JULY 24, 2015
THE WORLD THE WORK of John McPhee creates appears deceptively small. In January 1965, he published his first of several dozen pieces of reportage for The New Yorker, a profile of the basketball forward (and future US senator) Bill Bradley. The Bradley piece, which McPhee expanded and republished later that year as his first book A Sense of Where You Are, is a generous portrait of the sportsman’s skill and finesse. He was made aware of Bradley’s talents three years before by his father Harry McPhee, a sports doctor at Princeton, where Bradley was enrolled as an undergraduate, and for the US Olympic team, which he captained in 1964. McPhee begins his profile of Bradley not with an account of the subject himself, but with a brief character sketch of the man who introduced them:
[My father] has a taciturnity celebrated in his circle, and he can watch, say, a Princeton halfback go ninety-eight yards for a touchdown without even faintly showing on the surface the excitement he feels within him. In fact, from the late thirties, which is as far back as I can remember, until the winter of 1962, I had never heard him actually make a direct statement of praise about any athlete, let alone make high claims, proud or otherwise, for an athlete’s abilities.
All that changed when Bill Bradley arrived on Princeton’s courts in 1962. As he watched Bradley’s freshman season, Harry McPhee’s demeanor turned from stoicism to awe, from quiet observation to celebration. It was the transformation of Harry’s fandom that brought Bradley into the younger McPhee’s orbit. But what stands out here is the intimacy and transparency of McPhee’s opening gambit, introducing us to Bradley as if to a family friend.
Similar references to the casual familiarity of McPhee’s subjects span his more than half-century of subsequent profiles, dispatches, and essays. His writing creates a world of expanding, overlapping circles with the author, his relatives, and his companions at their center. In a wide-ranging Paris Review interview about the “art of non-fiction,” McPhee describes the origins of his early New Yorker stories: “When I was starting out, I said to friends, I’m looking for ideas.” Princeton and its environs are frequently at the basis of McPhee’s investigations, like his study of the New Jersey Pine Barrens, though this often carries him far afield: In the early 1980s, for instance, a Princeton geologist’s observations about an urban New York rock formation laid the foundation for a multi-volume study of American geology. Sometimes the connection is purely accidental, not to say serendipitous: In 1984, he profiled a Maine pilot also named John McPhee, whom the writer met as a result of the pilot’s letter to the editor of The New Yorker, concerning what the other McPhee took to be a misuse of the pair’s shared name.
McPhee never attempts to conceal these relationships, and by pushing them to the foreground he contributes to the notion that his work is casual, anecdotal. He shies away from making grand claims on behalf of his oeuvre. In the Paris Review interview, McPhee says, “I’m a writer who writes about real people in real places. End of story.”
Hardly. McPhee is often described as a writer’s writer, and he is more commonly praised for the stylistic example he sets than for the subjects and themes he addresses. Reviews of McPhee’s books now follow a standard form. It is de rigueur to mention McPhee’s wide-ranging bibliography: “John McPhee has written with dizzying competence about everything from oranges to the making of bark canoes,” wrote Paul Zweig in a 1981 review of Basin and Range for the New York Times Book Review. Often, the critic will offer a rote contrast between McPhee’s methods and the freewheeling habits of his contemporaries, the New Journalists. Others will observe McPhee’s punctilious attention to detail, or that certain-something that marks a McPhee sentence or paragraph.
But McPhee’s writing, taken as a whole, possesses a substance and coherence beyond its impressive craft. While posing as a gatherer of factual curiosities, he is in fact that most literary of things: a writer preoccupied with a grand theme. McPhee’s work can, in fact, be read as a moral history of American society and its institutions. Throughout his books, it appears in dramas both microscopic and macroscopic, in the refined process of canoe construction and in the passage of geological time alike. Behind his apparent neutrality, McPhee demonstrates concern not only for the industry and ingenuity of his subjects, but also for their consequences, and the future society such ingenuity might create.
Part of the problem in seeing this theme clearly is that there is no obvious linear path from one McPhee book to the next. With one conspicuous exception — Annals of the Former World, his five-volume survey of the geological history of America — McPhee’s bibliography contains few discernible periods of specific artistic focus. He has seemed to drift from idea to idea, though the course of these ideas sometimes returns to familiar topics. Popular journalistic genres like “nature writing” and “sports writing” will always describe less of McPhee’s work than they ought to. In the structure and purpose of its prose, for example, A Sense of Where You Are shares more in common with The Headmaster, McPhee’s character sketch of the chief administrator of Deerfield Academy, than it does with Levels of the Game, his book on the tennis players Clark Graebner and Arthur Ashe. The same incongruity can be found in the comparison between McPhee’s two major pieces of art writing, his long profile of former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Thomas Hoving and his 1994 The Ransom of Russian Art. The former is a portrait of an evolving cultural bureaucracy, the latter a snapshot of the illicit market economy of the post-Khrushchev Soviet Union. Despite their apparent similarity of subject, neither fit comfortably together in a common genre.
