John McPhee: Seven Ways of Looking at a Writer

“I write about real people in real places. End of story.”

By  Tyler Malone

I. The Factual Writer

Late last fall, John McPhee—one of the greatest living writers of what is commonly called “creative nonfiction”—released his thirty-third book, The Patch.

“I prefer to call it factual writing,” he admits in his “The Art of Nonfiction” interview for the Paris Review. For years his class at Princeton University was known as “The Literature of Fact.” But whatever we label it—factual writing, the literature of fact, creative nonfiction, literary nonfiction, narrative journalism, or verfabula—there’s no denying that McPhee is a master of the mode. Thus, any new book by McPhee is a cause for celebration.

John Angus McPhee was born in Princeton, New Jersey, on March 8, 1931, to Dr. Harry McPhee, a physician for the Princeton University athletic department, and his wife Mary. As a boy, McPhee enjoyed sports and the outdoors, but by the time he entered Princeton University, writing had become his main passion. His career in journalism began at Time, but in the early sixties he moved over to The New Yorker, where he has continued to write for over half a century.

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The sixties were a decade of upheaval and progress, and one of the many areas where that revolutionary spirit reared its head was in the art of nonfiction. In previous decades, nonfiction—particularly if written for periodicals—had been seen mostly as ephemeral reportage. It was for catching up on world events, local matters, and human interest, usually read over a morning cup of coffee, stained with those wet, brown rings. Partially because it was churned out on deadline, factual writing was often pooh-poohed as a lesser art form than fictional writing, with the focus merely on the transfer of information, rather than aesthetic splendor, thematic heft, and formal precision.

In the sixties, writers like Truman Capote, Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, and John McPhee changed that perception by imbuing the factual with as much artistry as the fictional. Of course, the “New Journalism,” as it has often been called, might not have been as revolutionary—as new—as our cultural myths imply. McPhee, for his part, thinks this narrative is a bit of hooey. He confides:

It’s often described as some kind of revolution, but I never really understood that. Nonfiction writing didn’t begin in 1960. Going back, there were so many nonfiction writers—what about Liebling? Walter Lord, James Agee, Alva Johnston, Joseph Mitchell—these are people who had prepared the way, and, more than that, had written many better things than these so-called New Journalists would ever do. Henry David Thoreau, for all that, was a New Journalist of his time, as were Dorothy Day, Ida Tarbell, Willa Cather between the ages of twenty and forty at McClure’s Magazine, John Lloyd Stephens, Richard Henry Dana Jr., and on back to Thomas Browne, Robert Burton, Francis Bacon, James Boswell, and Daniel Defoe. You get the point….New Journalism sounded like labeling for labeling’s sake. Some of the things were really interesting to read, but there was too much precedent challenging the word new. Anytime I was called a New Journalist I winced a little with embarrassment.

Labels aside, McPhee and a handful of contemporaries, each in their own way, display in their fact-based work the sinuous grace of the novelist and the canorous beauty of the poet.

 

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II. The Structural Craftsman

John McPhee, in particular, borrows Ernest Hemingway’s affinity for distilled grandeur and Robert Frost’s understanding of the power of a pure image. He finds in simplicity both sublime beauty and profound depth. “Don’t slather one verbal flourish on top of another lest you smother them all,” one student remembers him saying in his Princeton course. A true master can make the plain feel pyrotechnic without unleashing a barrage of syntactical fireworks.

“Whatever else they do, men in the Pine Barrens are firefighters throughout their lives,” begins one section in McPhee’s The Pine Barrens. That opening paragraph culminates in a characteristically stark, suggestive image: “In 1936, a cousin of the fire watcher Eddie Parker was caught in the middle when a head fire and backfire came together. He had no time to get to burned ground. The last living thing he did was to kneel, as he burned, and embrace a pine tree.”

McPhee’s sentences are as varied as the geographic features he so often describes: some move at a glacial pace, some jut up unexpectedly like exposed granite, others gooseneck like snaking streams, still others burn like understory, quick, dangerous. Always his sentences capture some crystalline essence in their intricate, melodious designs—making connections, spinning webs, accreting meanings.

