John McPhee's personal nonfiction narratives invite readers to look at the world anew

by Steve Paul

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

31 March 2010


The opening of John McPhee’s essay “Season on the Chalk” introduces terrain that will feel both familiar and new to longtime readers of the great American writer of nonfiction.

The topic is geology, specifically the vast layer of soft white limestone that underlies much of western Europe and southern England and erupts here and there in the landscape. Think of the famous white cliffs of Dover.

Yes, it’s another exploration of time, place and the earth sciences, the kind of nonfiction narrative that McPhee has turned into art over the last 45 years in long magazine pieces for The New Yorker and subsequent books.

Yet as early as the second sentence of this piece — it’s the second chapter of his new collection, “Silk Parachutes” — McPhee interjects an element that suggests “Season on the Chalk” will differ from many of its predecessors. As with other essays in the book, a personal moment or a memory drives the story at hand and contributes to the feeling that we are coming to know McPhee in ways we’ve never before encountered in his work.

In this case, McPhee’s 10-year-old grandson Tommaso has come into view. He picks up a rock from the edge of the Thames River, breaks it and, with its pointed edge, begins adding to the graffiti on a retaining wall.

McPhee watches Tommaso write — first a large letter “R” — and goes on with his story, filling in the scene at the Thames Estuary, “where, in centuries gone, a thousand ships would be anchored, waiting to go up into London.”

Back and forth McPhee goes from Tommaso’s graffito to chalk history, until three pages into the piece his grandson finishes the last of six letters.

“ROCK ON,” he has written.

McPhee continues: “I didn’t say he was William Butler Yeats.”

Still, what his grandson delivers to McPhee is something that trumps poetry, at least for the moment. It’s a surprising, serendipitous event coming to the aid of focused, narrative intention.

The scene is a triumph of storytelling structure that perhaps only those of us who care about writing can admire, though I suspect it’s precisely why readers read McPhee and others who write so well. Well-crafted sentences and careful structure embed writing with a magnetic force.

McPhee has had that force within him for at least the last half-century.

In “Silk Parachute,” McPhee, perhaps unintentionally, directs the magnet at his memories. What he has created is almost an autobiography of a writer. The lovely title piece, which opens the book, refers to a wondrous toy his mother once bought him. Throughout “Silk Parachute” he uses personal anecdotes to revisit topics he has written about before but cast in a new light: prep school and basketball, birch-bark canoes and the odd things he has eaten — from bee spit to road-kill weasel — while gathering material for stories.

“It wasn’t a conscious plan or anything like that,” McPhee said recently by phone, affirming the personal nature of most of the “Silk Parachute” essays.

“It’s definitely true of a high percentage of these pieces. I think it’s a factor of experience, which you can translate as age. There’s a certain amount of looking back.”

In the middle of a piece about lacrosse, for example, McPhee recounts his introduction to the sport in 1949. A newcomer to the little-known game, he played an undefeated season at Deerfield Academy. It would be more than 40 years, McPhee explained, before he took an avid interest in the sport, at Princeton University, but without the personal experience and those six paragraphs of memory he might never have thought to write about it.

And in the chalk piece, it’s not as if he planned the way it turned out.

“For a long time I have wanted to do a piece of writing which would occur on both the surface and subsurface of Europe,” McPhee said. “So it just happens — I scarcely get on the chalk when one of my grandsons gets involved. So this personal element comes up very quickly, but it was not the motive. He disappears very soon.”

McPhee at 79 is soft-spoken and said to be shy and reluctant to engage in the kind of conversation to which I was subjecting him. He was speaking from his home in Princeton, N.J., where winter weather had knocked out the power for days.

When asked about a New York Times reviewer’s recent suggestion that all this personal stuff in his essays had made him “cuter with age,” you could almost hear him cringe in silence over the phone. He had nothing to say about the frivolous observation, except that it was “off the mark.”

McPhee was born in Princeton, where his father was a doctor of sports medicine, and, despite extensive travels, he has remained there.

“I’ve often said that Princeton is like a fixed foot,” McPhee said. “I think it would be unfortunate if I had never been anywhere else but here. But my work has taken me to many places, so there’s a symbiosis between living all your life in your own hometown and at the same time scattering around the world to do pieces of writing. I think the one has made the other work, both ways. I might’ve felt a little isolated if I’d never been anywhere else.”

In addition to geology and lacrosse, McPhee’s work for The New Yorker has coursed over a vast array of topics: fish and fishing, a whole piece (and later a book) on oranges, environmental concerns, long-haul trucking. He has introduced readers to the lives of people as varied as Bill Bradley, the basketball player turned U.S. senator, and Euell Gibbons, proponent of foraged natural foods.

Just last month, he had a short piece about the pickerel, including a bit of his family biography, and he noted that when “Spin Right and Shoot Left,” his piece about lacrosse, appeared in the magazine, it was much shorter than the version now in his book.

That’s a sign of the times — and the change in the economics of the media between The New Yorker’s heyday under editor William Shawn and today’s version under David Remnick.

“Oh, yeah, it’s different,” McPhee said. “When William Shawn was editor, he could run these giant pieces that were sort of his signature, his trademark that he started doing with John Hersey and Rachel Carson.

“The magazine had the room to do that. ... Today you’ve got a trimmer, slimmer magazine. But what you’ve got there, at the moment, for the past 10 years, you’ve got a rather eclectic mind in charge of these editorial things.

“I think the magazine is as good as ever,” he added. “It’s not as long ... but it is as good. This is a reflection of the editor” — Remnick, that is — “and the fact that he is a former student of mine is irrelevant.”

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