"John McPhee ought to be a bore," The Christian Science Monitor once observed. "With a bore's persistence he seizes a subject, shakes loose a cloud of more detail than we ever imagined we would care to hear on any subject -- yet somehow he makes the whole procedure curiously fascinating."
This is his specialty. A New Yorker writer hired in 1965 by another devil-is-in-the-details disciple, William Shawn, McPhee has taken full advantage of the magazine's commitment to long, unusual pieces and became one of the practitioners of so-called "literary journalism," joining a fraternity occupied by Tom Wolfe, Tracey Kidder, and Joan Didion. He hung on during the Tina Brown days, when the marching orders were for short and topical pieces. And the magazine's current editor, David Remnick, was once a student of McPhee's annual writing seminar at Princeton University.
The temptation is to brand McPhee a nature writer, since he spends so much of his professional life trekking through the outdoors or scribbling notes in the passenger seat of a game warden's pickup truck. But his writing isn't so easily labeled as that. Instead, he has the luxury of writing about whatever strikes his fancy, oftentimes plumbing childhood passions. In fact, his big break as a professional writer combined two of his favorite things: sports and Princeton, his home since birth. In 1965, he finally got published by The New Yorker with a profile on Princeton basketball star Bill Bradley. The piece later became his first book.
He wrote for the television program Robert Montgomery Presents in the late 1950s and was on staff at Time in the ‘50s and ‘60s, frequently pitching pieces to his dream publication,The New Yorker. That particular success eluded him until Shawn picked up the Bradley piece and then spent hours with him editing the piece the night the magazine was going to press. In a 1997 interview with Newsday, McPhee recalled that experience: "I said to him, 'This whole enterprise is going on and you're sitting here talking to me about this comma. How do you do it?' And he said, 'It takes as long as it
takes.' That's the greatest answer I ever heard."
The same might be said of McPhee himself. He has written what, for many, is the definitive book on Alaska, Coming into the Country. "With this book,The New York Times said, "McPhee proves to be the most versatile journalist in America." He spent 696 pages on the geological development of North America in Annals of the Former World. He explored man's battle to tame mudslides and lava flows in The Control of Nature. He considered the birch-bark canoe in The Survival of the Bark Canoe. He caused a bit of head-scratching over the topic of his 17th book, La Place de la Concorde Suisse: the Swiss army.
The itinerary, at first blush, might not always be compelling, but in McPhee's hands, the journey is its own reward.
"Mr. McPhee is a writer's writer -- a master craftsman whom many aspirants study," The Wall Street Journal said in 1989. "For one thing, he has an engaging, distinctive voice. It is warm, understated and wry. Within a paragraph or two, he takes us into his company and makes us feel we're on an outing with an old chum. A talky old chum, to be sure, with an occasional tendency to corniness and rambling, but a cherished one nevertheless. We read his books not so much because we're thirsty for information about canoes, but because it's worth tagging along on any literary journey Mr. McPhee feels like taking."
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The son of a doctor, McPhee credits his love of the outdoors to the 13 summers he spent at Camp Keewaydin, where his father was the camp physician.
His devotion to the perfect sentence came from a high school English teacher who assigned her students three compositions a week, an assignment that included an outline defending the composition's structure.
Bill Bradley made McPhee his daughter's godfather.
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