John McPhee

February 12-13, 2007


John McPhee

Widely considered a pioneer of literary nonfiction, John McPhee contributed to the establishment of "new journalism" in the 1960's, which revolutionized traditional nonfiction writing by incorporating techniques from fiction. The author of twenty-nine books, McPhee has most recently published Uncommon Carriers (2006), a sketchbook of the freight transportation industry, The Founding Fish (2002), and Annals of the Former World (1998), a tetralogy on geography which won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize. Both his Encounters with the Archdruid (1972) and The Curve of Binding Energy (1974) were nominated for National Book Awards and in 1977 McPhee was the recipient of the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He has contributed to the New Yorker for more than forty years and has taught nonfiction writing at Princeton University since 1975.

Having written his way inside the world of art museums, environmental groups, fruit markets, airship factories, basketball courts, the Alaskan wilderness, and atomic-bomb labs, McPhee cultivates his ability to enlarge readersí understanding of the strange, making it familiar. In The New York Review of Books, Stephen Jay Gould wrote that McPhee ìtriumphs by succinct prose, by his uncanny ability to capture the essence of a complex issue, or an arcane trade secret, in a well-turned phrase."

Introduction by Ben Crair

It is with some embarrassment as an aspiring journalist that I must admit that I had not read any of John McPhee's writing before I heard last semester that he would be a Writers House Fellow. After the announcement, I walked to a nearby used bookstore and found a copy of Mr. McPhee's collection, Pieces of the Frame, which contained three essays on Scotland.

It had not yet been a year since I had returned from a semester abroad in Edinburgh, so I was particularly interested in these essays. The title piece was about Loch Ness, a lake in whose depths I had sought the elusive monster but caught only my own reflection. In this essay, Mr. McPhee also mentions how, as a youth, he had canoed at Lake George, a popular summer resort for people from my hometown in upstate New York This was enough to excite my overeager imagination, which liberally withdrew from these geographical coincidences a reassurance that my life was similar to Mr. McPhee's and might continue to be so. This was admittedly a juvenile comparison, but one that I could not occasionally resist repeating as I read more McPhee. One of the consequences of my semester abroad was a new dissatisfaction with my own voice. It seemed to me one of life's great tragedies that I did not speak with a natural Scottish accent. Sometimes, on companionless walks home from class, I would refine my brogue by muttering obvious sentiments about the weather into the raised hood of my jacket. My accent, as you hear it now, is as derivative of upstate New York as it is of most other American suburbs and in contrast to my Scottish friends it seemed tawdry and bland.

So it was comforting to read Coming into the Country and discover Mr. McPhee admitting a similar displeasure with the sound of his own voice: conversing with a man named Michael John David, he writes, "His voice is soft too - fluid and melodic, like nearly all the voices in the Village. The contrast with my own is embarrassing. No matter how I try to modulate it, to experiment with his example, my voice in dialogue with Michael's sounds to me strident, edgy, and harsh."

I was encouraged by this passage, not just because I learned that Mr. McPhee shared my insecurity, but also because his writing suggests a way of overcoming it. I might be stuck with my flavorless suburban accent but on the written page, the boundaries that divide my voice from the voices of others become permeable. John McPhee has been penetrating these boundaries now for forty years. By folding the unique vernaculars of his subjects in with his own writing he creates pieces that are not just sequences of his own observations but also treatises between outsider and insider, writer and subject.

It is common for Mr. McPhee, whether he be writing about truckers, geologists, Alaskans, cattle ranchers, or train conductors, to not only translate his subjects' unique voices but also to try them on for himself. After defining an idiom, Mr. McPhee might use it again pages later, unquoted, as if it were a particle of his ordinary vocabulary.

After four weeks of intense study and debate, my fellow seminarians and I have concluded that John McPhee's value as a writer is not only journalistic, but also linguistic and anthropologic. Mr. McPhee preserves the languages and the legacies of increasingly rare kinds of people. In the essay "Coal Train" he records the words and habits of two coal train workers, whose jobs are threatened by complete mechanization; in The Pine Barrens, we find listed the local mythologies of men like Fred Brown, whose forested home seems doomed for development; Heirs of General Practice touts the value of family practitioners, a marginalized minority in the increasingly compartmentalized medical field; "Out in the Sort" surveys the automated dystopia of the UPS headquarters, where "de-skilled" laborers cannot find their way around. Most dramatically, in Coming into the Country, he meets the Gelvins, a father and son mining team destroying an Alaskan stream in search of gold. "Am I disgusted?" Mr. McPhee asks. "Manifestly not. I am too warmly, too subjectively caught up in what the Gelvins are doingÖthe relationship between this father and son is as attractive as anything I have seen in Alaska." He then meditates on the conflict between preservationists and developers, and concludes that "I am closer to the preserving side - that is, the side that would preserve the Gelvins."

I imagine that men like the Gelvins are harder to find today than they were when Mr. McPhee wrote those words thirty years ago. If this is the case, we cannot claim ignorance of what we have lost because John McPhee reminds us. He has preserved not only their names but also the technical minutia of their daily routines and the nuances of their speech. Each of Mr. McPhee's texts is a material realization of his subjects' quiet voices, and in recording them he has solidified the importance of his own.

