John McPhee is one of America’s finest practitioners of literary nonfiction and, more specifically, of literary journalism. He became a staff writer for the New Yorker in the mid-19605, shortly after it accepted his profile of Princeton basketball sensation Bill Bradley, and has been associated with the magazine ever since. Almost all of his published work—almost two dozen books, including four collections of shorter essays— has first appeared there. This association tells us much about McPhee’s appeal: the New Yorker readership has traditionally come to the magazine not for the latest news or timely political opinion but for tasteful fiction and leisurely paced, highly literate feature articles. In McPhee they find the expositor par excellence, a deft handler of facts able to satisfy the educated nonspecialist’s thirst for information on a wide range of topics: nature, education, geology, technology, nuclear physics, sports, art. His prose, however, is not simply a vehicle that efficiently delivers facts. As much as his expository precision, it is his strong sense of narrative and his eye for descriptive detail that make his essays engaging and his intense curiosity about his topics infectious.
Early profiles such as A Sense of Where You Are (1965), The Headmaster (1966), “A Roomful of Hovings” (1967), “A Forager” (1968), and “Twynam of Wimbledon” (1968) exemplify McPhee’s attitudes and interests. The subjects of these essays—with the exception of the first, about Bradley—are not widely recognized, nor are they in any conventional sense heroes. But they are sympathetic figures, men whom McPhee openly admires, not only because they do work he considers worthwhile but because they are enthusiastically committed to what they do. Frank Boyden, the tireless headmaster of Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, seems one part educator and three parts salesman, propagandist, and petty tyrant, yet even his shortcomings are treated with such fondness that McPhee’s admiration for the man and his work evokes our own. By its end, we recognize in the essay a kind of modest, humanely balanced illustration of the great man theory. Rather than the great, though, McPhee’s tastes more commonly tend toward the good; as his brief portrait of Robert Twynam shows, he can admire a groomer of grass as much as he does a groomer of young men. With an understated humor that lightens its tone but never disparages its subject, “Twynam of Wimbledon” makes the groundskeeper of the world’s premier tennis tournament seem the consummate professional, scarcely noticed but nonetheless steadfast in his efforts to preserve Centre Court from invading bastard grasses, uncooperative weather, and, worst of all, toe-dragging tennis stars.
This sympathetic interest in people and their pursuits also shapes many of McPhee’s longer essays, in which the central figures serve as topical experts and, at times, as moral touchstones. In The Curve of Binding Energy (1974), the ostensible topic is nuclear weapons, but the force of the book derives from McPhee’s portrait of Theodore Taylor, the physicist who flunked out of graduate school only to become, almost accidentally, the designer of some of the world’s most potent bombs. A tissue of persuasive argument, characteristically implicit, emerges through the subtle connections between narration and exposition, as the author weaves lucid explanations of nuclear physics together with amusing, sometimes disturbing vignettes of Taylor’s past to suggest that pure science is as unpredictable as life, its results often uncontrollable. Perhaps more than any of McPhee’s books, The Curve of Binding Energy seems intended to move as well as inform readers. It makes complex processes such as nuclear fusion, nuclear fission, and weapon design more accessible to the layperson, but also more alarming, by exposing the glib confidence with which scientists and government officials talk about controlling the awesome power of the atom.
Whether or not it is used suasively, exposition of the sort found in The Curve of Binding Energy is one of the most striking features in McPhee’s prose. In essay after essay, he brings vividly before our eyes a wide range of technological processes and gizmos: the coloring of oranges in a packing house; the patient construction of a bark canoe; the “intricate rhomboids” of an experimental airship; the “rock jetties, articulated concrete mattress revetments, and other heavy defenses” used to shackle a growing river.
Nature, too, is imaged sharply by McPhee’s expository craft. In his four books on geology, Basin and Range (1981), In Suspect Terrain (1983), Rising from the Plains (1986), and Assembling California (1993), great geological formations and transformations are made clear to the mind’s eye, often by metaphors that capture their most prominent features; they are “a rippled potato chip,” a”snowball splatted against glass,” “pieces cut from a wheel of cheese,” or “Hershey’s Kisses on a tray.”
Many of McPhee’s essays investigate environmental issues. In Coming into the Country (1977), the main focus is on Alaska’s battles between developers and wilderness preservationists; in The Control of Nature (1989), on human attempts to contain water, lava, and mudslides; and in Encounters with the Archdruid (1971), on the radical environmentalist David Brower, President of the Sierra Club in the 1960s and 1970s. In each of these, the author’s moderate stance on volatile issues is, again, suggested rather than argued. In the last, McPhee also makes greater use of himself as an actor in the drama he describes. Hiking and rafting through Colorado with a geologist, a government bureaucrat, and archdruid Brower, he serves as the facilitator for lively debate about wilderness and preservation. McPhee rarely talks about himself in Encounters, but we are always aware of his presence—as are his subjects, who often seem animated by his insatiable interest in their work.
