Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Birthday Book of the Day: It's John McPhee's 85th, and here's why it matters

McPhee, John, The Founding Fish (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1st ed., 1st printing, 2002). ISBN 0-374-10444-1. In the days before Tina Brown, The New Yorker ran series of articles on all manner of topics, drilled way down into by the always entertaining John McPhee. Tina moved on, as she always does, but Eustace Tilley has never been the same. This post-Tina work is a look at shad, the fish made famous in Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It,” and other matters piscatorial. Fascinating reading. Hardcover, unclipped dust jacket. Very good condition. Inquire re: pricing and shipping.

Today is John McPhee’s 85th birthday. Born in Princeton, New Jersey, he has spent his life there, and, since 1974, has been on the English Department faculty of the university, a highly-regarded instructor in writing (his acolytes are known as “McPhinos”).

As a Princeton student, he hatched the then-almost-unheard-of idea of writing a novel for his thesis (thank goodness it caught on; Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is one result):
It was among the first the university had ever had. There was a great fight in the English department over whether I would be allowed to do it. They finally decided I could go ahead, but there was opposition. A professor of mine stopped me in the library and said, Well, Johnny, good luck with your—with that thing. I hope you make a lot of money. But I’d never give you a degree for it. And then he goes on down the corridor. 
They asked me to show up on the first day of senior year with thirty thousand words. So I spent the summer in Firestone Library, working in the English grad-study room, writing longhand on yellow pads. I had a real good time in there, working alongside these English grad students, all in various stages of suffering. I got my thirty thousand words done, and then I finished the thing over Christmas. It had a really good structure and was technically fine. But it had no life in it at all. One person wrote a note on it that said, You demonstrated you know how to saddle a horse. Now go find the horse.
But writing teaches writing. And I’ll tell you this, that summer in Firestone Library, I felt myself palpably growing as a writer. You just don’t sit there and write thirty thousand words without learning something. 
I also wrote a fair amount of poetry in college. It was really, really bad. I mean, bad. And that’s how I found out—by doing it. The form of writing that I gravitated to was factual writing. I have no retroactive thoughts about other genres. I’m in the right place and I love being there. But you find out what sort of writer you’ll be by banging around from one form to the next when you’re younger.
After writing for television and in corporate communications, McPhee got his start at Time magazine, but had his eye set on The New Yorker, but William Shawn, its longtime second editor, rejected every article McPhee submitted for fourteen years. Finally, his dad- the basketball team’s doctor- called to invite him home to see a standout new Princeton player, Bill Bradley. A Sense of Where You are was his first New Yorker article, and then, his first book in 1965. He proposed it, on spec, to The New Yorker editor’s gatekeeper:
So I sat down and I wrote a five-thousand-word letter to Leo Hofeller. A lot of that letter is in A Sense of Where You Are. I mean it was seventeen thousand words in The New Yorker, and the letter was five thousand words long, and I probably used three thousand words from the letter. And what I said was, I’m so caught up with this subject that I’m going to write this piece on a freelance basis for somebody and then I’ll come back to you with some other idea. But then I just babbled on about Bradley.
What followed is vintage New Yorker in the Age of Shawn:

I get this back from him: Despite what we said, we would be interested. But he told me that there were no guarantees, of course. I wrote the story and sent it in, and then Leo Hofeller called me to say that they were going to buy it. I showed up at his office, and he said something like, You will never speak to me again. From now on, you will speak to Mr. Shawn, and you’ll forget about me. Forget anything I ever told you, forget everything. It’s a blank slate. Then he leads me eight feet around the corner. And it’s, Hello, hello, Mr. McPhee. And that was the beginning with Shawn.


What were your first impressions?


He spoke so softly. I was awestruck: the guy’s the editor of The New Yorker and he’s this mysterious person. It was the most transforming event of my writing existence, meeting him, and you could take a hundred years to try to get to know him, and this was just the first day. But he was a really encouraging editor. Shawn always functioned as the editor of new writers, so he edited the Bradley thing. So I spent a lot of time in his office, talking commas. He explained everything with absolute patience, going through seventeen thousand words, a comma at a time, bringing in stuff from the grammarians and the readers’ proofs. He talked about each and every one of these items with the author. These were long sessions. At one point I said, Mr. Shawn, you have this whole enterprise going, a magazine is printing this weekend, and you’re the editor of it, and you sit here talking about these commas and semicolons with me—how can you possibly do it?

