Legends of the Fall is the first of Jim Harrison’s three novella collections and, as the other two, it contains narratives: Legends of the Fall, Revenge, and The Man Who Gave Up His Name. Harrison recalled, “I always loved the work of Isak Dinesen, and Knut Hampson [sic], who wrote three or four short novels, so I thought I would have a try at it” (Bonetti 65). He said his agent told him no one would publish the stories; the collection became the author’s first commercial success.
The title story in Legends of the Fall details almost a century in the history of the Ludlow family. The narrative focuses on Tristan, who Harrison has suggested is an American Cain, against the backdrop of World War I. Tristan Ludlow becomes an odd sort of hero, having avenged his brother’s death in the war by scalping Germans, going temporarily mad, and marrying Susannah so she can give him a son to take the place of his dead brother. Tristan then goes to sea and leaves his brother Albert to remarry Susannah. Throughout the narrative Tristan is a loner, “much like a legendary western outlaw hero” (Reilly 82). His isolation is made complete by the death of his wife, Isabel Two, when she is struck by a ricochet from the gun of a federal agent. Critics “have been divided about whether Legends of the Fall is an epic or a saga” (Reilly 78) despite its brevity. Certainly the novella is epic in its scope and in the depth of the tragedy and redemption of Tristan’s life.
Revenge is similar in scope to Legends of the Fall, and the outcome is no less tragic: Cochran, a retired fighter pilot, has had an affair with the beautiful wife of his friend, a wealthy Mexican drug lord whose nickname is Tibey (from the Spanish tiburon, shark). Cochran is beaten nearly to death, and Miryea, Tibey’s wife, is forced to take heroin, raped, cut, and sent to a brothel. Tibey later moves Miryea to an asylum, where she dies. Cochran is left to sort out the motives and means for revenge on his old friend.
Harrison told Kay Bonetti in an interview that he wrote The Man Who Gave Up His Name “in a time of extreme duress. I envisioned a man getting out of the life he had created for himself with the same intricate carefulness that he’d got into it in the first place. I suppose I was pointing out that if you’re ethical you can’t disappear” (65–66). The story line is simple enough, although the underlying theme of the search for order and meaning goes much deeper: Nordstrom meets his wife at college, marries her, becomes vice president of Standard Oil, and amicably divorces her after they grow apart. In his early middle age, Nordstrom has taken to dancing, as he does at the beginning of the narrative. He searches for an answer to the disintegration of his life, and as do Harrison’s other protagonists who return to the land and their roots to restore order and purpose in their lives, Nordstrom returns home after the death of his father (Reilly 75). Finally, Nordstrom makes peace with himself by working as a cook in Islamorada, Florida, and dancing with the waitresses.
Critics tend to compare the styles of Harrison and Ernest Hemingway. While this novella collection contains, as do many Hemingway works, a certain amount of macho posturing, the compression of the rich details of life and death, the diversity of the characters, the originality of the voice, and the intricate analyses of human nature resemble Hemingway’s artistic strengths and point up the strengths of Harrison’s short fiction.
Bonetti, Kay. “An Interview with Jim Harrison.” Missouri Review 8, no. 3 (1985): 65–86.
Harrison, Jim. Legends of the Fall. New York: Delacorte, 1979. Reilly, Edward C. Jim Harrison. New York: Twayne, 1996.