McPhee, John (Angus) 1931-
McPHEE, John (Angus) 1931-
PERSONAL: Born March 8, 1931, in Princeton, NJ; son of Harry Roemer (a physician for Princeton University athletes) and Mary (Ziegler) McPhee; married Pryde Brown, March 16, 1957 (marriage ended); married Yolanda Whitman (a horticulturist), March 8, 1972; children: (first marriage) Laura, Sarah, Jenny, Martha; (stepchildren) Cole, Andrew, Katherine, Vanessa Harrop. Education: Princeton University, A.B., 1953; graduate study at Cambridge University, 1953-54.
CAREER: Author. Playwright for "Robert Montgomery Presents" television show, 1955-57; Time magazine, New York, NY, associate editor, 1957-64; New Yorker magazine, New York, NY, staff writer, 1964—; Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, Ferris Professor of Journalism, 1975—.
MEMBER: Geological Society of America (fellow).
AWARDS, HONORS: Award in Literature, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1977; American Association of Petroleum Geologists Journalism Award, 1982, 1986; Woodrow Wilson Award, Princeton University, 1982; John Wesley Powell Award, United States Geological Survey, 1988; John Burroughs Medal, 1990; Walton Sullivan Award, American Geophysical Union, 1993; Litt.D., Bates College, 1978, Colby College, 1978, Williams College, 1979, University of Alaska, 1980, College of William and Mary, 1988, and Sc.D. Rutgers University, 1988, and Maine Maritime Academy, 1992; Pulitzer Prize, Nonfiction, 1999, for Annals of the Former World.
A Sense of Where You Are: A Profile of William Warren Bradley, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, (New York, NY), 1965.
The Headmaster: Frank L. Boyden of Deerfield, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York, NY), 1966.
Oranges, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, (New York, NY), 1967.
The Pine Barrens, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York, NY), 1968.
A Roomful of Hovings and Other Profiles (collection), Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York, NY), 1969.
The Crofter and the Laird, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York, NY), 1969.
Levels of the Game, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York, NY), 1970.
Encounters with the Archdruid (also see below), Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York, NY), 1972.
Wimbledon: A Celebration, photographs by Alfred Eisenstaedt, Viking (New York City), 1972.
The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York, NY), 1973.
The Curve of Binding Energy, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York, NY), 1974.
Pieces of the Frame (collection), Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York, NY), 1975.
The Survival of the Bark Canoe, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York, NY), 1975.
The John McPhee Reader, edited by William Howarth, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York, NY), 1977, revised edition published as The Second John McPhee Reader, edited by David Remnick and Patricia Strachan, 1996.
Coming into the Country, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York, NY), 1977.
Giving Good Weight (collection), Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York, NY), 1979.
(With Rowell Galen) Alaska: Images of the Country, Sierra (California), 1981.
Basin and Range (also see below), Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York, NY), 1981.
In Suspect Terrain (also see below), Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York, NY), 1983.
Heirs of General Practice, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York, NY), 1984.
Annals of the Former World (contains Basin and Range and In Suspect Terrain), two volumes, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York, NY), 1984.
La Place de la Concorde Suisse, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York, NY), 1984.
Table of Contents (collection), Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York, NY), 1985.
Rising from the Plains (also see below), Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York, NY), 1986.
Outcroppings (includes portions of Encounters with the Archdruid, Basin and Range, and Rising from the Plains), photographs by Tom Till, Peregrine Smith (Layton, UT), 1988.
The Control of Nature, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York, NY), 1989.
Looking for a Ship, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York, NY), 1990.
Assembling California, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York, NY), 1993.
The Ransom of Russian Art, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York, NY), 1994.
Irons in the Fire, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York, NY), 1997.
(Editor, with Carol Rigolot) The Princeton Anthology of Writing: Favorite Pieces by the Ferris/McGraw Writers at Princeton University, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 2001.
The Founding Fish, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York, NY), 2002.
SIDELIGHTS: John McPhee is an acclaimed journalist and writer of nonfiction works covering an incredible variety of topics. "Whatever his subject matter, McPhee finds a way to make it interesting and artistic," asserted Norman Sims in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Sims further declared that "his beautifully articulated structures, clear prose, and participatory voice have become a model for other literary journalists.... [His] work thrives on narrative and characterization.... [He] proves the value of what is often considered ordinary life, using writing techniques and a style that are far from ordinary."
Many critics agree that the appeal of McPhee's nonfiction books, mostly collections of his New Yorker articles, lies in their offbeat subject matter. "Sometimes it seems that McPhee deliberately chooses unpromising subjects, just to show what he can do with them," remarked New Republic reviewer Richard Horwich. Sims called McPhee's range of subjects "unprecedented" in its variety and noted that it includes "basketball and tennis, art and airplanes, the New Jersey Pine Barrens and the wilderness of Alaska, atomic energy and birchbark canoes, oranges and farmers, the Swiss Army and United States Army Corps of Engineers, and the control of nature and the scientific revolution in plate tectonics that created modern geology."
