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The Twilight Of Master Essayist John McPhee Is Beautiful


John McPhee is still alive and writing in Princeton, New Jersey, and apparently obsessively collecting misplayed golf balls on the side. I have to remind myself of that sometimes. He’s taken a place in my mental attic alongside Henry David Thoreau and H.L. Mencken—giants inhabiting an earlier Cenozoic when essay writing was crisp and golden as sunrise.

But he’s 88 now, and, with his new book The Patch, seems to be splicing the end of his rope, in a manner of speaking, with reprints of a group of fresher New Yorker essays followed by previously uncollected New Yorker Talk of the Town pieces, stretching back into the 1960s, and other bits for Time and Vogue.

McPhee is best known for a couple of stand-alone books and a wonderful nonfiction series on American geology. First to make a splash was Encounters with the Archdruid (1971), where McPhee spent months traveling with and observing Sierra Club Executive Director David Brower. Then there’s probably his most-read book, Coming into the Country (1977), a chronicle of a year spent in the Alaskan wilderness among a variety of families of different social classes and ethnic backgrounds.

Finally, there are the four Annals of the Former World books, which are about the geology of the American West and the sorts of people who settled in that landscape and study it. He won the nonfiction Pulitzer in 1999 for an omnibus reissue of these. If you’re looking for a place to start, the best of the geology books is the first one, the splendid Basin and Range (1981).

Yet even this list only touches the surface. Most of McPhee’s prose originally appeared in long essay form in the New Yorker magazine. In fact, during my poverty-ridden early twenties I still managed to subscribe to the New Yorker just so I could get first crack at the McPhees.

Alas, after the forced retirement of editor William Shawn in 1987, the magazine quickly degenerated. His replacement, Robert Gottlieb, turned it political. He’s best known for running a vicious character assassination piece on Robert Bork. Diva editor Tina Brown transformed the magazine into a celebrity wank-fest and famously eschewed the “50,000 word piece on Zinc,” which is pretty much the definition of a McPhee essay.

Then she answered the siren call of Harvey Weinstein to join the ill-fated new-media-thing, Talk. Successor David Remnick converted the magazine into a mind-numbing sausage machine that has for 20 years churned out dreary international-studies-thesis-level agitprop, leftist conspiracy theories, and writing-program-M.F.A. self-indulgence.

Reading any given issue of The New Yorker in the past decades has been akin to passing a kidney stone—from the outside in. Meanwhile, the magazine’s readership has contracted to the Acela corridor—possibly only to the riders of the Acela. McPhee’s New Yorker pieces, while still occasionally appearing, faded into obscurity for the rest of the literate nation.

His glory days were under Shawn, when McPhee had a magnificent run in a national arena. His greatest editorial influence, however, was New Yorker Executive Editor Robert Bingham, who handled the nonfiction. McPhee provides a beautiful vignette of Bingham (who died, tragically, of a brain tumor at 57) in The Patch.

If you were in his presence, he could edit with the corners of his mouth. Just by angling them down a bit, he could suggest deleting something. On and off, he had a mustache. When he had a mustache, he was a little less effective with that method of editing, but effective nonetheless. As an editor, he wanted to keep his tabula rasa. He was mindful of his presence between writer and reader, and he wished to remain invisible while representing each. . . . Frequently, he wrote me the same note. The note said, ‘Mr. McPhee, my patience is not inexhaustible.’ But his patience was inexhaustible.

Bingham’s portrait appears in the second half of The Patch, which consists of an album of short pieces by McPhee. The first half of the book, titled “The Sporting Scene,” is a collection of long essays involving golf, tennis, lacrosse, and football. Its most powerful section is 2013 New Yorker article “The Orange Trapper,” where McPhee juxtaposes his obsession with collecting stray golf balls with a short memoir of his father’s death.

The McPhees seem to be made of near-indestructible Scottish stuff. McPhee bicycles daily. His journeys take him past Springdale, a Princeton golf course whose filthy rich patrons don’t go after their lost balls, even when those balls are ten-dollar Titleist Pro V1xes. But McPhee, a skinflint Scots-Yankee at heart, can’t resist collecting those balls, remembering that they were once valuable during his Depression-era boyhood. In fact, McPhee has spent a lifetime scouring for balls around courses in Princeton, where his father was the long-time physician for the university sports teams.

McPhee communicates his obsession to us with a short history of the golf ball and the engineering attempts and sympathetic magic that went into creating golf ball cores. We even get a digression on “war balls,” the ligneous, spin-less golf balls made during World War II when latex, which forms the primary interior of the modern golf ball, was at a premium and reserved for fighting the Axis powers.