And he said, It takes as long as it takes. A great line, and it’s so true of writing. It takes as long as it takes.


Did he offer you a job after the Bill Bradley story?


After the last proof had gone to press, before I was leaving, I told him that I wanted to join The New Yorker staff. Ooh! The tone changed. Shawn turned from this wonderful and benevolent editor of words into a tough customer. He said, Oh, how could he encourage that? How could he know this wasn’t a one-shot deal where somebody produces something good because of their intense commitment to it? And furthermore, I had four children. How on earth could he encourage me to give up a job with a salary and benefits? He said, Morally I can’t do that. He was guiding the conversation toward a real flat dead end.

I said, Having had this experience—publishing these seventeen thousand words, with the spirit of it that the writer be satisfied—how can I go back to writing shorter pieces at Time? And I said, If I can’t work on staff here, I think I’ll go work for a bank or something, and try to write pieces independently for The New Yorker.

And Shawn goes, Oh. Oh, oh. I see. Well, then you might as well join the staff. And that was it. I walked out. That was the very beginning of ’65 and that was the moment I became a staff writer.

...At any rate, that first month, January of 1965, I go in there and we’re having this conversation—Oh no, that’s not for us. Again and again. And then finally I said, Well I have another idea. It’s a piece about oranges. That’s all I said—oranges. I didn’t mention juice, I didn’t mention trees, I didn’t mention the tropics. Just—oranges.

Oh yes! Oh yes! he says. That’s very good. The next thing I knew I was in Florida talking to orange growers.

Although a slow writer- he rarely gets out more than 500 words a day, McPhee is a regular and methodical one, with 32 books under his belt. His interests have always been nonfiction, and the range of his interests seemingly endless: the merchant marine; farmer’s market’s freight transport; geology; oranges; Alaska; nuclear physics; canoe-building; life on a Scottish island.

Writing in The Guardian, Robert Macfarlane gives an example of what makes McPhee McPhee:
At his best, I find McPhee to be as accomplished a master of the micro-narrative as Lydia Davis or Ernest Hemingway. Here he is, in a small town close to Denali, which serves as a point of departure and return for mountaineers attempting that brutal summit: 
I once saw a Japanese climber in Richard and Dorothy Jones’s store there, buying a cabbage. It was a purple cabbage and somewhat larger than his own head, which was purple as well, in places, from contusions and sunburn, and probably windburn, suffered in his bout with the mountain. On his cheek was a welted wound, like a split in a tomato. Leaving the store, he walked out of town, ate his cabbage, and slept it off in a tent. 
This is an 80-word masterpiece, made vast by what it omits, and finished by that final perfect sentence. How, though, does McPhee know what happened to the climber and his cabbage? What we do know is that he does know, because he is a man who measures wolf prints and reports to the fiercest fact-checkers in the country: he must have followed up that unnamed climber’s story, and verified that outcome. The result is another example of what William Fiennes – another McPhino – nicely calls “the golden detail rescued in unfussy language”.
You’ll never see McPhee’s face on his dust jackets; he inhabits a quiet place in life, just as in his writing. That ability to disappear into his work is what makes his books so compelling. An author of the “look at me!” era- like his contemporaries, Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson- would not have been able to pull off a Pulitzer for a book on North American geology, as McPhee did with Annals of the Former World (he was a finalist three other times). He told a Paris Review interviewer his influences included bad writers:
It’s when you read something that makes your lips curl, something that’s hokey, something that’s too much of an O. Henry ending. Hot-dog stuff, you know. Where you can watch the writer painting his own makeup on as he writes.

Henry Bemis Books is one man’s attempt to bring more diversity and quality to a Charlotte-Mecklenburg market of devoted readers starved for choices. Our website is at www.henrybemisbookseller.blogspot.com.  Henry Bemis Books is also happy to entertain reasonable offers on items in inventory; for pricing on this or others items, kindly private message us. Shipping is always free; local buyers are welcome to drop by and pick up their purchases at our location off Peachtree Road in Northwest Charlotte if they like. #John McPhee #LiteraryBirthdays #Book of the Day #RareBooks #HenryBemisBooks #Charlotte

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