John McPhee: His Life and Work

Writer, Educator, and Pioneer of Creative Nonfiction

John McPhee
John McPhee. Bettman

Once called “the best journalist in America” by The Washington PostJohn Angus McPhee (born March 8, 1931 in Princeton, New Jersey) is a writer and Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. Regarded as the key figure in the field of creative nonfiction, his book Annals of the Former World won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction.

Early Life

John McPhee was born and raised in Princeton New Jersey.

The son of a physician who worked for Princeton University’s athletic department, he attended Princeton High School and then the university itself, graduating in 1953 with a Bachelor of Arts degree. He then went to Cambridge to study at Magdalene College for a year.

While at Princeton, McPhee appeared frequently on an early television game show called “Twenty Questions,” wherein contestants attempted to guess the object of the game by asking yes or no questions. McPhee was one of a group of “whiz kids” appearing on the show.

Professional Writing Career

From 1957 to 1964, McPhee worked at Time magazine as an associate editor. In 1965 he jumped to The New Yorker as a staff writer, a life-long goal; over the course of the next five decades, the majority of McPhee’s journalism would appear in the pages of that magazine. He published his first book that year as well; A Sense of Where You Are was an expansion of a magazine profile he’d written about Bill Bradley, professional basketball player and, later, U.S. Senator.

This set a life-long pattern of McPhee’s longer works beginning as shorter pieces initially appearing in The New Yorker.

Since 1965, McPhee has published 30 books on a wide variety of subjects, as well as countless articles and standalone essays in magazines and newspapers. All of his books started off as shorter pieces that appeared or were intended for The New Yorker.

His work has covered an incredibly wide range of subject matter, from profiles of individuals (Levels of the Game) to examinations of entire regions (The Pine Barrens) to scientific and academic subjects, most notably his series of books concerning the geology of the western United States, which were collected into the single volume Annals of the Former World, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction in 1999.

McPhee’s most famous and widely-read book is Coming into the Country, published in 1976. It was the product of a series of travels through the state of Alaska accompanied by guides, bush pilots, and prospectors.

Writing Style

McPhee’s subjects are very personal—he writes about things he’s interested in, which in 1967 included oranges, the subject of his 1967 book titled, appropriately enough, Oranges. This personal approach has led some critics to consider McPhee’s writing to be a unique genre called Creative Nonfiction, an approach to factual reporting that brings an intimately personal slant to the work. Instead of seeking merely to report facts and paint accurate portraits, McPhee infuses his work with an opinion and viewpoint presented so subtly it’s often overlooked consciously even as it’s absorbed unconsciously.

Structure is the key element of McPhee’s writing. He has stated that structure is what absorbs most of his effort when working on a book, and he laboriously outlines and arranges the work’s structure before writing a word. His books are therefore best understood in the order in which they present information, even if the individual essay-like sections contain beautiful and elegant writing, which they frequently do. Reading a work by John McPhee is more about understanding why he chooses to relay an anecdote, factual list, or momentous event at the time in his narrative that he does.

This is what sets McPhee’s nonfiction apart from other works, and what makes it creative in a way most other nonfiction work is not—the manipulation of structure. Instead of following a simple linear timeline, McPhee treats his subjects almost as fictional characters, choosing what to reveal about them and when, without actually inventing or fictionalizing anything.

As he wrote in his book on the craft of writing, Draft No. 4, “You’re a nonfiction writer. You can’t move [events] around like a king’s pawn or a queen’s bishop. But you can, to an important and effective extent, arrange a structure that is completely faithful to fact.”

As Educator

In his role as Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University (a post he has held since 1974), McPhee teaches a writing seminar two out of every three years. It’s one of the most popular and competitive writing programs in the country, and his former students include acclaimed writers such as Richard Preston (The Hot Zone), Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation), and Jennifer Weiner (Good in Bed).

When he is teaching his seminar, McPhee does no writing at all. His seminar is reportedly focused on craft and tools, to the point where he has been known to pass around the pencils he uses in his own work for students to examine. As such it’s an unusual writing class, a throwback to an era when writing was a profession like any other, with tools, processes, and accepted norms that could earn a respectable if not flashy income. McPhee concentrates on the building of narratives from the raw ingredients of words and facts, not the elegant turning of phrases or other artistic concerns.

McPhee has referred to writing as “masochistic, mind-fracturing self-enslaved labor” and famously keeps a print of sinners being tortured (in the style of Hieronymus Bosch) outside his office at Princeton.

