Thursday, 4 June 2020

Industry, Ingenuity, and Fracture: On John McPhee (2015)

John McPhee is a wonderful writer of extended non-fiction prose that has the narrative power of a great novel. His work requires storytelling craft, real imagination, and strong structure, but in addition it is built on facts (which have been checked, and re-checked, by the legendary New Yorker fact checking department). 

Here is an appreciation in the LA Review of Books by Daniel Solomon of McPhee's work :
But McPhee’s writing, taken as a whole, possesses a substance and coherence beyond its impressive craft. While posing as a gatherer of factual curiosities, he is in fact that most literary of things: a writer preoccupied with a grand theme. McPhee’s work can, in fact, be read as a moral history of American society and its institutions. Throughout his books, it appears in dramas both microscopic and macroscopic, in the refined process of canoe construction and in the passage of geological time alike. Behind his apparent neutrality, McPhee demonstrates concern not only for the industry and ingenuity of his subjects, but also for their consequences, and the future society such ingenuity might create.
The image is from New England; a human interest geographical reader by Clifton Johnson (1917). The photo brings to mind The Survival of the Bark Canoe - a book by McPhee on Henri Vaillancourt, who makes birch-bark canoes, and a trip they took to the Maine woods that Thoreau had visited. (Image from HERE)