John McPhee

I decided to have a separate entry for this major writer, since he has been so central in my reading for at least five decades. He was a writer for The New Yorker, and many of his pieces there resulted in one of his more than thirty books. I have not read every single one, but I’ve read a majority of them. Once long ago at a faculty/staff luncheon at the School of Information at Michigan, we each had to say who we would have liked to have been. My answer was John McPhee. Obviously, all of these books were written by him, so I can skip the author component of each review. Also, all of them were published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Pieces of the Frame. 1963, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975.

This collection contains eleven essays written over a twelve-year span. They cover an incredible range of topics: among them river trips in Georgia and the Potomac, the real world locations of the places on a Monopoly board, the shores of Loch Ness, the whiskeys of Scotland, the settings of Macbeth, playing basketball in the Tower of London, Wimbledon, the head of the National Park Service. All of these tales are recounted in McPhee’s special style.

A Sense of Where You Are: A Profile of Bill Bradley at Princeton. 1965, 1978.

Bill Bradley was an extraordinary basketball player, both in college at Princeton and in the pros with the New York Knicks. In this book which like many of those written by McPhee first appeared in The New Yorker, the focus is on his college career. Bradley was an incredible perfectionist, practicing every element of the game to incredible lengths. He perfected a hook short that he could make with either hand from many distances and locations. He had one of the highest free throw percentages ever. And he mastered the no look shot or pass, since he always had a sense of where he was and where his teammates were. He led Princeton to levels of success unusual for an Ivy League team. I especially enjoyed the account of his play against the Cazzie Russell Michigan team.

The Headmaster: Frank L. Boyden, of Deerfield. 1966.

This is the story of Frank L. Boyden, who starting in 1902 was the headmaster of the Deerfield Academy for 66 years, and built it up to be ranked among the most influential prep schools in New England. He was a determined despot, who cared enormously for the school and its students. He was an absolute ruler, but his remarkable achievements were exemplary. McPhee’s rich portrait of the man and the school is superb.

Oranges. 1966, 1967.

This is the first McPhee book I ever read. And as the cover blurb says, when you finish you can’t believe you’ve just read an entire book about oranges. But it’s filled with all manner of orange lore and legend. And it’s McPhee at his most arcane best.

A Roomful of Hovings and Other Profiles. 1966, 1967, 1968.

This volume profiles a series of particularly interesting personages: Thomas P.F. Hoving, an art historian who becomes the head of the Metropolitan Art Museum in New York; Euell Gibbons, famous for his accounts of edible wild plants; Carroll Brewster of the M.I.T Fellows in Africa; Robert Twynam, the man who kept the grass at Wimbledon; and Temple Fielding, the influential author of the popular Fielding Guides to Europe. Each of these remarkable essays oozes the essence of McPhee’s inimitable style.

The Pine Barrens. 1967, 1968.

The Pine Barrens are an unusual feature of southern New Jersey, a mostly remote area with a variety of unusual people and locations. It is a surprising contrast to what most of us think of New Jersey, either as a major industrial region with major port areas, or vast, mostly tony suburbs of New York City.

Levels of the Game. 1969.

This is an account of a semifinal tennis match played at Forest Hills between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner. It traces the match in some detail, from the first serve to the final match winning point. But of course along the way we learn a lot about the two players, how they came to be the superb tennis stars that they are.

Encounters with the Archdruid. 1971.

The archdruid in this example is David Brower, long-time head of the Sierra Club, and the most extraordinary conservationist of his era. The encounters are with three examples of his most enduring opponents: Charles Park, who is a mineral engineer, who thinks that if there is a metal that industry needs, it must be mined, no matter where it is; Charles Fraser, a resort developer, who thinks of all conservationists are druids, who get in his way of creating things that people want; and Floyd Dominy, the head of the Bureau of Reclamation, and a dam builder extraordinaire. Each encounter consists of Brower and McPhee traveling relevant landscapes with each of these exemplar opponents, where we get to hear in depth what each believes.

The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed. 1973.

It was around the time of my divorce from my first wife that this volume was my bedtime reading to our two boys, Stirling and Derek. They both ate up this tale of a series of attempts to achieve flight through an innovative combination of airplane and dirigible. The idea was to achieve an affordable, efficient flying machine that at scale could be used to transport enormous loads across great distances. the book describes a series of early steps toward this vision — a tiny balsa model propelled by a twisted rubber band around an indoor room, a larger unmanned seven foot model that was radio controlled, and finally, a manned 26-foot model that eventually achieved a circumnavigation of a small New Jersey airport. Even this progression was very expensive, and required an extraordinary amount of effort to raise funds. But the project stalled after the 26-foot model made its successful manned flight. It was ideal reading material for a father and his sons.

The Survival of the Bark Canoe. 1975.

This is the story of Henri Vaillancourt who makes birch bark canoes using the same materials, tools, and methods that were used by native Americans. McPhee covers in detail how exactly he does this, how he finds the materials and how he assembles the canoes. Then McPhee and several friends travel in one of these canoes with Vaillancourt through 150 miles into the Maine woods. It’s an engaging story, McPhee at his narrative best. An appendix contains sketches and photographs of such canoes, done by Edwin Tappan Adney.

Giving Good Weight. 1975, 1976, 1978, 1979.

