Friday, September 29, 2017

The Great John McPhee

Who do I recommend as I writer?

I always recommend John McPhee. Same recommendation for 40 years.

The New York Times Magazine has a profile of Mr. McPhee which hints at why:

McPhee has built a career on such small detonations of knowledge. His mind is pure curiosity: It aspires to flow into every last corner of the world, especially the places most of us overlook. Literature has always sought transcendence in purportedly trivial subjects — “a world in a grain of sand,” as Blake put it — but few have ever pushed the impulse further than McPhee. He once wrote an entire book about oranges, called, simply, “Oranges” — the literary cousin of Duchamp’s urinal mounted in an art museum. In 1999, McPhee won a Pulitzer Prize for his 700-page geology collection, “Annals of the Former World,” which explains for the general reader how all of North America came to exist. (“At any location on earth, as the rock record goes down into time and out into earlier geographies it touches upon tens of hundreds of stories, wherein the face of the earth often changed, changed utterly, and changed again, like the face of a crackling fire.”) He has now published 30 books, all of which are still in print — a series of idiosyncratic tributes to the world that, in aggregate, form a world unto themselves.

McPhee is a structuralist as all good writers are, in my opinion.

Much of the struggle, for McPhee, has to do with structure. “Structure has preoccupied me in every project,” he writes, which is as true as saying that Ahab, on his nautical adventures, was preoccupied by a certain whale. McPhee is obsessed with structure. He sweats and frets over the arrangement of a composition before he can begin writing. He seems to pour a whole novel’s worth of creative energy just into settling which bits will follow which other bits.

The payoff of that labor is enormous. Structure, in McPhee’s writing, carries as much meaning as the words themselves. What a more ordinary writer might say directly, McPhee will express through the white space between chapters or an odd juxtaposition of sentences. It is like Morse code: a message communicated by gaps.

I have a fair number of books in my study
, but one shelf is reserved for the greats: Hemingway's Green Hills of Africa, several works by Faulkner, Eugene O'Neill's best plays, several books of lesser quality that were deeply influential to me from my childhood (Swiss Family Robinson) to my young adulthood (Black Like Me). And there is a section for the best of McPhee: Encounters with the Archdruid, The Curve of Binding Energy, Pieces of the Frame.  I have not yet read Draft No. 4. I clearly need to.


Lucas Machias said...


I have read a lot of McPhee and he is good. Not many can write well on geology. I wish he would do a book on deer hunting.

Rick said...

I first encountered McPhee when a friend gave me the articles he wrote for the New Yorker which became "Looking For A Ship." In it, he wrote about a seaman working aboard a ship similar to one I had worked on 20 years previous. And when I say similar, it was a ship from the same company, Lykes Brothers, and a route I had been on too, the West Coast of South America. To say I was hooked on his writing would be an understatement. Since then I have read most of his books, and look forward to the rest of them.

A few years ago I ran across a photo of the ship he had sailed on during his research, the SS Stella Lykes (all Lykes Bros ships were named after members of the Lykes family) I wrote him through his publisher, and sent a photo of the ship. He responded a few months later, with a handwritten note, and told me a personal story. He had been on a fishing trip and was in a canoe, fly fishing with the real life Stella Lykes. He said he was probably the only person on earth who had sailed on, and sailed with, Stella Lykes!

Unknown said...

McPhee is a wonderful writer. He wrote Coming Into The Country in the 1970s during the struggle over the Alaska Lands Act. I read it when I first came to Alaska as a student intern in 1981, and it reinforced the fascination I had come to feel for the state. I moved back here for good in 1984.
John McConnaughy
Aniak, Alaska