years ago. It seems that one day Harrison found himself in the company of some East Coast writers who were taking turns in pummeling Southern California as a region full of superficial illiterates. Harrison sat at the table, quietly drinking, and after ten minutes of enduring their mirthful sarcasm, reprimanded them in no uncertain terms. “You’re the ones who don’t know anything. You’ll stop talking that way about Southern California right now. More people buy my books there than just about any other part of the country, and I don’t write for the casual reader. I am able to survive as a writer because of how many people in Southern Califoria buy my books, and I won’t have you sitting with me at this table and talking that way.” The East Coast writers became very quiet, and slowly and with great care changed the subject. Jim Harrison was a writer and a person who never bluffed, and the men at the table that day knew better than to argue with him.

The 20th century is finally rounding itself up and getting ready for the roll-call of its most enduring writers. Along with James Baldwin and Ken Kesey, Jim Harrison is in the front ranks of the undaunted men of letters. The large audience of Harrison’s women readers serve to remind us of his capacity to get to the heart of the story that women and men have in common.