One of the author's early books, Oranges, illustrates Horwich's point. The volume delves into the history, growth cycles, and manufacture of that one citrus fruit. Another work, The Survival of the Bark Canoe, is "the best book on bark canoes," according to a Time critic, who added, "It is part shop manual, part history, and part unforgettable-character sketch." The book introduces canoemaker Henri Vaillencourt, and "by the time we enter [Vaillencourt's] obsession, we are drawn irresistibly to the tapering of thwarts, the laminating of stempieces, the goring of bark," said Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times.
McPhee is regarded by many as a gifted liaison between the specialist and the lay reader. He shows a "pleasantly flexible technique, well-mannered and accommodating," as Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times Book Review explained it. "Elegant without being elaborate, casual but never flippant, the prose always serves the material at hand, and combined with an obsession for detail . . . it enables [the author] to translate for the layman the mysteries that preoccupy professionals, be they athletes or engineers. He can reveal character in the description of a basketball toss, discover literary metaphors in the movement of sub-atomic particles," wrote Kakutani.
Many critics believe one of McPhee's strongest works is Coming into the Country, in which the author presents an insider's view of one of America's last frontiers—Alaska. The volume consists of "three lengthy bulletins" about Alaska, according to Time critic Paul Gray. The first concerns "a canoe trip that McPhee and four companions took down an unspoiled river in the northwestern reaches of the state, well above the Arctic Circle. [In the] second, McPhee tells of a helicopter ride with a committee looking for a site on which to build a new state capital. The last and longest section covers some wintry months spent in Eagle, a tiny settlement on the Yukon river."
Edward Hoagland, who characterized McPhee as no "risk-taker" in his early books, declared in a New York Times Book Review of Coming into the Country that "he made his will, took the gambit; and in so doing, he introduced a new generosity of tempo to his work, a leisurely artfulness of organization he has not had before." Hoagland further noted that his "main objection to [McPhee's] other books has been that he was too aloof with the reader about himself—almost neurotically so—and not aloof enough about some of the subjects of his pieces, over-admiring them, taking them just at their word."
While Atlantic critic Benjamin DeMott enjoyed the author's self-portrait of "his own embarrassments as a city man ravished by the woods but still dependent upon comforts," he saw a greater merit in Coming into the Country: "Not the least achievement of [the book] is that, in eschewing formulas, it manages simultaneously to represent fairly the positions of the parties in conflict—developers, conservationists, renegade individualists—and to show forth the implications, for human society, of the loss of the ground on which the dream of 'lighting out for The Territory' has immemorially been based." What the reader gains from this work, concluded DeMott, is a sense that "what is really in view in Coming into the Country is a matter not usually met in works of reportage—nothing less than the nature of the human condition."
McPhee has also produced several books on American geology, including Basin and Range, and In Suspect Terrain. Basin and Range begins with McPhee taking "a deceptively simple cross-country trip: Interstate 80," said 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—ideas about how ranges and basins were formed, about how silver got deposited in those Nevada bonanzas and how the Great Salt Lakes came to be both salty and great," according to Lehmann-Haupt in another New York Times article.
"The descriptions of geologists at work are sympathetic and convincing," wrote C. Vita-Finzi in the Times Literary Supplement. "The digressions into the language and jargon of the subject should prove chastening to its practitioners." Among the theories discussed in Basin and Range is one suggesting that moving segments of the earth, both on land and in the oceans, will eventually cause the west coast of America to break off into the Pacific, making California an island, as Evan Connell explained in a Washington Post Book World review. "Metaphorically, of course, many people believe this already has happened." McPhee, Connell continued, "discusses such matters easily. His tone is affable, his meandering appropriate, and the tutorial intent of Basin and Range is commendable—for surely nobody could measure the width or depth of our ignorance."
In Suspect Terrain "takes its title from the geologists' phrase for country whose history, as recorded in the rocks, is ambiguous or obscure," Wallace Stegner wrote in a Los Angeles Times Book Review piece. McPhee's follow-up to Basin and Range explores the geological relationships in urban areas, including a study of the geology of Brooklyn. "A travelogue across country and through time, [In Suspect Terrain]isa most instructive book," found Stegner. And while Kakutani of the New York Times Book Review felt that "the presence of a shaping, interpretive sensibility . . . 'would have infused [the book with] a measure of welcome warmth," Detroit News reviewer Lisa Schwarzbaum maintained that the author's "expertise brings us great chunks of information and explication about subjects not always immediately accessible or even fascinating, in a way that makes them both."
