Jim Harrison on James Welch
There’s scorn aplenty in Jim Harrison’s introduction to a Penguin Classics reissue of James Welch’s early novel "The Death of Jim Loney." No one else would dare the following opening line: "Recently while rereading ‘The Death of Jim Loney’ I wanted to write or call Jim Welch in Missoula and talk about his novel but he’s dead."
Isn't that a direct violation of the "speak well of the dead" clause we’re all supposed to follow as card-carrying members of Western civilization? Harrison (right) isn't being insulting, but only he could get away with this type of lede.
Introductions are often easily discarded. They offer a few pages of warmup before the plunge into the narrative; they’re the treadmill before the exercise session begins. But what Harrison’s piece provides, besides the glowing praise for a writer who should not be far from any of our imaginations, are the cuts and jabs that are part of the trademark of his style. Here he is, casting a glance at his own career, with a parting shot at the academic profession:
It is arguable that we don’t have a national literature but the work of specific regions unrelated to tradition. Of course I’m nearly forty years away from the academy and don’t make a living inventing connections between writers.
Ouch. He’s faulting critics for trespassing, isn't he? Isn't the invention of connections what fiction writers practice? And here is a rich anecdote that captures his own discovery of the differences existing between the reality and romance of things:
A couple of decades ago in Key West I won a private detective’s license in a poker game and thought of myself as an operative for a few weeks until I became frightened when I learned the malefactors I was investigating carried guns, at which I determined that I should limit my daring to my imagination.
Harrison’s essay is one of those examples of when an introduction doesn’t function as a piece of forgettable support furniture, like a bedside table. After reading it, you can go on and read the Welch novel (and you really should), but you don’t have to.
Harrison photo: Ralph Radford