In the sanctuary of rural places, writer Jim Harrison's characters find their own rules and the strength to live by them.
The finest inquiry of literature explores the life of the individual. What makes the individual lonely, affectionate, or terrified? What makes the individual tick?
Naturally, the best stories about individuals also become stories about history, sociology, and philosophy. Through this ever-widening examination, literature endorses a certain set of values. The Fountainhead obviously recommends a different code of ethics than does The Grapes of Wrath. But literature’s unique ability to expose and endorse diverse ethics and values contains unparalleled power. Christopher Hitchens claims, with good evidence, that literature presents the “finest opportunity for moral exploration.”
Jim Harrison, master of the novella and one of the greatest contemporary American writers, delineates a set of values with brilliance, toughness, and humor through his character Brown Dog. Living in a deer hunting cabin in Upper Peninsula Michigan, Brown Dog is happily in the “bottom 10 percent” of income earners, working as little as possible and refusing to consider a career since dropping out of Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.
Aspects of his behavior may seem pathological, but none of them is without redemption. He has a bottomless appetite for sex and is constantly trying to feed it. But he is also a real lover of women who never objectifies them. Rather he insists on treating them with genuine awe, loyalty, and respect. His refusal to compromise on principles and his default-distrust of authority may look like stubborn rebellion for rebellion’s sake, when they are actually a product of the Bible-studying days that are not entirely behind him. He holds steadfast to a creed of belief and behavior and is unwilling to loosen his grip for wealth, power, or advancement in social status, too often tied to materialistic ambitions and self-interested conformity.
Brown Dog nearly gets thrown in jail for destroying the equipment and vehicles of Michigan State University anthropology graduate students who plan to study the graves and bodies of an old but recently discovered Native American burial ground. He tracks down a phony Indian activist and filmmaker in Hollywood to retrieve his stolen bearskin rug and adopts a young girl with developmental disabilities before smuggling her into Canada to prevent her from going into the state’s custody. The integrity, compassion, and honesty of Brown Dog cannot be negotiated, and he will go to seemingly ridiculous lengths to enforce his code, which is simultaneously inspirational and amusing.
The committed resistance to mainstream values of greed, profit utility, and spiritually vacuous decision-making, combined with a full embrace of love, simple organic pleasure and comical outsider status, make Brown Dog a literary hero, and a rural hero, too.
Susan Stewart, Professor of English at Temple University, writes in her book On Longing that the countryside is “space ideal, space of childhood and death…where within patterns of nature we search for traces of the human,” while the city can only speak the “language of the state,” because it is unable to speak in the variety of diverse tongues that reverberate across city streets. The state’s language, along with the “silence of the bank and silence of headquarters,” becomes monumental. Through this silence comes the “miming of corporate relations.”
Stewart’s juxtaposition perfectly explains why Brown Dog could only exist in a rural environment. He moves like a slow, obnoxious shadow: Off the grid and off the radar, but somehow managing to leave a mark. The institutional pressures he despises are most dominant in large cities, which is why he only moves through them when he feels he must—to retrieve his stolen bearskin rug or study scripture. Big things, as they are too often narrowly defined, happen in the city. Stewart is getting at these big things when she writes about the language of the state and the miming of corporate relations. She also mentions milling crowds, class conflicts, and the potential for sudden terror. Brown Dog detaches himself from these big things, and instead of chasing after the big rewards promised mostly by the people and institutions of cities, he fights for small victories. He will protect the graves of American Indians. He will find the bearskin thief. He will save a developmentally disabled child from the horrors of a state facility, which he decides is not suited for her after he takes a drive past it to see that there are no flowers planted anywhere on the grounds.
Brown Dog is the most heroic but not the only Harrison character to find solace and strength in rural settings. Harrison’s latest collection of novellas, The Farmer’s Daughter, features a young woman who through the triumphs and tragedies of her life cannot leave her true love: Montana. The English Major, one of Harrison’s recent novels, is narrated by a man who embarks on a nationwide road trip to rename every state flower and bird.
Rural settings maintain a consistent importance in Harrison’s work because they allow his characters a sanctuary where their resistance to social pressures and commitment to hard won principles of freedom and self-determination can to thrive. In the bosom of nature, Harrison’s outlaws, those who live according to their own norms of quiet charity, earned elegance, and the rejection of political maneuvering, social phoniness, and yuppie asceticism, undergo sanctification. Having a home in rural America brings Harrison’s characters, especially Brown Dog, into community with fellow voluntarily isolated rebels; their political protest overcomes dejection with detachment.
There is constant pressure in American culture to do something: “Sign a petition for universal healthcare”… “Sign up for our email list to tell Washington you want an end to climate change.” This isn’t to say that apathy is defensible or that environmental activism is a waste of time. It is simply to acknowledge that often these small gestures are carried out for purposes of self-comfort and self-aggrandizement.
The Rev. James Forbes has wondered “if there is such a thing as ‘liberal light.’ That is the ideology and rhetoric of liberalism but your heart is still tethered to selfish pride, greed, race and other prerogatives.” Small gestures attached to fake urgency are “liberal light.”
Brown Dog, and Harrison’s gallery of thoughtful, compassionate rogues, see through this phoniness and stake out their own territory for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. When they make a gesture towards grander ideas and values, it’s not trumped up by any urgency but by their own beliefs and the needs of the people they want to help.
For Americans tired of big disappointments from big institutions — political, financial, educational — and looking for a moral template of citizenship in confusing and troubled times, there may be no better moral guide than the understated rural heroism of Jim Harrison and his greatest creation, Brown Dog.
David Masciotra is the author of Working On a Dream: The Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen (Continuum Books). For more information visit www.davidmasciotra.com