In this use of himself as actor in his own nonfiction dramas, McPhee reveals his kinship with New Journalism. His quiet public profile and endearing ethos are very different from those of Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, or George Plimpton, but McPhee’s reportage does draw on similar techniques. His choice of topics, for example, suggests a New Journalistic reluctance to grab the headlines, to go instead for the untold or behindthe- scenes story. Moreover, like other New Journalists, who scorn the idea of conducting a quick interview and then retreating to a desk, McPhee spends a long time with his subjects, hiking or boating with them, sometimes living with them before he essays to write their story. And for all his precision with facts and concern for accuracy, McPhee makes no pretense of keeping his journalistic distance; clearly, he selects topics for which he feels great affinity, and he openly demonstrates his affection for the people he profiles.
It is this stance, at once leaning toward his subjects yet unbiased about the facts, that raises McPhee’s journalism above the level of craft. Craft makes his reportage lucid; his sympathetic, trustworthy ethos turns reportage into nonfictive art.
John Angus McPhee. Born 8 March 1931 in Princeton, New Jersey. Studied at Princeton University, A.B., 1953; Magdalene College, Cambridge, 1953–54. Writer for Robert Montgomery Presents television show, 1955–56. Married Pryde Brown, 1957 (later divorced): four daughters. Associate editor, Time magazine, 1957–64; staff writer, the New Yorker, from 1964. Married Yoland Whitman, 1972: two stepsons and two stepdaughters. Ferris Professor of Journalism, Princeton University, from 1975.
Awards: many, including the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, 1977; Woodrow Wilson Award, 1982; John Wesley Powell Award, 1988;
John Burroughs Medal, 1990; Walton Sullivan Award, 1993; honorary degrees from seven universities and colleges. Member, American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Essays and Related Prose
A Sense of Where You Are: A Profile of William Warren Bradley, 1965
The Headmaster: Frank L.Boyden, of Deerfield, 1966
A Roomful of Hovings and Other Profiles, 1968
The Pine Barrens, 1968
Levels of the Game, 1969
The Crofter and the Laird, 1970
Encounters with the Archdruid, 1971
Wimbledon: A Celebration, 1972
The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed, 1973
The Curve of Binding Energy, 1974
Pieces of the Frame, 1975
The Survival of the Bark Canoe, 1975
The John McPhee Reader, edited by William Howarth, 1976
Coming into the Country, 1977
Giving Good Weight, 1979
Basin and Range, 1981
In Suspect Terrain, 1983
Heirs of General Practice, 1984
La Plâce de la Concorde Suisse (in English), 1984
Table of Contents, 1985
In the Highlands and Islands, 1986
Rising from the Plains, 1986
The Control of Nature, 1989
Looking for a Ship, 1990
Assembling California, 1993
The Ransom of Russian Art, 1994
The Second John McPhee Reader, edited by Patricia Strachan and David Remnick, 1996
Core, George, “The Eloquence of Fact,” Virginia Quarterly Review 54 (1978):733–41
Espey, David, “The Wilds of New Jersey: John McPhee as Travel Writer,” in Temperamental Journeys: Essays on the Modern Literature of Travel, edited by Michael Kowalewski, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992:164–75
Giddens, Elizabeth, “An Epistemic Case Study: Identification and Attitude Change in John McPhee’s Coming into the Country,” Rhetoric Review 11 (1993):378–99
Howarth, William, Introduction to The John McPhee Reader, edited by Howarth, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1976
Lounsberry, Barbara, “John McPhee’s Levels of the Earth,” in her The Art of Fact: Contemporary Artists of Nonfiction, New York: Greenwood Press, 1990:65–106
Roundy, Jack, “Crafting Fact: Formal Devices in the Prose of John McPhee,” in Literary Nonfiction: Theory, Criticism, Pedagogy, edited by Chris Anderson, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989:70–92
Schuster, Charles, “Mikhail Bakhtin as Rhetorical Theorist,” College English 47 (1985):594–607
Smith, Kathy, “John McPhee Balances the Act,” in Literary Journalism in the Twentieth Century, edited by Norman Sims, New York: Oxford University Press, 1990:206–27
Terrie, Philip G., “River of Paradox: John McPhee’s ‘The Encircled River’,” Western American Literature 23 (1988):3–15
Turner, Brian, “Giving Good Reasons: Environmental Appeals in the Nonfiction of John McPhee,” Rhetoric Revieiv 13 (1994): 164–82
Vipond, Douglas, and Russell A.Hunt, “The Strange Case of Queen-Post Truss: John McPhee on Writing and Reading,” College Composition and Communication 42 (1991):200–10
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