Because his mind is always teasing out connections, McPhee has a particular gift for deploying uncanny similes and metaphors, descriptive comparisons that are never desperate, never overreaching, yet somehow seem as surprising as they are precise. He writes of a rock’s glacial grooves: “It was as if a giant had drawn his fingers through an acre of soft butter.” Elsewhere, he describes a bear denning: “On a bed of dry vegetation, he lays himself out like a dead pharaoh in a pyramid.” In a famous passage on deep time, he explains: “With your arms spread wide again to represent all time on earth, look at one hand with its line of life. The Cambrian begins in the wrist, and the Permian Extinction is at the outer end of the palm. All of the Cenozoic is in a fingerprint, and in a single stroke with a medium-grained nail file you could eradicate human history.”

In last year’s Draft No. 4, promoted as his “master class in the writer’s craft,” McPhee argues that “writing is selection.” First you’re confronted with the blank page, that pristine white horror, and then you choose a word from the vast pool of words swimming around in your head. Then you pluck another word from the pool, but that second word has an even greater burden, for it not only has to be the right word in terms of meaning and musicality, but it also has to be the right word in its relation to the previous word’s meaning and musicality too. Then you arrive at a sentence after puzzle-piecing a few odd words together, only to start the whole process over again with a second sentence, which itself becomes a larger puzzle piece that must fit perfectly into both the previous sentence and the one that follows.

If writing is selection, then selection is connection—and connections inevitably accrue to form a whole geometry of patterns, shapes, structures. Draft No. 4 shows McPhee as unapologetically preoccupied with writing structure—from the small-scale shapes of sentences to the large-scale architecture of a book.

“To some extent, the structure of a composition dictates itself, and to some extent it does not,” McPhee admits. The grist of any piece is there—and, in factual writing as opposed to fictional writing, you can only work with the facts you’ve got—but a lot of the structure comes from what connections the writer chooses to make and when and where he chooses to make them. “One of the long-term things about knitting a piece of writing together,” McPhee claims, “is making all this stuff fit.”

He is not merely a writer of nature … but a writer of environments, of spaces and of the peoples, cultures, and histories that enliven a particular place.

There are few comparable factual writers who have continued their knitting of pieces for as long and at as high a level as McPhee. As Michael Pearson argues in his study of the writer, “Because of the prolificacy and the consistent quality of his books, McPhee, perhaps more than any other nonfiction writer of his generation, has legitimized the literary importance of nonfiction.”

 

III. The Patchwork Topographer

Best known for his Pulitzer-Prize-winning masterwork, Annals of the Former World, which collects four of his previous books on the geological history of North America (Basin and Range, In Suspect Terrain, Rising from the Plains, and Assembling California) and adds a fifth (Crossing the Craton), John McPhee has gained a reputation among less discerning readers for being merely an outdoorsy “environmental writer,” a sort of latter-day Henry David Thoreau.

His new book, The Patch, certainly includes some writing that could fall into that classification. The first essay, for example, also titled “The Patch,” describes fishing for chain pickerel around a specific cluster of lilypads on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, and he interweaves that experience with a retelling of his final visits with his dying father at a hospital bedside.

The book is split into two sections. The first of these, “The Sporting Scene,” collects six pieces on sports and the outdoors. The second section, titled “An Album Quilt,” takes the form of a patchwork quilt, stitching together snippets from an assortment of previously uncollected McPhee pieces.

It’s unclear whether the book’s title, The Patch, comes from that chain pickerel essay from the first section or from the form of the second section. It’s not hard to imagine this titular confusion as manufactured intentionally by McPhee. Another connection? Another juxtaposition?

“In an album quilt, the blocks differ, each from all the others,” McPhee’s introduction to that second section reads. The fragments display great topical variance: we read about Cary Grant, the Hershey Chocolate Factory, puns, the greenness of an Alaskan summer, Saul Bass title sequences, unused covers of Time, the bears of the Moscow State Circus, and McPhee’s first drink of whiskey at age ten.

