John McPhee works from the ground up. He gets interested in things that his readers are likely to know little about––like nuclear physics or the merchant marine––and then writes about them in as much detail as possible. You feel that you come out of a McPhee piece with new vocabularies swimming around in your head. When I was a child, my parents gave me an illustrated book called The Way Things Work; McPhee is that book's grown-up equivalent.
This kind of approach—inductive, concrete, observational—doesn't usually produce what you would think of as "big picture" writing. So the biggest surprise of Silk Parachute, McPhee's new collection of articles and essays, is the impression that he is beginning to elaborate on some larger themes. With the exception of the book's title piece––a short, gorgeous lyric essay about his mother––every essay here reflects on the work he's done since he joined the New Yorker in 1964. Age probably has something to do with it. McPhee is now eighty years old, and autumn is a good time for retrospection.
Nonfiction writers have the same relationship to experience that fishermen have to the sea: success depends completely on what you can pull out of it. "My Life List," one of the book's best pieces, is about the experience of eating things like grizzly bear, live trout, and road-killed weasel. Here, we learn that William Shawn, who edited the New Yorker until 1987, was an incredibly squeamish and boring eater: "When I did go to a restaurant with him," McPhee writes, "his choice of entrée ran to cornflakes." This made it hard to get anything about unusual eating into the magazine, but McPhee persisted, placing the gross parts deep into the piece, where he hoped Shawn wouldn't notice them. When, at the end of "My Life List," McPhee includes his own life's roll call of weird foods, you feel that he's earned the pride he takes in displaying it.
Even when McPhee isn't directly addressing the writing life, it's possible to detect a reporter's concerns filtering into the background. "Under the Cloth," which explains the process of making photographs with a nineteenth-century camera, is about taking the time to look at something until you finally begin to see it. "Checkpoints," a funny and affectionate profile of the New Yorker's fact-checking department, is about getting the little things right. McPhee especially loves describing the department's efforts to get the really little things right. In an article McPhee wrote on the history of a fish, the punctuation of one sentence depended on knowing whether William Penn had one daughter or more than one daughter: "The commas––there or missing there––were not just commas; they were facts."
Facts, of course, have to be learned, and education runs alongside McPhee's writing career as the book's second major preoccupation. These pieces are filled with different kinds of teachers––parents, grandparents, coaches, editors, and even a private school headmaster. It's worth remembering here that McPhee has been teaching undergraduates at Princeton for nearly as long as he's been writing for the New Yorker.
McPhee has long been an acknowledged pioneer of New Journalism, but he is also one of the fathers of Creative Nonfiction, a genre that didn't even get its name until American universities began to offer courses in writing it. Critics sometimes like to predict that McPhee's writing will outlast that of his New Journalist peers, and part of their thinking has to do with his teachability. It would be difficult (and probably illegal, given the drugs involved) to get students to write like Hunter S. Thompson. But McPhee's writing is governed by a few very sensible rules, very intelligently applied. His lessons, in other words, are easy to pass on. It may finally turn out to be this aspect of McPhee's work that does the most to cement his legacy. We're going to be reading his imitators for decades. There's someone out there who will tell you that's a bad thing. But not me.
Richard Beck is a writer from Wallingford, Pennsylvania. He has written for n+1 and The Boston Phoenix.