My Last Book of 2011: The English Major by Jim Harrison

The English Major
The English Major by Jim Harrison
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

You know? I enjoyed this book. Like There but for the by Ali Smith, this book was about the past and the present, but this one was more about what to do when the past is pulled out from underneath you. Cliff is trying to redefine or perhaps rediscover his foundation when, after 25 years of farming and nearly 40 years of marriage, he finds himself without both his farm and his wife. Cliff clings to his prior identity as an English Major and spends a lot of time reminiscing about the days before his marriage, alternately glorifying those days and poking fun at himself and at English Majors and academic types in general. He claims to hate farming and to have made a naive decision giving up his teaching career to farm full-time in his 30’s, but he feels a strong draw back to the land. I suppose in the end what he finds is not so much a radical change, but a sense of balance.

It was interesting to me that I persisted in thinking that Cliff was an “old guy,” when in reality, he’s almost two years younger than my dad (and I don’t think of my dad as an “old guy”). In a lot of ways he’s like my dad. Which made the frequent (very frequent) references to sex all the more weird for me.

As a side note, why is it that there seem to be a number of older male writers who write a lot about sex? I’m thinking of Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings (which I could not stand) and John Updike’s Toward the End of Time (which I could stand, and which I read through, but which I didn’t really like except in the way that it showed a person very much consumed with his own life and in his own mind and body even through major global turmoil).

At any rate, even though the mentions of sex were rather excessive, I liked The English Major more than either of these other two books.

I wish Harrison had given more detail about the landscape as Cliff took his road trip. He drove all the way across Nebraska and noted none of the rather dramatic changes from the eastern half of the state to the western half, but he did note the weird way that distances become deceptive in Wyoming. And I loved the description of Cliff’s walk through San Francisco and his experience of the Pacific Ocean and the redwoods in northern California. It made me nostalgic for the geography of the West Coast (but not for million-dollar condos). I was a little disappointed that Cliff reduced Utah to mentions of polygamous groups and a complaint about the traffic around Salt Lake City, but what are you going to do? He made up for it with his description of Montana. I finished the book with a desire to learn fly fishing.

I like a good road trip book (I like road trips), and Cliff’s plan to work his way through the USA puzzle really appeals to my sense of order. Cliff attributes his sense of order to his English Major and his years of farming, with his 50 acre of cherry trees planted in neat rows. Perhaps this means I would do well as a farmer.

To summarize, this book made me feel icky with its frequent sexual references, but it also left me wanting to visit California, become a farmer, take a road trip, defend Utah, and go fly fishing. And maybe to send a copy of the book to my dad.

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5 Replies to “My Last Book of 2011: The English Major by Jim Harrison”

  1. Hi there,

    Have you read Harrison’s “Dalva” or “The Woman Lit By Fireflies”? Both stories feature a female character, and you don’t witness the ickiness of male sexuality.



    1. Paul,

      Thank you for your comment.

      This was the first Harrison I’ve read, and while I get the sense that you’re poking fun at me a bit, I appreciate the recommendations. I enjoyed Harrison’s writing and would like to read more. I have added these two books to my to-read list, along with a book of his poems.



      1. CJ,

        There was absolutely no intention to poke fun at you at all, and I apologize that you formed this impression. I simply enjoy discussing Harrison (and I supposing defending him a little), for I’ve found that the author’s references to sexuality sometimes get in the way of the story or theme because he deals with them so openly and crudely. I find it incredibly ironic that at the end of the day, sex is secondary in his characters and I would argue that Harrison’s character’s seemingly excessive reference to it ultimately conveys this (even in his Brown Dog character, found in other novellas). Reading “Dalva,” I think you’ll find that he’s not the “pig” that he comes across as.



      2. Paul-

        I agree with you that the references to sexuality in this novel were sometimes distracting to me, but I could also see why they were there. I think your assessment is spot-on: Cliff placed an emphasis on sex when in the end, that was part of him but, as you say, secondary to what he valued and who he really was as a character. But I never thought of Harrison (or Cliff) as a “pig” because of it. In fact, I found his treatments of his flawed and very human characters to be honest but gentle. Whereas I found that the overt references to sex in the Mailer book and the Updike book I mention distracted me from the story to the point that I couldn’t even really get into the story, it wasn’t so with The English Major.

        And while you weren’t teasing me, I could understand why one might. I was asking for it for using the word “icky”. 🙂



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