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John McPhee is a literary journalist and acclaimed essayist best known for his tetrology Annals of the Former World (1998), a study of American geology for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999. As a member of the ”New Journalism movement of the 1960s and 70s, McPhee developed a subjective, accessible style with which he writes about diverse topics—from birch-bark canoes to basketball players to the orange industry—with a special emphasis on modern environmental issues. Aside from publishing more than twenty book-length works of non-fiction, McPhee is known for his contributions to The New Yorker magazine, where he has been a staff writer since 1965.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Immersed in Sports and Nature
John McPhee was born March 8, 1931 in Princeton, New Jersey. McPhee’s father, Harry, was a doctor with a specialty in sports medicine who treated Princeton athletes and was a member of the university faculty. As a boy, McPhee spent much of his time biking around campus, hiking in the woods near his home, and attending football and basketball practices with his father. He would later reflect that these aspects of his New England childhood had a profound affect on his writing and in particular his eclectic choices of journalistic subject matter. In an unpublished 1986 interview with Norman Sims, McPhee observed, ”If you make a list of all the work I’ve ever done, and put a little mark beside things that relate to activities and interests I had before I was twenty, you d have a little mark beside well over ninety percent of the pieces of writing.” McPhee’s immersion in sports, for example, led him to his first profiles of basketball star and Rhodes Scholar Bill Bradley, and, later, the world-class tennis players Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner. Also, McPhee’s outdoor activities at Keewayd in—a boys’ camp where his father worked during the summers as a physician developed McPhee’s appreciation for nature and sharpened his skills in the outdoors. He would later use this wilderness knowledge to write such works as Encounters with the Archdruid and ”Swimming with Canoes” (1998).
McPhee attended Princeton High School, where he developed a love of reading and writing and was also active in sports. In high school, McPhee applied to only one college—Princeton University—and was accepted. Because he was barely seventeen, however, his parents sent him to Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts for an additional year of study before he entered college. There he was taught by Helen Boyden in chemistry and Frank Conklin in geology, who would have a profound influence on his later landmark tetrology Annals of the Former World, a geologic survey of the United States. At Deerfield he would also find the subject matter of one of his earliest books: The Headmaster: Frank L. Boyden of Deerfield (1966).
Early Writing and The New Yorker
McPhee entered Princeton with the class of 1953, and spent his sophomore and junior years in the creative-writing program, then headed by noted editor Richard Blackmur. At Princeton McPhee joined the staffs of various publications and eventually became editor of the Princeton Tiger, for which he wrote a column in imitation of The New Yorker’s ”Talk of the Town” column. After graduating from Princeton, McPhee went to Cambridge University for a year of postgraduate study in English, and while there he played basketball and worked as a stringer for Time magazine. Returning to New York, he worked as a freelancer and wrote short stories.
As a young writer in New York, McPhee steadily submitted articles to The New Yorker and eventually took a job at Time magazine, where for seven years he wrote articles about people, art, show business, religion, education, and books. During this time he also wrote short stories that were published in Playboy, Reporter, and the Transatlantic Review.
In 1965, McPhee’s acclaimed article about Bill Bradley, ”A Sense of Where You Are,” appeared in The New Yorker and proved to be a turning point in McPhee’s career. In the same year that the article appeared, Bradley was named an All-American, led his Ivy League team into the Final Four of the NCAA tournament, was designated the most valuable player in the tournament, and was the number-one draft choice of the New York Knicks; Bradley turned down their lucrative offer in favor of a Rhodes Scholarship. McPhee’s article continued to resonate in the public imagination, and he quickly expanded his original article into a book-length study of Bradley. Because of his newfound success, McPhee was offered a coveted staff position at The New Yorker, a post that he has held consistently since 1965.
New Journalism and Environmentalism
McPhee’s position at The New Yorker allowed him to explore many of his early interests, including sports, canoe camp in Vermont, and aviation, along with the subjects, such as geology, that he studied at Deerfield Academy and Princeton University. During the 1960s and 1970s McPhee came to be grouped with ”New Journalists,” who often wrote about offbeat subjects in a straightforward, accessible style. Over the years, McPhee’s journalistic topics have ranged in subject matter from nuclear physics to oranges, from Russian art to Alaskan history, and from birch-bark canoes to parachutes. McPhee also began to distinguish himself as a writer who was particularly attentive to the environmental concerns raised by the scientific community. Though McPhee has stated in interviews that he does not consider himself an ecological activist per se, much of his work focuses on conservation and preservation, the affects of pollution, and man’s relationship to nature.