Most of these subjects don’t exactly reek of Thoreauvian interest. Thus, pigeonholing McPhee as an “environmental writer” misunderstands him, unless the word “environmental” is given its broadest context. He is not merely a writer of nature—trees and fish, rocks and waterfalls, canoes and trails—but a writer of environments, of spaces and of the peoples, cultures, and histories that enliven a particular place.

Asked in the Paris Review whether the “environmental writer” label made him uncomfortable, McPhee responds: “All these labels—I’ve been called an agricultural writer, an outdoor writer, an environmental writer, a sportswriter, a science writer. And so you just grin. I’m a writer who writes about real people in real places. End of story.”

His understanding of the historical, cultural, and political dimensions of a space and its inhabitants—“real people in real places”—is unparalleled. Indeed, there may be no greater writer of place because, in the topopoetics of his nonfiction, he not only demonstrates a keen awareness of the ghosts a locus gathers, but he expresses them in such sublime fashion. His oeuvre—of which “An Album Quilt” is a perfect microcosm—offers us a patchwork topography of our world and its social, intellectual, and geological history.

 

IV. The Excavation Specialist

Perhaps calling John McPhee’s body of work a “patchwork topography” is misleading though, as the word “topography” implies that he merely maps the surface of things. McPhee is as much a digger as he is a surveyor—mining each subject for all of its rich ore, sifting that eternal human truth out of the topical soil.

Looking at McPhee’s bibliography, you’d be forgiven for imagining him as some sort of Renaissance man, the kind of polymath that could only exist in the old world—an expert on seemingly everything: geology, oranges, Alaska, Bill Bradley, birch-bark canoes, Russian art, classic Hollywood actors, shad, earthquakes, the Swiss Army, nuclear energy, and much more.

Of course, he is not an expert on every topic he writes about, but as we read each of his pieces we feel we are watching him in the process of becoming one. His writing allows us to witness the act of learning. As Sam Anderson explains in last year’s profile of McPhee in The New York Times Magazine, “Learning, for him, is a way of loving the world, savoring it, before it’s gone.”

He may not be a specialist in each of the fields he chooses to write on, but he is undeniably an excavation specialist. In other words, he has become an expert on becoming an expert (or at least enough of an expert) to write a thorough deep-dive on any given subject.

Though McPhee has gifted to us the most extensive single-author record of the history and physiography of our world and its culture, naturally, this will change. Time marches on—as McPhee constantly reminds us, our entire lives are but a tiny blip when compared to geological history. New scientific theories and discoveries will make many of his facts outdated, obsolete, quaint. Future writers will retrace his travels, as he once retraced the route Thoreau and his brother navigated in the naturalist’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Then, inevitably, he will be forgotten, as we all will be.

McPhee knows this most of all: “The fact is that everything I’ve written is very soon going to be absolutely nothing—and I mean nothing.” Seas will rise, rivers will stray from their current courses, tectonic plates will shift, and maps will be redrawn if there are indeed humans left to draw them, but one can hope that even when McPhee’s writing goes the way of the tragedies of Phrynichus, McPhee’s foundational lesson will continue to be taught until the last man draws his last breath: that if you excavate deeply enough into any given subject, you will find not only precious gemstones of shimmering ecstatic truth, but a secret system of caverns, tunnels, underground passages that connect each thing to the infinity of others.

 

V. The Complex Weaver

In the opening section of Walden, Henry David Thoreau mentions “a strolling Indian” who “went to sell baskets.” He then writes, “I too had woven a kind of basket of a delicate texture, but I had not made it worth any one’s while to buy them.” This metaphorical basket of which he speaks is his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. It did not sell well. “Instead of studying how to make it worth men’s while to buy my baskets,” he jokes, “I studied rather how to avoid the necessity of selling them.”