This is a collection of pieces about interesting things about the New Jersey, New York area. Giving Good Weight is about the Greenmarket where New Jersey farmers can market their fruits and vegetables in several areas of New York City. The Atlantic Generating Station is about explorations of the possibility of situating nuclear power stations off the coast of New Jersey. The Pinball Philosophy is about two expert pinball players in New York City. The Keel of Lake Dickey canoeing on the St. John River in Maine, especially the shooting of serious rapids along the way. Brigade de Cuisine is about the unusual, unnamed, and unlocated in the general area of New York that McPhee says is where he has had his best restaurant meals ever. All of these essays are rich with events and characters portrayed in McPhee’s unique style.

Coming Into the Country. 1976, 1977.

This is all about Alaska. It is presented in three parts. The first is a river trip made in the far northwest of Alaska by McPhee and several companions. It covers their journey along wild rivers and equally wild country. The second part is about the more urban sections of Alaska, and focuses on a group that is seeking a site for a new capitol to replace Juneau. The third and longest part, from which the books title comes, is about the settlers, permanent and temporary, around the Yukon River and its tributaries, focussing on the town of Eagle. This part covers a broad range of unusual characters, who trap, search for gold, work on the new pipeline, and otherwise pursue their commitments to independence. I’ve been to Alaska myself twice, but had nowhere the range of interesting and rich experiences that McPhee describes here. It is a compelling guide to the character of this huge state.

La Place de la Concorde Suisse. 1983. 1984.

The Swiss have an army, and McPhee spent considerable time with them as they practiced the skills needed to defend their country. The Swiss have not fought a war in more than 500 years, yet they maintain an army so they can defend their small, mountainous, and neutral country. Their mountains contain a wide array of special facilities to support their mission: vast underground facilities, hidden jet airplanes, all manner of weaponry. All males serve in the military from age 20 to 50. It turns out such service facilitates all manner of civilian enterprises, such as banking, industry, even government. Service if part-time, though the amount of time increases with rank. The title of the book refers to a place in the mountains where a number of glaciers converge, a special place in the lore of the Swiss Alps.

The Control of Nature. 1989.

This volume describes three efforts by humans to confront natural processes that threaten elements of human lives. The first is the ongoing possibility of the Mississippi River to change its course to bypass New Orleans and Baton Rouge, which would have disastrous effects on those two cities. The Army Corps of Engineers has been struggling with this for decades, but the river is persistent in its efforts to find an easier path to the Gulf of Mexico. Levees and dams and other various interventions keep failing, and the battle is ongoing. The second effort is the attempt by Icelanders to control the flow of lava from volcanic eruptions by using water to cool it and thus either halt the flow or change its direction. And the third effort is a local one. The San Gabriel mountains north of Los Angeles are roughly huge piles of rocky debris. Heavy rains create devastating flows of mud and rocks, and as people occupy the foothills, their homes get washed away. Yet they keep coming back. So-called debris basins are constructed to stop these flows, but like the first two efforts, it’s a constant battle to build bigger and better such things to control nature. McPhee’s rich narratives, filled with profiles of interesting people, are typical insightful accounts of amazing human efforts.

Uncommon Carriers. 2006.

This remarkable volume covers a series of portraits of his experiences with five different modes of moving goods and freight, plus an interesting account of his experience of reproducing Henry David Thoreau’s journey on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. The modes of transport include an eighteen-wheeler tanker, a freight ship simulation school in the French Alps, a towboat pushing 15 barges on the Illinois River, the UPS air freight system headquartered at the Nashville airport, and a Union Pacific coal train. Each of these portraits reveal the character of those who manage each kind of transport, the many challenges involved, and the surprises that turn up by participating in them. I especially enjoyed the coverage of the shipment of lobsters from Nova Scotia to the Nashville distribution center, with the requirement that they be kept alive until they arrived at their final destinations all over the world. Another surprise was that UPS handles the repair of Toshiba computers, the distribution of parts of Bentley and Rolls Royce, and many other services for a wide variety of companies, all at their Nashville distribution center. And as a lifelong railroad fan, the accounts of moving coal from the Powder River coalfields in Wyoming to customers all over the US, in trains that are usually at least a mile-and-a-half long, was particularly engaging.

Silk Parachute. 2010.

This is a collection of ten essays, covering a very wide range of topics and of many different lengths. One of the longest is a detailed description of lacrosse (“Spin Right and Shoot Left”) , the characteristics of the game as played in the US and it’s origins in what he calls Baltimoria, the region near the city of Baltimore, which dominated US lacrosse until fairly recently. It’s of course a game originally played by Native Americans.

Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process. 2017.

McPhee has taught expository writing at Princeton for many years. This volume contains eight essays based on that class. One of its most enjoyable features is that he illustrates his points with examples from his vast corpus of books. It was fun to see these examples, most of which came from books I had read earlier. Another essay entitled “Under the Cloth” is about his daughter’s commitment to large format precision photography, many of whose products have appeared in major art galleries. All in all, it is an entertaining as well as educational collection.

The Patch. 2018.

This volume has two parts. The first is a series of essays under the heading “The Sporting Scene,” and includes fishing, football, golf, lacrosse, and bears. They are all very entertaining, in McPhee’s inimitable fashion. Part Two is the most unusual. It is called “An Album Quilt,” and it consists of a large number of fragments, some as short as a few sentences, others longer, of things he started but never finished. Once again the range of subjects is amazing.