According to T. H. Watkins of the Washington Post Book World, McPhee's Basin and Range, In Suspect Terrain, Rising from the Plains, and Assembling California form a "four-volume literary pilgrimage" in which each book is "an exploration of theories, evidences and effects of plate tectonics—[a] science that holds that the surface of the earth is made up of crustal plates that are in constant motion." McPhee's mentor in Assembling California, Eldridge Moores, is a world-class tectonicist who "makes an imaginative and articulate guide as McPhee takes a look at California as the definitive expression of plate tectonics." Watkins referred to the book as "vintage McPhee, swift, lucid, authoritative stuff produced with a reporter's sure eye and a writer's love of language."
A chance encounter on a train with Norton Dodge led McPhee to write about the economics professor's unusual art collection. The Ransom of Russian Art relates how Dodge came to own 9,000 pieces of art by 600 dissident Soviet artists, describes the Soviet persecution of artists from the mid-1950s to the end of the Communist era, and profiles painter Evgeny Rukhin and other artists. The book includes illustrations of many of the pieces of art. "Unfortunately, Mr. McPhee never alights on any one artist or idea for very long," commented Harlow Robinson in the New York Times Book Review. "There is a jumpy, almost unfinished quality to the writing here, as though the author could not quite find the key either to Mr. Dodge or to the nonconformist art scene." "McPhee adopts what for him is an unusual stance as an investigative reporter," noted Sims, as he grills Dodge on his association with the CIA, asks about his smuggling activities, and questions where a college professor obtained the millions of dollars required for this enterprise.
From deciphering technological jargon to exploring the surface and depths of the earth, McPhee continues to elucidate his fascination and concern for the environment in The Control of Nature, a work comprised of three examples of the battles humans wage against the forces of nature. "What makes such complex, inherently dry subjects fascinating is McPhee himself," reported Chicago Tribune critic Kerry Luft. "A tireless researcher, he piles fact upon simile and explains the most intricate detail with metaphor." From a "tragic" Louisiana situation in which attempts are made to divert the Mississippi River, to the "comic opera" of attempts to save an Icelandic town from destruction by a flow of lava, "the narrative emulates the rhythms of the natural flows it describes, each time encountering another monument to human assertion or absurdity," remarked New York Times Book Review critic Stephen Pyne. "There is no single persona to represent either side. Almost everyone is implicated, and nearly everything is diffused." Pyne concluded that The Control of Nature "is a fascinating, if sometimes disjointed, report from three revealing battlefields in humanity's global war against nature."
McPhee may have won widespread acclaim for his nonfiction, but in a New York Times Book Review interview with Stephen Singular, he reveals that his early career interests included a variety of genres. "I wrote poems in college—rank imitations of Pope, Yeats, Housman, Eliot. My senior year I wrote a novel....After college, I sat all day in a captain's chair up on 84th Street trying to write plays for live television." Discussing the inspiration for his articles, McPhee notes that "most of them originate when they strike an echo from my earlier experience, like The Survival of the Bark Canoe. When I was quite young, my father took me to a summer camp [where] our canoe trips were a big thing, and I dearly loved them. What you hope is that some subject will interest you and then you will have to deal with it on its own terms."
As for the criticism that his work does not include enough personal material, the author calls the charge "pointless. I'm not going to go out and write Remembrance of Things Past. You can't be all things. There are limitations everywhere you look . . . fundamentally, I'm a working journalist and I've got to go out and work." When questioned during a Los Angeles Times interview on the absence of moral judgments in his works, McPhee responded, "I want the judgments to be performed by the reader. There are some people who think that one ought to be more forceful in one's judgments and have an ax to grind. I don't want to grind axes in my writing. But I want to have plenty of axes out there for others to do their own grinding on."
In contrast, a critic for Kirkus Reviews noted a shift toward a more personal perspective in McPhee's The Founding Fish. The critic praised McPhee for first allowing the reader to see things from the fish's perspective, and then from McPhee's, "which is a surprise and a pleasure in a writer known more for his shadowy presence than for stepping into the spotlight." This book's subject matter is the Alosa sapidissima, commonly known as the American shad and one of the most primitive of all fish. These fish leave the ocean in hundreds of thousands each year to make their long, arduous journey up river to spawn. McPhee, a long-time angler of the fish (its name means "most savory") traces its history, its place in nature and—of all things—its place in American history: George Washington fed them to his starving soldiers at Valley Forge, and fished them commercially, catching 7,760 in 1771. The fish made a cameo appearance in the life of Henry David Thoreau, played a role in the murder of Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth, and, wrote a reviewer of the book for Publishers Weekly, "waylaid Confederate General Pickett in the defense of Richmond and hastened the end of the Civil War."