For the most part, McPhee has focused on American subjects. Of the writer’s more than two dozen books, only two (1970’s The Crofter and the Laird and 1984’s La Place de La Concorde Suisse) are based primarily on reporting undertaken outside the United States. It is the industries and institutions that make up American society, and the evolution of the spaces with which they interact, that make up the moral core of McPhee’s writing. Among his favored subjects is the craftsperson, whose activity illuminates the essential ingenuity of American industry. For McPhee, the craftsman is a quiet hero who envisions the process of creating things — industrial supply chains, produce, athletic victory — as a virtuous task. The intricate routine of the Florida orange harvest merits as much discussion as the ambitious technology of American aerospace manufacturing. For McPhee, the complexity of that which is thought to be simple is often analogous to the most mechanized forms of contemporary production: “The enormous factories that the frozen [orange juice] people have built as a result of [Florida Citrus Commission research director L.G.] MacDowell’s idea more closely resemble oil refineries than auto plants. The evaporators are tall assemblages of looping pipes, quite similar to the cat-cracking towers that turn crude oil into gasoline.” Each undertaking shares the accomplishment of both its complex creation and its simultaneous moral burden.
If the careful skill of McPhee’s tradespeople is their virtue, their vice appears in the way these skills manipulate and sometimes destroy the natural world around them. The history of the world according to John McPhee is a moral tale, marked by an arrhythmic pendulum between the uplift and injury of the people and places that inhabit it. To tell the moral story of America is to acknowledge the ambitious civilization crafted by its founding documents, and to simultaneously observe the devastation that lies in that same civilization’s shadow.
The tone of McPhee’s writing about American industry is neither skeptical nor triumphant; rather, the lives and communities that populate his dispatches appear at a crossroads between tragedy and accomplishment. His 1973 book The Curve of Binding Energy, written during a period of rapid growth in the Cold War–era American nuclear industry, describes the life and work of Theodore Taylor, a theoretical physicist responsible for the miniaturization of nuclear weaponry at Los Alamos. As elsewhere, McPhee marvels at the creative enterprise of designing and manufacturing the US nuclear stockpile, the variation between absolute precision and total uncertainty that goes into fashioning the world’s most destructive object. Taylor’s scientific process for the consolidation of fissile material is especially meticulous; the measurements McPhee describes are so precise as to be unfathomable to the average layperson, like an uncommon dialect of the same linguistic origin as English but inaccessible to most of its speakers. “People who have worked for decades at Los Alamos have said that you can read all there is about tanks, ships, and buildings disappearing in vapor but the experiential fact is that you don’t know what a kiloton is until you see and, in a sense, feel one,” McPhee observes. But Taylor, like Robert Oppenheimer before him, regrets the achievements of his creativity and the destruction — both ecological and human — that it has wrought. In particular, he is anxious about the possible theft of plutonium from civilian nuclear plants; a scenario that would spell, at worst, “a world flow of weapons-grade material in the millions of kilograms.”
Between the early 1970s and the publication of Annals of the Former World in 1998, McPhee published more than a half-dozen books about ecology, and the human transformation of the natural world. Significant variations in scale define the human contributions to the ecological change that McPhee observes. Some, like the events described in The Control of Nature (1989), are overwhelming, and McPhee’s task is to make the scope of that transformation conceivable. In “Atchafalaya,” the anthology’s first chapter, he narrates the epic folly of the US Army Corps of Engineers, who have done much in their two-and-a-half centuries to refashion the basic ecological makeup of the United States. The Corps that emerges from McPhee’s profile of Norris Rabalais, a lockmaster along the Mississippi River’s Atchafalaya distributary, is an institution of ambitious, impressive precision. Especially along the Atchafalaya, whose human industries rely on the creative promise of the volatile river, one of the Corps’ central priorities is to tame the graver tantrums of the mighty Mississippi: “The consequences of the Atchafalaya’s conquest of the Mississippi would include but not be limited to the demise of Baton Rouge and the virtual destruction of New Orleans,” McPhee writes. “With its fresh water gone, its harbor a silt bar, its economy disconnected from inland commerce, New Orleans would turn into New Gomorrah.” But these efforts would come at significant cost to the region the Corps sought to save; as McPhee writes of the origins of the flood control system along the lower Mississippi, “a nation had developed, and the nation could not afford nature.” Two-and-a-half decades after McPhee documented the Corps’ activities along the Atchafalaya, the dramatic consequences of that nation’s growth have come into clearer focus: the Louisiana coastline is now more than 1,900 square miles smaller than it was approximately 70 years ago, according to the US Geological Survey.
