Mythmaking and the consequence of "soul history" in Jim Harrison's Legends of the Fall

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Date: Fall 1999
From: Studies in Short Fiction(Vol. 36, Issue 4)
Publisher: Studies in Short Fiction
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 5,348 words

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O History, as Carl Becker remarked, how many truths are committed in thy name! But there is no cynicism in this observation as long as it means that the course of events, like a moving train, provides new positions from which to survey the track left behind. Later events must inevitably focus our attention on earlier ones. Similarly, all inquiry is guided by developing concepts that have their own history. --Cushing Strout, The Veracious Imagination

History, our prevailing attitude goes (and this is the particularly cynical view), is for people who choose to live in the past and who have enough time on their hands to study irrelevant, arcane events. Even American literature, ostensibly safe from such shortsightedness, neglects the essential importance of our past on the events that occur today. In his assessment of the curious dearth of American historical fiction up to the 1970s, Henry Claridge writes that "It is an accepted part of the 'conventional wisdom' about the American novel that it has largely eschewed history and society in preference for existential and metaphysical speculation" (9). Claridge's assertion is well-founded. Such American literary luminaries as Philip Roth have contended for decades that the increasing number and the unmitigated violence of history-changing events with which Americans have had to cope is an excuse for the novelist to hide in his fiction, a way for the author to ignore the historical aspects of his craft. The writer, Roth claimed in an address at Stanford University in 1960, has "his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality. It asserts, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one's meagre imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist" (176).

The lost past that Roth and Claridge bemoan is given voice in the short fiction of Jim Harrison, whose novellas resound with the tragedies of our past and whose stories limn an unsavory history that leads his characters--and his readers--through a process of introspection to understanding. Harrison places great value on a knowledge of our nation's history, and he meets head-on the difficulties of (re)writing history as he characterizes the baser side of our national consciousness. His narratives often detail some lapse in judgment that exposes the fundamental absurdity of our actions and brings the past directly to bear on the present and the future. Although he is less concerned with the actual events that constitute the collective American historical consciousness, he is intimately aware of the consequences of those events on our present. Harrison has observed that "[The United States] has a history, but it also has a soul history, and that's what I was interested in. Our original sin in this country was the desecration of the Indians" (Stocking 19).

In his novella Legends of the Fall (1979), Harrison emphasizes the importance of soul history, a concept that synthesizes the Jungian...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A90990565