These concerns also influence the more than twenty book-length works of nonfiction that McPhee has published since 1965. McPhee has published acclaimed regional travelogues, including The Pine Barrens and Coming Into the Country (1977), as well as biographical profiles, including A Sense of Where You Are (1965) and Encounters with an Archdruid (1977), and the Pulitzer Prize-winning tetrology Annals of the Former World. He currently continues to write and teach classes at Princeton University.
Works in Literary Context
Throughout his long career as an author and staff writer for The New Yorker, McPhee was closely associated with the style of ”New Journalism,” through which nonfiction writers sought to fuse a subjective writing style with often offbeat subject matter. Unlike his contemporaries Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, who have focused their nonfiction works on the counterculture of the 1960s, John McPhee wedded the genres of adventure and nature writing to the style of New Journalism, creating accessible pieces that both entertain readers and inform them about environmental issues.
Biographical Profiles of Eccentrics and Idealists
Throughout McPhee’s career, critics have noted that the writer possesses a laudable talent for biographical writing, and that his choice of living subjects are diverse and engaging. In 1965, McPhee launched his publishing career with A Sense of Where You Are: A Profile of William Warren Bradley an early profile of the basketball player who would later lead the New York Knicks to win two NBA championships, be elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1982, become a United States senator from New Jersey, and run for the Democratic nomination for president in 2000. Critic James N. Null has noted that this early work by McPhee established the holistic style that he would develop for his biographical sketches: ”The title of McPhee’s book, A Sense of Where You Are, applies to both Bradley’s play on the court and his life off the court,” he wrote. ”In other words, Bradley has a sense of self, purpose, and direction in life, and this is true of almost all of McPhee’s admirable subjects.” McPhee continued to present acclaimed, well-researched biographical portraits of individuals for The New Yorker. In 1971 he published perhaps his most famous book-length biographical work, Encounters with the Archdruid, a portrait of environmentalist and conservationist David Brower, for which McPhee was nominated for a National Book Award.
In his essay on McPhee in Literary Selves: Autobiography and Contemporary American Nonfiction (1993), Stull notes that, in his writing, ”McPhee may assume … the roles of limited participant, foil to more knowledgeable informants, and translator of arcane material to an intelligent but uninformed audience, but his most critical role is that of witness to his subjects’ performances, which centers almost exclusively around their commitment to a job or calling.”
Several of John McPhee’s most acclaimed works are dedicated to capturing the spirit, landscape, and culture of a particular geographical region: The Pine Barrens (1968), for example, focuses on the interplay between the ecology and human culture of southern New Jersey, while The Crofter and the Laird (1970) describes McPhee’s ancestral homeland of Colonsay, a small island in the Hebrides of Scotland. Similarly, Coming into the Country profiles the wilderness and industries of Alaska. In all of these works, McPhee fuses descriptions of the region’s landscape with its past and present cultural history, as well as vivid descriptions of the modern mode of life of its current residents. McPhee combines interviews with residents with his own firsthand experiences of the region to extensive research of the area’s history and politics. As with most of his writing, these pieces pay particular attention to man’s relationship with nature.
Works in Critical Context
Using his talent for narrative and vivid characterizations, John McPhee is often regarded as the journalistic liaison between the research specialist and the lay reader. As Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times has written, McPhee uses his ”pleasantly flexible technique” to both entertain and enlighten readers. In the January 1978 issue of the Atlantic Monthly critic Benjamin DeMott commented that ”John McPhee … has become the name of a standard by which ambitious magazine journalism is now judged.”
Encounters with the Archdruid
In 1971 McPhee published Encounters with the Archdruid, a biographical profile of environmentalist David Brower that would earn McPhee a nomination for the National Book Award. The book was praised primarily for its innovative narrative structure, which portrayed Brower through his encounters with three other people. McPhee arranged three wilderness journeys with Brower and his ”natural enemies”—in Glacier Peak Wilderness of Washington State he traveled with Charles Park, a geologist and mineral engineer, ”who believes that if copper were found under the White House, the White House should be moved”; on Cumberland Island, off the coast of Georgia, with Charles Fraser, a land developer who despite his own interest in the land regards preservationists like Brower as druids, ”religious figures who sacrifice people and worship trees”; and in Grand Canyon National Park, with Floyd Elgin Dominy, United States Commissioner of Reclamation, who openly admitted that he cannot stand the sound of open water. Throughout the book McPhee balances the principles presented by both Brower and his detractors, causing critic Mark C. Long to remark that ”McPhee is less interested in the truth of Brower’s position than in situating him in the ongoing cultural debates over the use of natural resources, development, and the damming of rivers.”