Donna Seaman wrote in Booklist, "McPhee is in great form here, as informative as always but also funny, unusually self-revealing, and quite passionate in his discussions of the dire effects dams have had on shad and rivers alike." The Kirkus Reviews critic commented, "There isn't a dry patch in this story of a fish and its homewaters," and Bruce Tierney commented for BookPage, "It is to McPhee's credit that he can take such an arcane topic and make it interesting, even compelling, to the casual reader. He provides sufficient data to suit the scientists among his readers, while writing an easy conversational style."
Sims concluded, "McPhee's books and articles are regularly included as classics in anthologies of literary journalism. His structural innovation, spare and eloquent style of writing, understated voice, and ability to take on complex subjects and make sense of them for an uninitiated audience have ensured his position in the canon of the genre he has helped to establish."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Anderson, Chris, editor, Literary Nonfiction: Theory,Criticism, Pedagogy, Southern Illinois University Press (Carbondale, IL), 1989, p. 70.
Anderson, Chris, Style As Argument: ContemporaryAmerican Nonfiction, Southern Illinois University Press (Carbondale, IL), 1987.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 36, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1986.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 185: American Literary Journalists, 1945-1995, First Series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1997.
Pearson, Michael, John McPhee, Twayne (New York, NY), 1997.
Sims, Norman, and Mark Kramer, editors, LiteraryJournalism, Ballantine (New York, NY), 1995, pp. 3-19.
Sims, Norman, editor, The Literary Journalists, Ballantine (New York, NY), 1984, pp. 3-25.
Sims, Norman, editor, Literary Journalism in theTwentieth Century, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1990, pp. 191-205, 206-227.
Weber, Ronald, editor, The Literature of Fact: LiteraryNonfiction in American Writing, Ohio University Press (Athens, OH), 1980.
Atlantic, January, 1978.
Booklist, October 1, 1994, p. 186; September 1, 2002, Donna Seaman, review of The Founding Fish,p. 3.
Bulletin of Bibliography, January, 1981, pp. 45-51.
Chicago Tribune, April 19, 1984; August 27, 1989.
Chicago Tribune Book World, January 6, 1980; August 27, 1989, p. 7; September 16, 1990.
Creative Nonfiction, number 1, 1993, pp. 76-87.
Detroit News, July 12, 1981; March 13, 1983; May 13, 1984.
Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 1994, p. 1195; August 15, 2002, review of The Founding Fish, p. 1200.
Los Angeles Times, April 27, 1981; August 6, 1989.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 27, 1983; November 9, 1986; July 30, 1989; August 26, 1990.
Maine Times, November 1, 1985, pp. 14-16.
Nation, January 14, 1978.
New Republic, July 11, 1970; September 1, 1973; July 5, 1975; January 7, 1978.
New York Review of Books, March 23, 1978; May 14, 1981; March 2, 1995, pp. 10-13.
New York Times, March 8, 1967; November 2, 1969; July 13, 1973; July 9, 1974; June 18, 1975; November 27, 1975; January 11, 1976, section 11, pp. 20-21; November 25, 1977, section 1, p. 23; November 17, 1979; May 8, 1981; January 24, 1983; April 30, 1984; September 27, 1985.
New York Times Book Review, June 23, 1974; June 22, 1975; November 27, 1977, pp. 1, 48-51; November 18, 1979, pp. 3, 45; May 17, 1981; January 30, 1983; May 6, 1984; October 13, 1985; August 6, 1989, p. 1; December 18, 1994, p. 24.
Publishers Weekly, January 3, 1977, pp. 12-13; July 23, 2001, review of The Princeton Anthology of Writing, p. 66; August 26, 2002, review of The Founding Fish, p. 57.
Saturday Review, January 22, 1977; April, 1981.
Sewanee Review, fall, 1988, pp. 633-644.
Sierra, October, 1978, pp. 61-63; May-June, 1990, pp. 50-55, 92, 96.
Technical Communication, November, 1987, p. 296.
Time, June 10, 1974; December 15, 1975; December 5, 1977; January 31, 1983.
Times Literary Supplement, February 18, 1983; January 6, 1984; December 7, 1984.
Washington Post, March 19, 1978, pp. L1, L5-6; December 18, 1979.
Washington Post Book World, August 15, 1971; January 22, 1978; April 19, 1981; January 30, 1983; March 13, 1983; April 8, 1984; October 13, 1985; November 9, 1986; September 9, 1990; March 7, 1993; March 12, 1995, p. 13; March 3, 1996, p. 13.
BookPage Web site,http://www.bookpage.com/ (October 7, 2002), Bruce Tierney, "The Allure of an Elusive Fish," review of The Founding Fish.
John McPhee Home Page,http://www.johnmcphee.com/ (October 7, 2002).*