Although he spent a great deal of his life abroad, James Baldwin always remained a quintessentially American writer. Whether he was working in Paris or Istanbul, he never ceased to reflect on his experience as a black man in white America. In numerous essays, novels, plays and public speeches, the eloquent voice of James Baldwin spoke of the pain and struggle of black Americans and the saving power of brotherhood.
James Baldwin — the grandson of a slave — was born in Harlem in 1924. The oldest of nine children, he grew up in poverty, developing a troubled relationship with his strict, religious stepfather. As a child, he cast about for a way to escape his circumstances. As he recalls, “I knew I was black, of course, but I also knew I was smart. I didn’t know how I would use my mind, or even if I could, but that was the only thing I had to use.” By the time he was fourteen, Baldwin was spending much of his time in libraries and had found his passion for writing.
During this early part of his life, he followed in his stepfather’s footsteps and became a preacher. Of those teen years, Baldwin recalled, “Those three years in the pulpit – I didn’t realize it then – that is what turned me into a writer, really, dealing with all that anguish and that despair and that beauty.” Many have noted the strong influence of the language of the church, the language of the Bible, on Baldwin’s style: its cadences and tone. Eager to move on, Baldwin knew that if he left the pulpit he must also leave home, so at eighteen he took a job working for the New Jersey railroad.
After working for a short while with the railroad, Baldwin moved to Greenwich Village, where he worked for a number of years as a freelance writer, working primarily on book reviews. He caught the attention of the well-known novelist, Richard Wright – and though Baldwin had not yet finished a novel, Wright helped him secure a grant with which he could support himself as a writer. In 1948, at age 24, Baldwin left for Paris, where he hoped to find enough distance from the American society he grew up in to write about it.
After writing a number of pieces for various magazines, Baldwin went to a small village in Switzerland to finish his first novel. Go Tell It on the Mountain, published in 1953, was an autobiographical work about growing up in Harlem. The passion and depth with which he described the struggles of black Americans were unlike anything that had been written. Though not instantly recognized as such, Go Tell It on the Mountain has long been considered an American classic.
Over the next ten years, Baldwin moved from Paris to New York to Istanbul, writing two books of essays, Notes of a Native Son (1955) and Nobody Knows My Name (1961), as well as two novels, Giovanni’s Room (1956) and Another Country (1962). The essays explored racial tension with eloquence and unprecedented honesty; the novels dealt with taboo themes (homosexuality and interracial relationships). By describing life as he knew it, Baldwin created socially relevant, psychologically penetrating literature … and readers responded. Both Nobody Knows My Name and Another Country became immediate bestsellers.
Being abroad gave Baldwin a perspective on the life he’d left behind and a solitary freedom to pursue his craft. “Once you find yourself in another civilization,” he notes, “you’re forced to examine your own.” In a sense, Baldwin’s travels brought him even closer to the social concerns of contemporary America. In the early 1960s, overwhelmed by a sense of responsibility to the times, Baldwin returned to take part in the civil rights movement. Traveling throughout the South, he began work on an explosive work about black identity and the state of racial struggle, The Fire Next Time (1963). This, too, was a bestseller: so incendiary that it put Baldwin on the cover of TIME Magazine. For many, Baldwin’s clarion call for human equality – in the essays of Notes of a Native Son, Nobody Knows My Name and The Fire Next Time – became an early and essential voice in the civil rights movement. Though at times criticized for his pacifist stance, Baldwin remained an important figure in that struggle throughout the 1960s.
After the assassinations of his friends Medgar Evers, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, Baldwin returned to St. Paul de Vence, France, where he worked on a book about the disillusionment of the times, If Beale Street Could Talk (1974). Many responded to the harsh tone of If Beale Street Could Talk with accusations of bitterness – but even though Baldwin had encapsulated much of the anger of the times in his book, he always remained a constant advocate for universal love and brotherhood. During the last ten years of his life, he produced a number of important works of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. He also turned to teaching as a new way of connecting with the young.
By 1987, when he died of stomach cancer at age 63, James Baldwin had become one of the most important and vocal advocates for equality. From Go Tell It on the Mountain to The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985), James Baldwin created works of literary beauty and depth that will remain essential parts of the American canon.
His most recent book of fiction, “The Ancient Minstrel,” was published this month. A book of poetry, “Dead Man’s Float,” was published this year.
[ Read an appraisal of Jim Harrison’s writing ]
In Mr. Harrison’s fiction, especially, lay some of the most vivid, violent and evocative writing of its day — work that in the estimation of many critics captured the resonant, almost mythic soul of 20th-century rural America.
