This is not the imaginative flight of fancy it might seem. The passing of a great writer brings clarity to how men and women might preserve civility and friendships when over the years their views and opinions have diverged. It’s an apt lesson in this time of sucker-punching political discourse that has become profane and vile.
Friendships will splinter and families will bear grudges this year as we spar about Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. The verbal damage the candidates will inflict on one another will pale to the arguments and insults tossed back and forth from Fourth of July through November, when hurt feelings will be carved and sliced as if they were the Thanksgiving turkey.
Here is the setting. A dead writer of poetry, fiction, and essays, Jim Harrison, is remembered for his talent and friendship by another writer. I am not without bias about the talent of my friend, Tom McGuane, who responded to his friend Harrison’s death at journalistic speed on The New Yorker website.
McGuane wrote with the immediacy of a reporter but with the heart and depth of the great novelist and essayist that he is. The economy of words, the precise thinking, the ability to say so much while leaving much unsaid were profound testament to the talent of both men.
I was already a reading fan of McGuane when we met years ago in Fort Worth through our love of horses, the romantic myth of the cowboy life and our mutual affinity for literature. He often said over the years that his friend Harrison and I would bond immediately, but despite a few close calls we never met.
Lifestyle choices by both of us probably indicate that God divined a Harrison meeting would not yield good results. I felt as though I knew him, though, when I read his works. He is among the great American writers.
When he died last week, I mourned as if we were close. I reached out with condolences to McGuane, who in turn sent me his New Yorker piece. It was more soothing to me than a bottle of Harrison’s beloved Bandol DomaineTempier.
The entire remembrance is 296 words covering over five decades of a friendship cemented in thousands, maybe millions, of words exchanged after meeting at Michigan State. It is McGuane’s second paragraph that directly and indirectly instructs how friends can remain devoted as they learn how to argue and disagree without blowing up their shared world and history. So, for me, it became both eulogy and a lesson on how I might navigate sharp differences of opinion in this political year. McGuane’s words:
“On Saturday night, my oldest friend, Jim Harrison, sat at his desk writing. He wrote in longhand. The words trailed off into scribbles and he fell from his chair dead. His strength of personality was such that his death will cut many adrift. He was seventy-eight years old and had lived and worked hard for every one of those years. He published a book a month ago. His health had failed, he lost his wife of fifty-five years, and his shingles were a torment. Recent back surgery had made his beloved walks impossible and yet he was undefeated. He was active and creative to the end, but it was time to go: no one was less suited to assisted living. For his family, vastly numerous friends, and admirers, the death of Jim Harrison leaves an extraordinary vacancy.
“From the moment we met, we talked about writing, and in some ways co-evolved over time, through letters and talk, until our views hardened and separated to such a degree that it was better not to do it in person. But we went on as before, in weekly letters, and continued to do so until a week ago; and left all that was not literary – nature, food, sport, love – to times we actually saw each other. To select a book or poem from the ether for chat was best handled in print, though we could revisit favorites for euphoric consanguinity. At times, we resorted to censorious silence. We worked out differences in letters and tried to make each other better. I could always expect Jim to write something marvellous and seemingly out of the blue. Few American writers of recent times have had his erudition and phenomenal memory. To the end, Jim was a country boy who’d been touched.”
Richard Connor is chairman of the parent company of Fort Worth Business, DRC Media. Contact him at email@example.com.