After a bout of Herculean research to determine which is the Rolls Royce of golf ball retrievers (behold the JTD Enterprises 9.6-foot Orange Trapper), McPhee orders one so he can reach through the chain link fence around Springdale to get at abandoned golf balls. He also longs to be able to pick balls out of the upper reaches of the Delaware River, where he often sees them dozens of miles from any civilized set of links while he is fly fishing.

McPhee intersperses all of this with an account of sitting alone in the hospital room of his comatose, dying father, sharing his collecting adventures with his dad as a kind of fond farewell to the equally obsessive Harry McPhee.

I was working that fence near 206 one day, where Jasna Polana has a service gate. Preoccupied by the delicacy of Trapper placement, I was slow to notice a middle-aged, heavyset greenkeeper hurrying on foot toward the gate. He was past the age of running but he was chugging flat out, and this was no place for me. I withdrew the Orange Trapper, collapsed its telescoping shaft, put it into a saddlebag with the day’s harvest, jumped onto my bicycle, and headed back upstream, upwoods, and away from 206 at a speed so blazing that I probably could not duplicate it if I were to try to now, but that was years ago, when I was eighty.

This concoction of acute observation, weird fascination with an obscure topic (McPhee has written an entire book on the significance and history of oranges, which includes his quest to sip the best vintage of orange juice in the world), obsessive gathering of facts surrounding the topic, and lengthy periods spent with those who are professionally engaged with it, forms the deep structure of a great McPhee essay. Then there is his prose, which could be characterized as Strunk and White style in its Platonic form. Succinct. Self-deprecatory. Pithy. Edging up to droll, but never quite calling attention to itself.

That doesn’t make it weak. McPhee is capable of devastating those he writes about with a small twist of his literary scalpel. He does this with David Brower in Encounters with the Archdruid, a subject whom we get the sneaking suspicion McPhee feels compelled to admire, but doesn’t really like. (I came to loathe Brower just reading about him.)

There’s a great chapter where McPhee is on a hiking trip to Glacier Peak Wilderness with himself, Brower, mining geologist Charles Park, and a couple of others. Along the route, McPhee has Park, whom he clearly respects for his knowledge of nature, point out bird species and rock types. Left unstated but totally obvious is the fact that the executive director of the Sierra Club not only can’t identify birds or rocks, he doesn’t really care if he can. For Brower, it’s all about the feelz.

McPhee is probably a liberal, but who knows and who cares. He is certainly too wedded to marshaling the facts and telling the truth to be a progressive. His description of Sophia Loren alone in The Patch would be enough to disqualify him. It is the perfect example of the so-called “male gaze”—that is, it’s a charming verbal portrait of an overpoweringly beautiful woman who perhaps wouldn’t be thought so if one considered her characteristics separately. It is also the way many a man has felt about his wife or lover a time or two (and probably vice versa).

Often, I’ve grasped America herself through McPhee. His depiction of the gritty, resource-conserving, artistic—and undeniably redneck— Gelvin family of Alaska in Coming into the Country is unforgettable. They reminded me of my own Southern family and Alabama roots. I remember how first reading Basin and Range made sense of all the things I’d seen and felt both physical and metaphysical while wandering the vast reaches of the American West.

McPhee also stealthily and inexorably imparted to me what good writing was. You can’t come away from a McPhee essay without having developed better taste. Well, perhaps David Remnick can. Before taking over the New Yorker, he studied under McPhee, who also teaches writing at Princeton.

If the first half of The Patch is profound, the last half is sheer fun. These are mostly McPhee’s New Yorker front-of-the-magazine bits. Some are ancient. There’s a hilarious 1970s-era piece juxtaposing hard-driving New York Times reporter Israel Shenker with the recently invented P-1800 word processor:

The P-1800 contains couplings that will fit over the telephone’s earpiece and speaker, and the reporter straps these into place, then dials 212-556-1330, the computer’s number. At three hundred words per minute, the P-1800 sends words as bleeps to Forty-third Street. If the story is, say, seven hundred and fifty words long, the computer has it all in a little over two minutes. An editor, sitting at an “editing terminal,” can then call for the story and see it instantly. . .

Shenker wrote smoothly, swiftly, and without hesitation [on the machine], his words lighting up on the screen. He wrote:

Israel Shenker doesn’t think that this is the answer to gunpowder.

Maybe the greatest quality of McPhee as a writer is that he goes forth. He gets off the damn East Coast. He explores places he doesn’t understand. He befriends people who are absolutely nothing like him or anybody he grew up with. He then doesn’t want to leave it all behind:

One February evening, I took a long walk on the frozen Yukon, knowing it was the last night that I would be there. The sun was disappearing, and there were pink bolts across a blue sky above the white river. The big stars came out quickly. And I said to myself, ‘So long. This is it. The mail plane comes tomorrow and you’ve had it now.’

The same goes for us readers. We have John McPhee now—and we hope for a while longer. May that mail plane be long delayed by terrible weather.