Two of the greatest American authors among us today are Tom Wolfe and John McPhee, both of whom are often pigeonholed as part of the New Journalism school that arose in the 1960’s, but are in fact just plain good writers alive by chance at the same time, and both, by the nature of the academic mind, in need of tags so that their work can be more readily handled or dismissed. I am in awe of both men, and have re-read portions of their work to see if an examination of the bones might reveal the source of their magic–on a par with dissecting the golden goose.
My younger brother re-introduced me to McPhee in the early 1990’s. My brother is a geologist and was taken with several of those works which border on that territory, as well as the one on Alaska if I remember correctly. I had only read one of McPhee’s books at the time, the Deltoid Pumpkin Seed–brought to it by my own interest in lighter than air vehicles–and was not yet enamored with the man’s work. McPhee was a bit too cool on a subject that was hot to me.
We sold many of McPhee’s works at my bookshop over the years and I was well aware of the steady interest he seemed to bring even though his subject matter ranged from basketball and canoes, to oranges. I suppose I had dismissed him for his range of interest and assumed, if he wrote about so many things, he could write about none of them very well. That, of course, would have been true of a lesser writer.
Like all good writers, McPhee focuses on the individual human story and through them reveals the larger context. Thus, he is truly exploring the same territory again and again–human character. The geomorphology of the stone serves only as a stage.
The book that changed my judgment on McPhee was Rising from the Plains. This is just one part of a fine quartet which includes Basin and Range, In Suspect Terrain, and Assembling California. All of these were gathered together in the Pulitzer Prize omnibus Annals of a Former World in 1998. You won’t have qualified for a degree in geology when you have completed the course, but you will know better of the earth on which you stand. And more importantly, you will grasp a good portion of the geography of the human heart.
What quickly captured my eye with Rising from the Plains, a study of the earth we call Wyoming, was Ethel Waxham, “a slim young woman who is not in any sense a geologist,” as she “steps down from a train in Rawlings, Wyoming, in order to go north by stagecoach into country that was still very much the Old West. She arrived in 1905, when she was twenty-three. Her hair was so blond it looked white. In Massachusetts, a few months before, she had graduated from Wellesley College, and had been awarded a Phi Beta Kappa key, which now hung around her neck. Her field was classical studies. In addition to her skills in Latin and Greek, she could handle a horse expertly…” and shoot a rifle accurately and her aim was to teach school at a one-room outpost of civilization in a land of winds so great they spread the meager soil all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.
Another favorite book of mine is The Virginian, by Owen Wister. That phenomenal bestseller is a far better piece of literature than most academics have taken the time to appreciate (or Hollywood has bothered to remake). It is cursed by its phenomenal success–the unwashed public liked it, so how can it be good. And, perhaps worse, it is a progenitor of all the Western novels which have shaped our concept of the American West to this day. That is the connection which found its way in my brain back in the 1990’s. Could Ethel Waxham have been inspired by the heroine of The Virginian, first published in 1902 and so popular about the time that she was studying the classics in Northampton? What inspired this young woman to go west to that same territory and take up her profession? Had literature once again not only reflected the world but in so doing, changed it?
McPhee teaches writing at Princeton University, and I would love to have studied with him, but I must settle for what I can learn from his books. I can tell you a little of what I have found there, and have tried to learn: Patience–if the story is there it will rise to the surface by the force of nature beneath it; Observation–the study of a subject is not in the notions you bring to it but in the revelation of the interior; Choice–all the facts are there by the million, and too many to catalog, so what you report should be true also to the nature of what you must leave behind; and Manner–style is overrated in our time, while manner is overlooked. The manner of telling of a story is the secret that opens the reader’s mind.
The guide John McPhee chose for his expedition through time was David Love, a wise and observant professional geologist born and raised on the land to be studied. But it is in David Love’s own past that we discover our reason to care about this particular place.
I have not yet read the journals of Ethel Waxham. These are published now and I will read them soon. She is a stunningly beautiful writer. Hers is the spring water from which the story in Rising from the Plains grows. Hers is the fragile human element that finds its root in the rock and splits it, inexorably, to be viewed by us in the comfort of our chairs. Just the portions excerpted by McPhee in his own book have left me with a sort of hero worship. I cannot forget her story.
Recently I began a total re-write of the third novel in the Hound series. What I had written in previous drafts did not yet capture the story I wanted to tell. In this task I had my erstwhile hero, Henry Sullivan, a fellow who has managed to find a unique life in his own appreciation of books, extolling the virtues of McPhee’s work. I decided to take a chance and re-read my reference, and was suddenly captured by McPhee and his subject once again.
This is not always a wise move. Re-reading favorite books can be painful. Especially when the work was first encountered when we were young. But it has been less than twenty years sense my first judgment, and I bargained with the fact that I had changed less in that time than in the twenty years before.
As usual, I was wrong. I found myself moved more by the second reading than the first. I don’t want to go too far in explaining why I think this is so at this time in my life. The human comedy is always a laugh at our own expense. And though the reason for this web site is a discussion of my work, the greater and lesser purpose I have for that work, and the values which I believe inform it, I am not sure all the ingredients in the sausage should be revealed. Thank goodness there is no FDA yet for writers.
At some point I will re-write and post an appreciation of a very different author, Tom Wolfe. How great writing can be so different while drawing on the same elements is a magic worthy of many more essays, but here I would simply commend for your attention the work of John McPhee. I think especially Rising From The Plains, as my personal favorite, but take your pick. Take time. Be patient.