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Lessons From Jim Harrison’s ‘Legends Of The Fall’


Jim Harrison, best known for his 87-page novella “Legends of the Fall,” later made into the 1994 film starring Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins, died Saturday. Although Harrison wrote, according to the New York Times obituary, “21 volumes of fiction, including ‘Legends of the Fall’ (1979), a collection of three novellas …14 books of poetry; two books of essays; a memoir, and a children’s book,” “Legends” was undoubtedly his most famous work.

It is vivid and violent, lurid and provocative, grand in scope but tiny in size. It boasts a great many lessons in a tiny package.

Legends of Family

The story encapsulates the American West during Prohibition, taking readers through 50 years in the lives of Col. William Ludlow, (played by Anthony Hopkins in the movie), Ludlow’s wife, Isabel, and their three sons: Tristan, Alfred, and Samuel. The boys are as different as can be. Alfred is a typical first-born, responsible and cautious; Tristan is wild and reckless, the picturesque prodigal; and Samuel is the baby, taken care of and coddled.

After Ludlow’s wife abandons him for a warmer climate, all three men join the military to aid Britain in its fight against Germany. During World War I, Samuel is killed and Tristan blames himself. Utterly bereaved, he raids German lines solo, killing and scalping as he goes.

When Tristan takes Alfred’s quasi-former girlfriend Susannah (she had declined his marriage proposal) as a lover, the two have it out. Later, Tristan ventures West, eventually telling Susannah to marry another after she tries to rekindle their love, which Tristan declines. When he does, she commits suicide.

Still, despite the deep-seated, unhealthy grievances that have festered between Ludlow, Tristan, and Alfred over the years, they all remain viscerally loyal to one another. In the end they fend off, in a western showdown, men attempting to kill Tristan. The power of brotherly, familial love especially in the midst of deep, human flaws, is especially lucid in “Legends,” and comforting, if in a gloomy way.

Legends of Love

Many “western” stories present love in a straightforward, simple manner. Not “Legends.” Here, we see all sides of the love coin: pure lust, sacrificial love, twisted, dependent love. While each might be momentarily satisfying for the reader and characters, it does not end well. Every single romantic relationship in the story is inherently flawed, save for perhaps Tristan’s brief marriage to Isabel Two.

Here, we see all sides of the love coin: pure lust, sacrificial love, twisted, dependent love.

When the story begins, Ludlow’s wife leaves him because she doesn’t like the Montana winters—so their marriage is nonexistent. Alfred seems to genuinely love Susannah, but it’s preening and somewhat selfish (after all, he becomes a politician). As a reader you long for him to “man up” like, well, like Tristan, (except maybe a better version of what Tristan could be?).

Indeed, while Tristan’s relationship with Susannah is passionate and she clearly never “gets over” him, theirs was not a respectful, sacrificial relationship. He leaves when it suits him and coldly writes her a letter telling her to move on. Later, she commits suicide when she can’t have him—while she’s married to Alfred, no less.

Tristan seems most at peace while married to Isabel Two. Just when we think we’ll see a glimpse of long-lasting, mutual, sacrificial love, their domestic bliss is shattered when she is murdered. Most of the time the romantic love in “Legends” is elusive, unsatisfying, selfish, and twisted. Wonder what Harrison was trying to tell us?

He once said, “I like grit, I like love and death, I’m tired of irony. … A lot of good fiction is sentimental. … The novelist who refuses sentiment refuses the full spectrum of human behavior, and then he just dries up. … I would rather give full vent to all human loves and disappointments, and take a chance on being corny, than die a smart—.”

Legends of Meaning

The review in The New York Times in 1979 read: “In ‘Legends of the Fall,’ the steady, singing, epic voice assures and reassures us that we are hearing—as the title claims—legend, not reality. In compression, unexpectedly, lies credibility.” True, “Legends” has a bit of a dramatic scope, but as with many great stories we see a bit of ourselves—sometimes too much.

‘The world of [Harrison’s] fiction is an eminently moral place, one in which vengeance follows violation with a ruthless internal logic.’

The lust, betrayal, and ambition coupled with love, loyalty, and the importance of our family, combine to help us feel less alone, vindicated in our struggles, strengthened in our attempts to become better tomorrow than we were yesterday, lest we end up outliving all our relatives, and dying in a valiant fight against a bear (even if metaphorically).

The New York Times said “the world of [Harrison’s] fiction is an eminently moral place, one in which vengeance follows violation with a ruthless internal logic.” Even so, we rarely see said morals followed consistently, and the only thing that follows vengeance seems to be pain or death.

Over and over we watch as Tristan experiences the full negative scope of humanity—betrayal, loss, grief—and over and over we watch as he attempts to recover with something that ultimately lets him down. In the film version, Brad Pitt ensured all women would be drawn to the reclusive and reckless bad boy Tristan, yet he finds no happiness in the decisions that make him so. The happiest we see him is when he finally marries, starts a family, and is bootlegging.

Even so, those years of happiness are short, and when his wife is killed, he avenges her—and ultimately outlives everyone dear to him only to die in a bear fight. However Hemingway-esque this might appear to be, it’s hard to make the case this exemplifies true meaning and joy.

The beautiful old American West, the passionate love scenes, the bond of familial ties—these all mesmerize us yet also, in the end, collude to reveal any person seeking true joy in these things will feel sad and hollow. For all its passion and grit, its love and scenery, “Legends” reminds us not only that we are flawed human beings but that none of the things we seek pleasure from—booze, sex, politics, nature—are ultimately satisfying, at least long-term.

That is the lesson not written in “Legends,” perhaps even a lesson with which Harrison himself would disagree—but one worth learning above all.