He died late Saturday at his winter home in Patagonia, Arizona, his publisher said. Morgan Entrekin, CEO of Grove Atlantic, told CNN that Harrison was in his study working on a poem.
"We are very sad to hear about his death," Entrekin said. "He left a great body of work that is going to live on."
Harrison was a versatile writer who authored almost 40 books, including novels, collections of poems and eloquent essays about his passion for food. He was considered a master of the novella, a short novel or long short story, although he didn't find mainstream success until later in his career.
His rugged and deeply humane fiction often depicted complex men grappling with their place in the wilderness, including the forests of northern Michigan, where he grew up, and the wilds of Montana, his adopted home.
"A giant. A Titan. A friend. RIP Jim Harrison ... There will be no more like him," tweeted CNN's Anthony Bourdain, who featured Harrison on his former show, "No Reservations."
Sometimes described as a contemporary Ernest Hemingway, Harrison devoured good meals as he did life. When he wasn't writing, he was hiking, hunting, fishing, cooking or, in his younger days, carousing with such notable drinking buddies as actor Jack Nicholson and novelist Thomas McGuane.
But he was also a disciplined writer who had already seen two of his books published in 2016 and who left a rough draft of a novella based on his "Brown Dog" character, Entrekin said.
"You do manage a somewhat religious attitude toward your art. It is a calling rather than a job," Harrison told The New York Times in an interview
published only a week ago. "I now find myself in an occasional state of surprise that I've made a living as a novelist for quite some time, the opposite of what I expected."
Born in 1937 in Grayling, Michigan, Harrison was blinded in his left eye by an accident when he was 7. A restless adventurer as a young man, he once hitchhiked from Michigan to California to gaze at the Pacific Ocean. After graduating from Michigan State, he spent a year teaching English at Stony Brook in New York before deciding that academia wasn't for him.
Harrison first wrote poetry, then tried his hand at a novel, at the suggestion of his pal McGuane while convalescing after tumbling off a cliff when he was bird hunting. He churned out novels and poems in semi-obscurity for almost two decades before Hollywood came calling.
"Revenge," Harrison's novella about a man who swears vengeance after being left for dead in the Mexican desert, was made into a 1990 movie starring Kevin Costner, Madeline Stowe and Anthony Quinn. Harrison co-wrote the screenplay.
Then came 1994's "Legends of the Fall," about three brothers (Pitt, Henry Thomas and Aidan Quinn) romancing the same woman (Julia Ormond) in early 20th-century Montana. Although some critics found it melodramatic, it earned $160 million worldwide and helped make Pitt a global star.
Harrison also co-wrote the script for "Wolf," the 1994 movie starring Nicholson as an aging publisher whose career gets new life after he is bitten by a wolf. The film was loosely adapted from one of his novellas, but he clashed with director Mike Nichols and the experience soured him on Hollywood.
Although Harrison never wrote big best-sellers, his work was deeply admired in literary circles. Among his most beloved novels and novellas are "Dalva," "Julip," "The Woman Lit by Fireflies" and "True North."
In more recent years, Harrison penned a memoir, "Off to the Side," and a collection of essays, "The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand."