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date: 14 June 2024

McPhee, Johnlocked

McPhee, Johnlocked

  • Jan GoggansJan GoggansSchool of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts, University of California, Merced

Summary

John McPhee’s nonfiction is universally praised for its intelligent, graceful prose and its wide topical range. A writer’s writer, a man whom other writers genuinely admire for his craft, he is able to soak up a variety of information, assimilate and analyze it, creating essays and book-length works grounded in traditional journalistic techniques while employing a number of literary strategies. Fact based, sometimes taut and dramatic, sometimes spun with wit and charm, yet always reading like a story, McPhee’s prose adds new and memorable ways to a genre we know as creative nonfiction or, in the class McPhee teaches at Princeton, “the literature of fact.” Fact is inarguable in McPhee, but it takes many forms and is harbored in many sources. Biography, interview, description, and analysis—all factor into McPhee’s unique and complex production of the profile, a genre he began writing as a staff member for The New Yorker. His profiles, among many others, have since then included athletes (Bill Bradley and Arthur Ashe), a headmaster, an art historian, and a wild foods expert. The story of each is the story of where, how, and most importantly, why. But it has not been people alone whom McPhee profiles. The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed (1973), about the proliferation of nuclear materials, and Oranges (1967), about the citrus industry, are profiles, as is shad, in The Founding Fish. Often regional in his explorations, he demonstrates Norma Tilden’s claim that “to write a life and to write a place are similar processes. A welter of things seen—and even more that are unseen—go into the formation of both.” This sense of place has earned McPhee the reputation of an environmental writer, and his publications turn to the interrelationship of anthropocentric and nonhuman life forms. Encounters with the Archdruid (1972) and The Curve of Binding Energy (1974) were nominated for National Book Awards in the category of science. McPhee received the award in literature from the Academy of Arts and Letters in 1977. In 1999, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Annals of the Former World.

Subjects

  • North American Literatures
  • Fiction
  • 20th and 21st Century (1900-present)
  • Non-Fiction and Life Writing

Updated in this version

Text rewritten to reflect recent scholarship. Bibliography and selected works expanded.

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