. Nonfiction writer
, often of science
; longtime New Yorker essayist
; Pulitzer Prize
winner in 1999. Tags along with professionals (often field scientists
or people intimately connected with nature
) and explains their subject areas with enthusiasm and down-home clarity, while delivering the best anecdote
s from their invariably interesting careers. Has a knack
for delicious titles
and turns of phrase, as well as an ear for a great story
He takes great pleasure in each story, its gift of new knowledge, its characters (people and places) and their histories, idiosyncrasies, and moments of genuine wisdom. His enthusiasm is infectious, and it doesn't hurt that he's located some really excellent yarns along the way.
McPhee is perhaps best known for his geology books, most of which were collected into Annals of the Former World. The huge volume, for which he won the Pulitzer, began as an idea for a New Yorker article in the 1970s: shanghai some colorful geologists, and drive across the US on Interstate 80, telling the geological history of North America along the way. Some find his geology writing dull, or complain that he removes himself too much from the stories he's telling -- I think these complaints are wrongheaded. He's not an exhibitionist in his writing, refuses to drone on about his childhood or unsatisfied adult life; so much the better! Let's hear about the rocks!
Sometimes his derivations of life lessons from nature and biography are a bit precious for my taste, and I agree that his books are quite uniform in tone (so that if you've read one, there's a sense in which you've read em all). I love them anyway. If you don't like rocks, pick another of the diverse subjects he's tackled over the years -- Alaskan gold-mining (Coming into the Country, his best selling book), New York vegetable sellers, the Swiss Army, bush pilots, rural doctors, merchant marine sailors, Russian art collectors, the citrus industry, experimental aircraft, human efforts to control the Mississippi River and stop a lava flow from consuming an Icelandic town, the development of the atomic bomb, professional tennis and basketball. A good way to get a sample is to get one of the John McPhee readers, which offer excerpted highlights from his other books. (I'm told this makes the geology much more palatable to those who aren't steeled to a whole book-worth of it; the second reader is better for this purpose.)
McPhee was born in Princeton, NJ in 1931. Graduated Princeton University in 1953 with an English degree and spent a brief tour at Cambridge University. Began writing with Time magazine, then became a staff writer at the New Yorker in 1965; he writes for them still. Since 1975, he has been Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton.
Excerpts from a John Schultz article reviewing Michael Pearson's biography of McPhee:
"McPhee is left-handed and always carries a bandana with him. He relishes good food and the company of interesting people. He takes pride in his Scottish heritage. He loves rivers and his preferred mode of transportation is the canoe. .... He is drawn to places that seem to hold time at bay: the Scottish highlands, the Alaskan wilderness, Swiss mountains, dense forests and remote rivers. In these rugged landscapes live equally rugged people. They may not be challenged by constant physical danger, but they challenge themselves in other ways: intellectually, emotionally, spiritually. The details of those challenges are what enrapture McPhee readers."
Nominated for National Book Awards in science: Encounters with the Archdruid and The Curve of Binding Energy
1977 Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters
Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for Annals of the Former World
There was a Wyoming history lesson in the naming of Crowheart Butte, which rises a thousand feet above the surrounding landscape and is capped with flat sandstone. To this day, there are tepee rings on Crowheart Butte. One of the more arresting sights in remote parts of the West are rings of stones that once resisted the wind and now recall what blew away. The Crows liked the hunting country in the area of the butte, and so did the Shoshonis. The two tribes fought, and lost a lot of blood, over this ground. Eventually, the chief of the Shoshones said, in effect, to the chief of the Crows: this is pointless; I will fight you, one against one; the hunting ground goes to the winner. The chief of the Shoshones was the great Washakie, whose name rests in six places on the map of Wyoming, including a mountain range and a county. Washakie was at least fifty, but fit. The Crow would have been wise to demur. Washakie destroyed him in the hand-to-hand combat, then cut out his heart and ate it.
He asked him what truth there was in the story of Crowheart Butte. Had Washakie really eaten his enemy's heart? The chief said, 'Well, Johnny, when you're young and full of life you do strange things.'
Rising From the Plains
We sat down and ate berries, looking up frequently at many hundreds of square miles of dark broadloom forests cutting at the edges into rising tundra fells, which ended in mountain rock. Through the mountains came the clear river, often deep within its peregrine bluffs, which were pinpointed white with visible Dall sheep and darkened by invisible bears. It was landscape uncompromised, under small white cumulus by the tens of dozens evenly spaced to the corners of the sky. I remember Frank Warren, in Circle, talking about the Park Service's yen for the Charley, and saying, 'What can you do to improve an area that is perfect? What possible satisfaction could a hiker ever get walking on a man-made trail?'
Ginny tried to trap a bear once, within a few feet of their cabin in Central. She strewed grouse carcasses in a tempting circle. The bear sat on the trap, leaped six feet in the air, and ran off defecating cranberries.
Coming into the Country
Books by John McPhee, and their subject matter
1998 Annals of the Former World -- collects and updates the geology books
1997 Irons in the Fire -- collection of essays: anti-cattle rustling police; repairing Plymouth Rock; forensic geology; an exotic car auction; more
1996 The Second John McPhee Reader
1994 The Ransom of Russian Art -- American professor who smuggles dissident Soviet art
1993 Assembling California -- geology; California
1990 Looking for a Ship -- merchant marine ship sailing for South America
1989 The Control of Nature -- controlling the Mississippi River, stopping a lava flow
1986 Rising from the Plains -- geology; Wyoming
1985 Table of Contents -- collection of essays: bears; guerilla energy; bush pilot in Maine; arrival of telephones to Arctic village; an afternoon with Bill Bradley; more
1984 Heirs of General Practice -- young family practice doctors in rural Maine
1984 La Place de la Concorde Suisse -- Swiss army training exercises
1983 In Suspect Terrain -- geology; northeastern US
1980 Basin and Range -- geology; southwestern US
1976 The John McPhee Reader
1976 Giving Good Weight -- collection of essays: floating nuclear power stations; farming and green-grocering; pinball; whitewater; professional chef
1976 Coming into the Country -- Alaskan gold mining
1975 The Survival of the Bark Canoe -- profiles a maker of traditional bark canoes in New Hampshire
1975 Pieces of the Frame-- includes Travels in Georgia (with a naturalist), and The Search for Marvin Gardens (a description of a crumbling Atlantic City).
1974 The Curve of Binding Energy -- homemade atomic bomb
1973 The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed -- development and testing of experimental aircraft Aereon
1971 Encounters With the Archdruid -- conversations between an environmentalist and three developers; which take place in bizarre and spectacular settings (eg on a river rafting trip)
1970 The Crofter and the Laird -- small town life in the Inner Hebrides, Scotland
1969 Levels of the Game -- pro tennis; Arthur Ashe
1968 A Roomful of Hovings -- Thomas Hoving, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
1967 The Pine Barrens -- New Jersey wilderness area
1967 Oranges -- Florida's citrus industry
1966 The Headmaster -- Frank Boyden, headmaster for sixty years of Deerfield Academy prep school, where McPhee spent a year after high school
1965 A Sense of Where You Are -- Bill Bradley, who was Princeton's senior basketball star at the time
Farrar, Straus and Giroux has been his longtime publisher. My list of books and years here is from their website for him, www.johnmcphee.com.