Coming into the Country
McPhee’s book about his Alaskan experience, Coming into the Country, is among his most popular works. Ronald Weber, an American Studies professor who specializes in literary journalism, wrote that ”the book’s roots lie not so much in the effort to emulate the novel as in the attempt to extend the range of journalism while remaining within journalistic forms.” Coming into the Country sealed McPhee’s reputation as one of the best nature and cultural writers in America. Writing in the New York Times in November 1977, John Leonard said the book left him enchanted, dreaming of seal oil, caribou, the Yukon River, and grizzly bears. Edward Hoagland in the New York Times Book Review called Coming into the Country a masterpiece. He said McPhee must have been looking for a ”big, long, permanent book, written while he was still in the midst of life and could go after it, because in peripatetic journalism such as McPhee’s there is an adventurous, fortuitous element: where the writer gets himself and what he stumbles on.”
Annals of the Former World
During the 1980s and the 1990s McPhee worked on a series of books that in 1998 were collected together under the title Annals of the Former World. Annals of the Former World compiled four previously published books: Basin and Range (1981), In Suspect Terrain (1983), Rising from the Plains (1986), and Assembling California (1993) with a fifth and final section, Crossing the Craton. The omnibus comprises a geological cross section of North America at about the Fortieth Parallel. Each book, built around an account of travels in the field with a geologist, sketches an overall picture of the science of geology. These collected works are often considered McPhee’s masterpiece. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Annals ofthe Former World in 1999.
The collection has been praised both for its factual richness and its accessible style. Annals ofthe Former World begins with McPhee taking a ”deceptively simple” road trip across the United States, observed Los Angeles Times critic Carolyn See. The author is accompanied by an accomplished geologist who points out the vast history of various western rock formations, and the ”ideas do tumble out,” according to Rachel Lehmann-Haupt in a New York Times article. Among the theories discussed in the collection is one that suggests that moving plates of the Earth will eventually cause one section of the west coast of America to shear off into the Pacific, making part of California an island, as Evan Connell explained in a Washington Post Book World review. McPhee covers these theories with ease. ”His tone is affable, his meandering appropriate,” noted Connell. According to T.H. Watkins of the Washington Post Book World, McPhee’s Annals of the Former World-forms a ”four-volume literary pilgrimage” through both the remote and urban roots of America. McPhee’s writing about the field of geology led writer Wallace Stegner to describe McPhee in a Los Angeles Times Book Review article as ”our best and liveliest writer about the earth and the earth sciences.”
- Colley, John, ed. Earthly Words: Essays on Contemporary American Nature and Environmental Writers. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 1994.
- Elder, John, ed. American Nature Writers, vol. 1. New York: Scribners, 1996.
- Kowalewski, Michael, ed. Temperamental Journeys: Essays on the Modern Literature of Travel. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1992.
- Lounsberry, Barbara. The Art of Fact: Contemporary Artists of Nonfiction. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1990.
- Pearson, Michael. John McPhee. New York: Twayne, 1997.
- Beem, Edgar Allen. ”John McPhee on Maine: Conversation with the Archjournalist.” Maine Times (November 1, 1985): 14-16.
- Connell, Evan. Review of Basin and Range. Washington Post Book World (April 19, 1981): p. 4.
- Hamilton, Joan. ”An Encounter with John McPhee.” Sierra (May/June 1990): 50-55, 92, 96.
- Haynes, Jared. ”The Size and Shape of the Canvas: An Interview with John McPhee.” Writing on the Edge (Spring 1994): 109-25.
- –. ”The Size and Shape of the Canvas: An Interview with John McPhee (Part 2).” Writing on the Edge (Fall 1994): 108-25.
- Pearson, Michael. ”Twenty Questions: A Conversation with John McPhee.” Creative Nonfiction (Fall 1993): 76-87.
- See, Carolyn. Review of Basin and Range. Los Angeles Times (April 27, 1981): p. 8.
- Stegner, Wallace. Review of In Suspect Terrain. Los Angeles Times Book Review (February 27, 1983): 1.
- Watkins, T.H. Review of Assembling California. Washington Post Book World (March 12, 1995) p. 5.
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