“His books glisten with love of the world, and are as grounded as Thoreau’s in the particulars of American place — its rivers and thickets, its highways and taverns,” Will Blythe wrote in The New York Times Book Review in 2007, reviewing Mr. Harrison’s novel “Returning to Earth.” He added, “Bawdily and with unrelenting gusto, Harrison’s 40 years’ worth of writing explores what constitutes a good life, both aesthetically and morally, on this planet.”
Though not strictly a household name, Mr. Harrison was long esteemed by a large, devoted cohort of readers in North America. He was also hugely popular in Europe — especially in France, where he was venerated as a cult author.
Considered a master of the novella, a rarely cultivated discipline, Mr. Harrison was also known for his essays on food: He was perhaps the leading exponent of the small subgenre in which shotguns and shoe leather play a far greater role than balsamic reduction.
His food writing, much of which first appeared in Esquire, was collected in his 2001 book, “The Raw and the Cooked,” whose title invokes the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’s volume of that name. Mr. Lévi-Strauss’s book is about myth and ritual. Mr. Harrison’s is about rituals that include his flying to France for the sole purpose of having lunch — a lunch that spanned 11 hours, 37 courses and 19 wines.
Because of his books’ hypermasculine subject matter, their frequent setting amid the woods and trout streams of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and his own knockabout life, Mr. Harrison was chronically, and to his unrelieved disgust, compared to one man.
In fact, his prose is nothing like Hemingway’s: It is jazzier, more lyrical and more darkly comic. His characters, more marginal and far less self-assured — many abandon jobs and families to light out in search of meaning they never find — are handled with greater tenderness.
“Driving out of the woods I felt a new and curious calm but doubted it would last,” the rootless narrator of Mr. Harrison’s first novel, “Wolf” (1971), says as he returns reluctantly to civilization after a sojourn in the wild. He continues:
“When I reached the main road I would stop at a gas station and make a reservation at a hotel in Ishpeming and when I got there I knew I would shower and go down to the bar and drink myself into the comatose state I knew I deserved. Maybe King David drank heavily in his canopied tent the night before battle.”
At bottom, Mr. Harrison was not so much like Hemingway as he was like something out of Hemingway. Or, more accurately, something out of Rabelais — a mustachioed, barrel-chested bear of a man whose unapologetic immoderation encompassed a dazzling repertory:
There was the eating. Mr. Harrison once faced down 144 oysters, just to see if he could finish them. (He could.)
There was the drinking. One fine summer, he personally tested 38 varieties of Côtes du Rhône. (“It was like a small wine festival. Just me, really,” he told The Washington Post afterward.)
There was the drugging, in his Hollywood period, when he wrote the screenplays for films including “Revenge” (1990), starring Kevin Costner and based on Mr. Harrison’s novella of that name.
There was the hobnobbing with his spate of famous friends, including Jack Nicholson, John Huston, Bill Murray and Jimmy Buffett.
All these ingredients were titanically encapsulated in a dinner Mr. Harrison once shared with Orson Welles, which involved, he wrote, “a half-pound of beluga with a bottle of Stolichnaya, a salmon in sorrel sauce, sweetbreads en croûte, a miniature leg of lamb (the whole thing) with five wines, desserts, cheeses, ports” and a chaser of cocaine.
But constructing Mr. Harrison merely as a rough-and-ready man of appetite — a perennial conceit of profile writers, and one he did relatively little to dispel — ignores the deep intellectualism of the writer and his work. In conversation, he could range easily and without affectation over Freud, Kierkegaard, Stravinsky, Zen Buddhism, Greek oral epic and ballet.
An acclaimed poet before he began writing fiction — his collections include “Plain Song” (1965), “The Theory & Practice of Rivers” (1989) and “Songs of Unreason” (2011) — Mr. Harrison received a Guggenheim fellowship for his poetry in 1969.
Throughout his work, Mr. Harrison was intensely concerned with the natural world, though he was probably America’s least effete nature writer. There are no dewy prospects in his poetry and prose, but rather looming, unfathomable landscapes with the power to unleash an almost biblical violence.
Yet for all this — and for all its man-made violence (in “Legends of the Fall,” for instance, one character kills another with a pitchfork) — the world of his fiction is an eminently moral place, one in which vengeance follows violation with a ruthless internal logic.
Counterbalancing the undertow that pulls at Mr. Harrison’s characters are food, alcohol, sex and outdoorsmanship, ideally in combination. As he often said, this restorative cocktail was his own remedy of choice for the bouts of deep depression from which he had suffered all his life.