This image of Thoreau’s book as a “basket of a delicate texture” is important because it serves as the central metaphor for Linck Johnson’s study, Thoreau’s Complex Weave: The Writing of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and helps us to understand how John McPhee might be connected to Thoreau through a different allegiance—one that needn’t depend on topical likenesses, mutual environmental concerns, and a shared outdoorsiness, but rather the art of digression, of complicated structural patterns, of the “complex weave.”

In his 2003 New Yorker essay, “Paddling after Henry David Thoreau,” McPhee discusses Thoreau’s digressive tendencies:

A two-mile digression is not a rarity in Thoreau. He is, to a fare-thee-well, an author with the courage to digress. In this same reach of the Merrimack, while slicing his midday melons, he mentions that they are “a fruit of the east,” and his thoughts go off, his pencil with them, to “Arabia, Persia, and Hindostan, the lands of contemplation and dwelling-places of the ruminant nations.” He visits a lot of ruminant nations—their faiths, literatures, and philosophies—and returns reliably after a detour of six thousand words.

A few paragraphs later, driving the point home, McPhee offers another example of the digressive Thoreau:

The pitted rocks of Amoskeag Falls inspire in Thoreau five hundred words on the notable potholes of New England, and they in turn lead him to outline his understanding of geomorphology, which somehow leads him into the ramifications of Roman history. The scholar Linck Johnson calls these patterns a “complex weave.”

McPhee describes the structure of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers as both a string of lights and clothesline loaded with clothing—“any linear structure with things hanging on it.” The book has a throughline, a flow like the river itself, but Thoreau is constantly wandering down tributaries before finding his way back to the water’s main current. “Thoreau’s structure,” McPhee claims, “would be almost pure free association were it not for the river reeling him back in. The writing is commentary, editorial, philosophical, homiletic—defying generic assignment.”

McPhee’s writing likewise defies generic assignment and takes on the structure of a complex weave. Each piece takes on a different shape—many of these structures are detailed extensively in Draft No. 4—but they all are in some way complex weaves.

Wyatt Williams, for example, in an essay for the Oxford American, sees hints of the Thoreauvian complex weave in McPhee’s book Oranges:

In one paragraph, ostensibly about the relative orange-ness of an orange, McPhee moves from biological fact to globe-trotting observation to seventeenth-century poetry of the imagined tropics to the top of a snow-covered mountain to a present-day agricultural epicenter, before returning to his original line of inquiry with the lavish description of a single beautiful orange. There is a touch of Thoreau—who likewise could take us from the proper price for a shirt to the complications of the pronoun ‘they’ to our relationship with authority to mummies in Egypt in the span of a paragraph—and, like Thoreau’s, this virtuosic essaying is not noise, but the signal itself. The prose, the actual structure of the paragraph, is telegraphing a message: even the most basic of things, the color of an orange, contains within it the whole world’s complications.

Not only does the world contain everything, but everything contains the world. In McPhee’s 1975 essay “The Pinball Philosopher,” J. Anthony Lukas admits to the writer, “I have thought of analogies between Watergate and pinball. Everything is connected.” A more direct thesis of the work of John McPhee is unlikely to be found—and it is fitting, of course, that McPhee has woven it into his work from the words of another. Everything is connected.

Even when the authorial “I” is entirely or almost entirely absent, McPhee exists as a specter haunting his own work.

VI. The Covert Memoirist

There’s no denying that John McPhee’s two most recent books show a slightly more personal, introspective McPhee. Indeed, the publisher’s promotional materials for The Patch call it “a covert memoir,” a phrase that would be just as apt a description of last year’s Draft No. 4. Reviews of that book claim, “McPhee’s publisher is presenting it as a ‘master class,’ but it’s really a memoir of writing.” Yet neither The Patch nor Draft No. 4 are conventional memoirs, even if they may be as close as McPhee has come to writing one.

In his Paris Review interview, McPhee is asked why he has never written conventional memoir, why he has never really even written much about himself, even though such writing has become a popular nonfictional mode in the years since he first began putting pen to paper. His response is simple: “I never had any interest in writing about myself, or, Lord knows, in inserting myself between the reader and the material. But if the writer belongs in the piece, and needs to be there, he ought to be there.”