It is only right, given the themes of this introduction, that I acknowledge its content not as my own but rather a shared conclusion that I have reached over the past four weeks with my classmates. I invite them to join me in thanking Mr. McPhee for showing us that it is not the sounds of our own voices that distinguish us as writers, but rather the acuteness and patience with which we listen to the voices of others. In listening to him now, I hope you can hear not just the voice of a single man, but also the chorus of his subjects, whose words are continually renewed through his writing.

It is my honor to welcome with you the first Writers House Fellow of 2007, John McPhee.

Essay about McPhee's visit by Anna Levett

In the weeks leading up to John McPhee's visit, our Fellows class had been searching for a link that would connect all of the prolific writer's varied works. Yes, he was interested in geology, he seemed to like camping, and he tended to be drawn to people who lived outside mainstream society... but was there something else?

Two weeks before his arrival, Al suggested that the uniting element in McPhee was an interest in language. We were skeptical at first - as McPhee is notorious for his distrust of what he considers academia's relentless quest for higher meanings that often, in his opinion, just aren't there.

But Al followed up his hypothesis with evidence from that week's book - the collection of essays, Irons in the Fire. He pointed to the first essay, in which McPhee goes to Nevada to follow around a brand inspector and learn about cattle rustling. The pages are marked with the replications of various brands, below which McPhee writes briefly about their significance. "It's a busy brand that might tend to blotch," he might say of one, or, "Brands are like fish in river - visible to the accomplished eye." It is as if McPhee is translating into modern English some hieroglyphs found on the wall of an ancient cave.

Upon examination, other essays in Irons in the Fire also revealed an overwhelming interest in language. In "Rinard at Manheim," McPhee literally transcribes the voice of a dealer at an exotic car show, turning the piece into a kind of dramatic monologue and leaving out his own voice except for, essentially, stage directions. In "The Gravel Page" (its title revealing), McPhee follows a forensic geologist on a murder case, decoding for us what the scientist read in rocks and pebbles into a crime story. Throughout the book, McPhee interprets the vernacular of his subject into a language we can attempt to understand.

Mara Gordon went into reading the next week's book, Uncommon Carriers, with the goal of answering this question of McPhee and language. She decided, in the end, that Al was right. She wrote:

"The whole collection of essays reads like a dictionary of sorts, and once I started looking for them I saw definitions everywhere. Bears are cops, CTSBT is a train, getting set means your boat is moving sideways with the current. McPhee writes about a wide variety of people, and the way he shows them to us is through their own words. "The sun never sets on the languages spoken by American truck drivers," McPhee writes about his trip with Don Ainsworth. McPhee has learned to speak these new languages on his journey with these uncommon carriers, so he uses those languages to prove to us he knows his stuff."

The evidence for McPhee's preoccupation with language was mounting. However, we were nervous about presenting our theory to him, knowing his wariness of English classes and their allegedly trivial pursuits.

As predicted, when we posed our theory to McPhee, he at first shot us down. He teased Al for being too professorial, and he assured us that his interest lay in people, not language.

However, as we worked hard to convince him, McPhee began to come around. Perhaps the most climactic moment came when Jeff Greenwald was about to read a passage from Annals of the Former World, McPhee's leviathan treatise on geology -- a passage that Jeff considered to be proof of McPhee's interest in language. But before Jeff could begin reading, McPhee stole his thunder.

He jumped up from his chair, walked across the seminar circle and took the book from Jeff's hands. "I already know what passage you're talking about," he said to us, turning to the page and beginning to read:

"I used to sit in class and listen to the terms come floating down the room like paper airplanes. Geology was called a descriptive science, and with its pitted outwash plains and drowned rivers, its hanging tributaries and starved coastlines, it was nothing if not descriptive. It was a fountain of metaphor -- of isostatic adjustments and degraded channels, of angular unconformities and shifting divides, of rootless mountains and bitter lakes -- There seemed, indeed, to be more than a little of the humanities in this subject. Geologists communicated in English; and they could name things in a manner that sent shivers through the bones" (31, Annals of a Former World).

It seemed to us that if this passage did not reveal an interest, indeed a delight, in language, then nothing in the world could make sense anymore. And though McPhee never fully conceded our hypothesis, he did acknowledge our point. As Al said, "He insisted that this wasn't conscious or intended, but that it made sense."

Perhaps it's arrogant to say this, but I want to believe that in this way, McPhee also learned from us. Perhaps this is a way that his visit became an exchange, rather than a lecture.

Ben Crair, in his introduction to the reading on Monday night, acknowledged the conclusion we had reached on John McPhee's writing:

"It is only right, given the themes of this introduction, that I acknowledge its content not as my own but rather a shared conclusion that I have reached over the past four weeks with my classmates. I invite them to join me in thanking Mr. McPhee for showing us that it is not the sounds of our own voices that distinguish us as writers, but rather the acuteness and patience with which we listen to the voices of others."