“If you’ve known a lot of actresses and models,” he once confided with characteristic plain-spokenness to a rapt audience at a literary gathering, “you return to waitresses because at least they smell like food.”
What united Mr. Harrison’s literary output was an acute awareness of the sustenance that close observation of ordinary things can offer, as well as an essential truth he summarized in a 1980 interview with The Washington Post:
“I’m always having a man in desperate straits trying to help somebody else out with no apparent success,” Mr. Harrison said, “because nobody can be helped by anybody.”
That truth became evident when he was very young. James Thomas Harrison was born on Dec. 11, 1937, in Grayling, in northern Michigan, the son of Winfield Harrison and the former Norma Walgren; he was reared in Reed City, 90 miles away.
Winfield Harrison, a county agricultural agent, passed on to his son a love of books as well as more pragmatic endowments that would be useful in life and in literature. (“When you sit in a bar,” the elder Mr. Harrison counseled, “never curl your feet under the rungs of a bar stool in case you’re sucker punched.”)
When Jim was 7, as he recounted in a memoir, “Off to the Side” (2002), a neighborhood girl ended a quarrel by thrusting a broken bottle into his face, permanently blinding his left eye. For years afterward, he sought solace alone in the woods.
He also found solace in fiction — his father had turned him on to Faulkner, which became a lifelong passion — and by the time Jim was a teenager, he was determined to be a writer. His father encouraged him, buying him a typewriter for about $15.
When Jim Harrison was in his early 20s, his father and his 19-year-old sister, Judith, were killed on a hunting trip, when their car was struck by a drunken driver. Jim had also been invited but had vacillated before choosing not to go.
The decision probably saved his life. But in delaying the start of the trip, which put his father and sister on the road at precisely the wrong moment, he felt he had caused their deaths.
Mr. Harrison earned a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature from Michigan State University, where his classmates included the future novelist Thomas McGuane, followed by a master’s in the field there. In the mid-1960s, he taught briefly at the State University of New York at Stony Brook before turning his back on academe for the writing life.
It was a life of real poverty at first. His first three works of fiction — “Wolf” was followed by the novels “A Good Day to Die” (1973) and “Farmer” (1976) — were well reviewed but not hugely successful commercially. There was no security in poetry.
By then a husband and father, Mr. Harrison was earning barely $10,000 a year. He considered suicide.
He pulled himself through by starting work on “Letters to Yesenin,” published in 1973 and widely considered his finest volume of verse. Its title invokes the great Russian poet Sergei Yesenin, who committed suicide in 1925, at 30.
In a poem from the collection, Mr. Harrison wrestles with the decision the poet confronted. But, addressing Yesenin, he reaches a far different conclusion:
And what a dance you had kicking your legs from
the rope — We all change our minds, Berryman said in Minnesota
halfway down the river.
Beauty takes my courage
away this cold autumn evening. My year-old daughter’s red
robe hangs from the doorknob shouting Stop.
With the publication in 1979 of Mr. Harrison’s fourth volume of fiction, “Legends of the Fall,” he found his métier in the novella — and with it the commercial success that had long eluded him.
Mr. Harrison had his detractors. With its boozing and brawling and bedding, his fiction was often called misogynistic. He did himself no favors with a 1983 Esquire essay in which he called his feminist critics “brie brains” and added, in gleeful self-parody, “Even now, far up in the wilderness in my cabin, where I just shot a lamprey passing upstream with my Magnum, I wouldn’t have the heart to turn down a platter of hot buttered cheerleaders.”
But by all accounts he redeemed himself with several later works narrated by strong female protagonists: the novels “Dalva” (1988), about a Nebraska woman searching for the child she gave up for adoption, and “The Road Home” (1998), which continues Dalva’s story; and the novella “Julip” (1994), about a woman trying to free her brother from jail.
Mr. Harrison’s wife, the former Linda King, whom he married in 1959, died in October.
His survivors include two daughters, Jamie Potenberg and Anna Hjortsberg; a sister, Mary Dumsch; a brother, David; and three grandchildren.
In an essay in “The Raw and the Cooked,” Mr. Harrison neatly summed up the modus vivendi that had long sustained him. He was talking about food, but the imperative clearly applied to any of his variegated passions:
“The idea,” Mr. Harrison wrote, “is to eat well and not die from it — for the simple reason that that would be the end of your eating.”
Correction: March 27, 2016
An earlier version of this obituary misstated the year Mr. Harrison married Linda King. It was 1959, not 1960.