I don’t believe him—at least not completely—which isn’t the same as saying I don’t believe that he believes his words. I assume he thinks he never had any interest in writing about himself, but the thirty-three books he’s left us (thus far) and the innumerable pieces besides, show a man admittedly never quite comfortable casting himself in a leading role, but also never quite interested in exiting stage left.

“When you are deciding what to leave out, begin with the author,” McPhee suggests in Draft No. 4. Yet even when the authorial “I” is entirely or almost entirely absent, McPhee exists as a specter haunting his own work. True, he doesn’t insert himself between the reader and the material, but he’s always right where he ought to be, and an observant reader will notice him there, in the offing, giving center stage to a whole dramatis personae of loners and rebels, scientists and adventurers, experts and oddballs, but never entirely out of the picture.

“To be sure,” writes Michiko Kakutani in her review of McPhee’s In Suspect Terrain, “he has never portrayed himself in the flamboyant, intrusive manner so popular today, but instead has kept himself on the margins, using his presence as a tolerant, somewhat bemused visitor to heighten the reader’s own sense of traveling through alien territory.”

Kakutani determines then that “the reader wants more of Mr. McPhee,” but what decades of essays and books have shown us is that secretly McPhee has always been a crucial character in his own work, even in his absence, for he has always explored his own connection to this wide world.

“I wish to make no attempt to speak for all geology or even to sweep in a great many facts that came along,” McPhee writes in Basin and Range. “I want to choose some things that interest me and through them to suggest the general history of the continent by describing events and landscapes that geologists see written in rocks.”

Bit by bit, word by word, piece by piece, he’s sought to make the world more understandable to himself and to his readers—or at least less un-understandable. At the rate of a few thousand words or so each year, the width of his world (and our world) contracts.

 

VII. The Pine Baron

Yet in spite of this apparent contraction through the kernels of comprehension we seize upon in his writing, the world remains as vast—seemingly infinite in its depth and breadth and innumerable variations and vacillations.

There’s a great description from In Suspect Terrain where John McPhee articulates the diamond’s molecular desire to metamorphose into graphite: “They want to be graphite, and with a relatively modest boost of heat graphite is what they would become, if atmospheric oxygen did not incinerate them first. They are, in this sense, unstable—these finger-flashing symbols of the eternity of vows, yearning to become fresh pencil lead.”

Though McPhee’s writing is pregnant with silence, capturing the world in all its beauty with a geological patience, and though he always eschews the truisms and navel-gazes his imitators aren’t as adept at avoiding, there is a soft ache that runs like venae cavae through each of his books—indeed, through the whole of his work. McPhee is the diamond that yearns to become fresh pencil lead. He is, at core, a piner, one who pines.

Woven into his writing is a gnawing sense that something grand, something infinite, some great connective tissue, some veiling gossamer, with each fiber affixing itself to the myriad other fibers, spider-silk threads enveloping and intertwining everything that is and ever was and ever will be, has been lost—and a hope beyond reason that that which has been lost may perpetually have a chance for recovery, if only for a moment.

“In the grand cosmology of John McPhee,” writes Sam Anderson, “all the earth’s facts touch one another—all its regions, creatures, and eras. Its absences and presences. Fish, trucks, atoms, bears, whiskey, grass, rocks, lacrosse, weird prehistoric oysters, grandchildren, and Pangea. Every part of time touches every other part of time.”

McPhee’s found connections and juxtapositions, entanglements and familial resemblances, influences and complications, analogies and reverberations hint at the ever-yearned-for major complex weave of the universe. Our spot as spiders, though not necessarily at the center of the web—for McPhee, unlike some contemporary purveyors of the personal essay and the memoir, is no narcissist—is somewhere among those silk-spun cables, simultaneously the weavers of meaning and the ones for whom this has been woven.

Tyler Malone
Tyler Malone
Tyler Malone is a writer based in Southern California. He is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Scofield as well as a Contributing Editor at Literary Hub. His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Lapham’s Quarterly, the LA Review of Books, and elsewhere.





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