No one seems to know when “creative nonfiction” emerged as a genre, but John McPhee’s name is frequently cited as one of the seminal figures. I decided I should check out his work. Rather than hit up one of his twenty-five-plus books, I decided to dip into a pair of John McPhee readers so I could get a wide sampling, looking at essays that specifically dealt with places.
I first came across McPhee’s work while I was waiting for an oil change. A member of the university’s English faculty happened to come in, and we started chit-chatting. This colleague’s particular expertise rests with Milton, so I was surprised when the conversation turned to McPhee. “Your work reminds me of his,” he told me.
I had no idea at the time what an immense compliment that was. I ordered one of McPhee’s readers from Amazon so I could see for myself, but by the time it arrived a week later, I’d already gotten caught up in another project and wasn’t able to delve into the book. It has sat on my shelf, patiently waiting, ever since. It’s been years.
I came across McPhee’s work again last spring in the book In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction, edited by Lee Gutkind, the so-called “Godfather of Creative Nonfiction” and editor of Creative Nonfiction magazine.
“McPhee’s work is distinguished by his ability to see the world through the points of view of other people and communicate them intimately and intricately,” Gutkind wrote. “But he also recognizes the compelling nature of personal history and the insight into character and the human condition it can provide.”
McPhee’s work reminded me very much of Lilian Ross’s “fly-on-the-wall” reporting. Ross, a predecessor of McPhee’s at The New Yorker, was an innovator in that regard, although as journalism scholar R. Thomas Berner points out, her innovation has since become standard practice. Ross is present in her stories, but she functions as an observer. She interacts with her subjects but doesn’t offer commentary about them.
“To this point, McPhee has pretty much kept himself and his life out of the narratives,” Gutkind says. McPhee sometimes interacts with his subjects, but when he does, he avoids overt commentary, although his descriptions are so evocative it’s impossible not to start drawing conclusions. In The Pine Barrens, for instance, he describes a man named Bill:
In a straight-backed chair near the doorway to the kitchen sat a young man with long black hair, who wore a visored red leather cap that had darkened with age. His shirt was coarse-woven and had eyelets down a V neck that was laced with a thing. His trousers were made of canvas, and he was wearing gum boots. His arms were folded, his legs were stretched out, he had one ankle over the other, and as he sat there he appeared to be sighting carefully past his feet, as if his toes were the outer frame of a gunsight and he could see some sort of target in the floor. When I had entered, I had said hello to him, and he had nodded without looking up. He had a long, straight nose and high cheekbones, in a deeply tanned face that was, somehow, gaunt. I had no idea whether he was shy or hostile. Eventually, when I came to know him, I found him to be as shy a person as I have ever had a chance to know.
It’s harder to explain McPhee’s descriptions of place because, it seems, in some of his essays everything always seems to come back to place. The Pine Barrens, as an example, is about place, and McPhee explores it through research, history, culture, and adventures with people who live there. “The picture of New Jersey that most people hold in their minds is so different from this one that, considered beside it, the Pine Barrens, as they are called, become as incongruous as they are beautiful,” he writes. He engages readers with his pieces by juxtaposing what they think they know with the discoveries he wants to share with them.
In “Traveling Through Georgia,”
pine trees kept giving us messages—small, hand-painted signs nailed into the loblollies. ‘HAVE YOU WHAT IT TAKES TO MEET JESUS WHEN HE RETURNS?’ Sam said he was certain he did not. ‘JESUS WILL NEVER FAIL YOU.’ City limits, Adrian, Georgia. Swainsboro, Georgia. Portal, Georgia. Towns on the long, straight roads of the coastal plain. White-painted, tin-roofed bungalows. Awnings shading the fronts of stores—prepared for heat and glare. Red earth. Sand roads. House on short stilts. Sloping verandas. Unpainted boards.
He not only picks vivid details, he pieces them together with a real ear for rhythm. Consider part of his description of Anchorage, Alaska in Coming Into the Country:
Roads are rubbled, ponded with chuckholes. Big trucks, graders, loaders, make the prevailing noise, the dancing fumes, the frenetic beat of the town. Huge rubber tires are strewn about like quoits, ever ready for the big machines that move hills of earth and gravel into inconvenient lakes, which become new ground.
As I explore McPhee’s work, the thing I’m coming to admire most is his meticulous attention to craft. His pieces are splendidly well-written. Rhythm, vocabulary, sentence structure, description—it all falls into perfect place. He’s not a flashy stylist; in fact, I’d be hard-pressed to describe his style at all. He writes with clarity and a lack of literary pretension. Perhaps a kind of journalistic formality? His voice isn’t there, yet it is.
I’ve also come to appreciate his versatility. I read something last week that described Barry Lopez as America’s most versatile reporter, but I’ve gotta think McPhee set the bar. Aside from The Pine Barrens and Coming Into the Country, I particularly enjoyed Oranges, The Control of Nature, and a blurb I read from Founding Fish (not in the readers).
I’ve also come to appreciate just how crazy my colleague from the English Department is. While incredibly flattered by the comparison, I’m so far below McPhee’s league that I shouldn’t even share a last initial with him.
I only got a sampling, but I’ll have to go back for more.