Other processes of ecological transformation documented by McPhee are less dramatic than the possibility of large-scale coastal erosion, but are nonetheless important facets of the moral landscape of our country’s history. Encounters with the Archdruid (1971), which documents the contested politics of American conservation in Socratic form, features as one of its main characters the resort mogul Charles Fraser. At the time of the book’s writing, Fraser was engaged in a campaign to secure the commercial use of Cumberland Island, a large patch of wilderness off the coast of Georgia. Fraser, whose properties elsewhere throughout the South had afforded their visitors a sprawling empire of luxury and leisure, envisioned much the same design for a Cumberland resort. In Archdruid, Fraser’s primary antagonist is Sierra Club director David Brower, whose “druids in massed phalanx” eventually convinced Fraser to transfer ownership of his Cumberland land to the National Park Foundation. In McPhee’s telling, Brower is Fraser’s opposite in every discernible way: in tone, in politics, in taste. But the two men develop an unlikely camaraderie under McPhee’s watchful eye:
[T]he following evening we transferred our gear to a motorship called the Intrepid, which had slipped quietly down the coast from Hilton Head and into the Cumberland River. The size of Fraser’s yacht was proportionate to his distaste for wilderness. The yacht was ninety feet long. It contained five staterooms and a floor-through saloon. Its bar was stocked with Tanqueray gin. Fraser’s Southern antennae had reached out unobtrusively, suprasocially, and their research had shown that Tanqueray is Brower’s gin of gins.
To this day, the island remains a property of the public trust. Browser’s victory was an exceptional event; as McPhee observes, “[t]he island was a beautiful and fragile anachronism.” Its continued preservation is equally anachronistic; in a country of shrinking, vulnerable wild space, the island’s extraordinary biodiversity is a rare phenomenon. But for every Cumberland seashore, there are multiple beachfronts where Brower’s disciples were less successful and resort kingdoms reign. Those kingdoms’ eroding shores are a permanent reminder of the costs of the leisure they support.
The industries and institutions McPhee is most interested in are pillars of what the historian Daniel Rodgers has described as the “age of fracture.” If the immediate wake of the Second World War ushered in a series of effective, if still segregated and unequal, social institutions, the era that followed the Vietnam War saw those same institutions fray at their seams. The decay of these institutions is a concern of many contemporary American writers, not least McPhee’s New Yorker colleague George Packer, who addresses much the same topic in his collection of dispatches from the country’s “unwinding.” But where Packer addresses these changes through polemics, McPhee’s work about this era and its moral consequences for the Americans who endure it is unusual for its subtlety.
There is no better example of this tendency than Looking for a Ship, published during the long twilight of the American shipping industry. McPhee’s chronicle follows the travails of Andy Chase, a union member of the US Merchant Marine. In spirit, the crew assembled on the S.S. Stella Lykes, the ship Chase found, are all equally aware of the plight of American shipping. The industry was made by workers looking for ships, and that is how it was ushered out. Whatever the protections their union offers, the crew of the Stella Lykes will always remain between ships; as its captain mentions to McPhee, “[m]ost of [the crew] are making a career out of this — they’re just still here.” As their means of subsistence gradually vanish, the workers of the Merchant Marine continue looking for ships when there are ever fewer to be found. For these shipworkers, the age of fracture is one of tremendous loss, as the world their work once knitted together becomes more and more difficult to recognize.
It’s not just the actions of McPhee’s subjects that convey the writer’s moral history of these fragile institutions, but the structure of the stories themselves. In recent years, The New Yorker has offered McPhee space for a series of pedagogical essays about the “writing life.” Among the more useful of these essays is a 2013 lesson on structure, which McPhee views as indispensable to the craft of reporting. The piece contains a series of diagrams tightly hewn to the narrative purpose of select McPhee works: a story about the cross-country journey of a long-haul trucker carries a geographical structure, while the Thomas Hoving profile is arranged according to key features of the Met director’s public and private lives. But beyond their narrative usefulness, McPhee’s structures often carry a discreet moral meaning. The geological evolution that Annals of the Former World captures atomizes the experiences of its human observers; the sediment on which the American West was founded outdates its observers by several millennia. McPhee’s travels along the escarpments of America’s western ranges only reinforce the primordial origins of that gigantic landscape. But the regular interjections the book’s geologists offer up also underscore the disproportionate impact of the human civilization that has grown around and into the ancient rock.
In their understated way, McPhee’s subjects are all preoccupied with the essential moral question of modernity: how to design and craft objects and processes and deal with their human and ecological consequences. The ground that McPhee’s subjects walk now carries the burden of human action, even as its history exceeds it. The western route that McPhee travels in his geological Annals, along and past Interstate 80, is “the route of animal migrations, and of human history that followed. It avoids melodrama, avoids the Grand Canyons, the Jackson Holes, the geologic operas of the country, but it would surely be a sound experience of the big picture, of the history, the construction, the components of the continent.” The modern world is an ever-present encounter between the human highway and the natural fault, and McPhee’s subjects stand at its cusp.