Personal life

McPhee has been married twice; first to photographer Pryde Brown, with whom he fathered four daughters—Jenny and Martha, who grew up to be novelists like their father, Laura, who grew up to be a photographer like her mother, and Sarah, the outlier who became an architectural historian.

Brown and McPhee divorced in the late 1960s, and McPhee married his second wife, Yolanda Whitman, in 1972. He has lived in Princeton his whole life.

Awards and Honors

1972: National Book Award (nomination), Encounters with the Archdruid

1974: National Book Award (nomination), The Curve of Binding Energy

1977: Award in Literature from the Academy of Arts and Letters

1999: Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction, Annals of the Former World

2008: George Polk Career Award for lifetime achievement in journalism

Famous Quotes

“If by some fiat I had to restrict all this writing to one sentence, this is the one I would choose: The summit of Mt. Everest is marine limestone.” (from Assembling California, explaining the geological processes that have culminated in the world we know today)

“I used to sit in class and listen to the terms come floating down the room like paper airplanes.” (the opening lines of Basin and Range, the first volume of his Pulitzer Prize-winning work, Annals of the Former World)

“In making war with nature, there was risk of loss in winning.” (from The Control of Nature, commenting on the unintended consequences of attempts to blunt the effects of a volcanic eruption)

“A writer has to have some kind of compulsive drive to do his work. If you don't have it, you'd better find another kind of work, because it's the only compulsion that will drive you through the psychological nightmares of writing.” (once again explaining his belief that writing is always difficult)

“Almost all Americans would recognize Anchorage, because Anchorage is that part of any city where the city has burst its seams and extruded Colonel Sanders.” (from his most popular book, Coming into the Country)

Impact

As an educator and writing teacher, McPhee’s impact and legacy is obvious: It’s estimated that about 50% of the students who have taken his writing seminar have gone on to careers as writers or editors or both. Hundreds of well-known writers owe some of their success to McPhee, and his influence on the current state of nonfiction writing is enormous, as even writers who haven’t been lucky enough to take his seminar are deeply influenced by him.

As a writer, his impact is more subtle but equally profound. McPhee’s work is nonfiction, traditionally a dry, often humorless and impersonal field where accuracy was valued more than any kind of enjoyment. McPhee’s work is factually accurate and educational, but it incorporates his own personality, private life, friends and relationships and—most importantly—a buzzing sort of passion for the subject at hand. McPhee writes about subjects that interest him. Anyone who has ever experienced the sort of curiosity that sets off a reading binge recognizes in McPhee’s prose a kindred spirit, a man who sinks into expertise on a subject out of simple curiosity.

That intimate and creative approach to nonfiction has influenced several generations of writers and transformed nonfiction writing into a genre almost as ripe with creative possibilities as fiction. While McPhee doesn’t invent facts or filter events through a fiction filter, his understanding that structure makes the story has been revolutionary in the nonfiction world.

At the same time, McPhee represents the last remnant of a writing and publishing world that no longer exists. McPhee was able to get a comfortable job at a famous magazine shortly after graduating college, and has been able to choose the subjects of his journalism and books, often without any sort of measurable editorial control or budgetary concern. While this is certainly due in part to his skill and value as a writer, it’s also an environment that young writers can no longer expect to encounter in the age of listicles, digital content, and shrinking print budgets.

Selected Bibliography

A Sense of Where You Are (1965)

The Headmaster (1966)

Oranges (1967)

The Pine Barrens (1968)

A Roomful of Hovings and Other Profiles (1968)

Levels of the Game (1969)

The Crofter and the Laird (1970)

Encounters with the Archdruid (1971)

The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed (1973)

The Curve of Binding Energy (1974)

The Survival of the Bark Canoe (1975)

Pieces of the Frame (1975)

The John McPhee Reader (1976)

Coming into the Country (1977)

Giving Good Weight (1979)

Basin and Range (1981)

In Suspect Terrain (1983)

La Place de la Concorde Suisse (1984)

Table of Contents (1985)

Rising from the Plains (1986)

Looking for a Ship (1990)

Arthur Ashe Remembered (1993)

Assembling California (1993)

Irons in the Fire (1997)

Annals of the Former World (1998)

Founding Fish (2002)

Uncommon Carriers (2006)

Silk Parachute (2010)

Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process (2017)

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Somers, Jeffrey. "John McPhee: His Life and Work." ThoughtCo, Oct. 30, 2017, thoughtco.com/john-mcphee-biography-4153952. Somers, Jeffrey. (2017, October 30). John McPhee: His Life and Work. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/john-mcphee-biography-4153952 Somers, Jeffrey. "John McPhee: His Life and Work." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/john-mcphee-biography-4153952 (accessed November 18, 2017).