A Sampler of America

The John McPhee Reader    edited by William L. Howarth

Farrar, Strauss Giroux 1976. ....   reviewed 16 May 1995 by David P. Stern


      Most readers have a favorite author, and mine is probably John McPhee. A writer of non-fiction, he takes delight in exploring unconventional aspects of our society, presented through colorful individuals and described in crisp and scintillating language.

      This book is a sampler, containing excerpts from a dozen books, an admirable introduction for anyone new to McPhee's style. Collections like this are often disjointed and fragmentary, but not here: each section stands on its own, each is a minor masterpiece, each tells a story, and the editor's introductory analysis of McPhee's style is masterful in its own way. First published in 1976, it is still in print, like other books by McPhee. He wrote many more after that--about Alaska, about the geology of the western US (three books, a bit heavy with geology jargon), about an ocean trip with the US merchant marine, also stories about bears in New Jersey, about attempts to contain the mighty Mississippi and lava flows on Iceland, and so forth, up to his recent "Ransom of Russian Art," his twenty-third.

      As the above list shows, McPhee's interests are rather wide-ranging. The books excerpted here touch on canoeing in Maine, on travels through the sparsely populated (yes!) center of New Jersey, and on dreamers or visionaries (pick your choice) who plan trips to the stars by controlled atomic explosions, and others who fly a craft that is a hybrid between an airplane and an airship.

      All these sparkle with apt metaphors ("Generally speaking, if I had a choice between hiking and peeling potatoes, I would peel the potatoes"). And the descriptions are intimate and personal: all are based on first-hand experiences by McPhee, as he follows his subjects wherever they take him. I ought to admit here that his point of view is somewhat masculine, but there is more than enough in his writings to attract any reader.

      He also has the gift of digging up unusual stories--e.g. in "Oranges" he tells practically all you might want about Florida's sunshine product. You not only learn the ins and outs of "Indian River oranges" (it's a lagoon, not a river), but also how Ossian B. Hart, later governor of the state, played his violin to an audience of alligators.

      And he uncovers interesting characters, sometimes precociously so. McPhee's first book was an admiring portrayal of a talented basketball player he got to know during college years: Bill Bradley later became US senator from New Jersey and a serious contender for the US presidential nomination. Four years later he wrote an equally admiring book about a nearly unknown young Black tennis player from Richmond, Virginia, Arthur Ashe. And in "Travels in Georgia", a wilderness adventure, he describes his meeting with "Governor Jimmy Carter". All these are included here, as is an encounter between David Brouwer, head of the Sierra Club, and an opponent of Brouwer, a prominent pro-development westerner. Both were invited by McPhee to share a rafting trip down the Grand Canyon. And much, much more.

     In each generation, only a handful of books endure and become part of the literary heritage handed down from generation to generation. It is too early to tell, but McPhee's writings may well end up in this class. A century hence, if anyone would like to understand the peculiar creativity that made twentieth century America the great country it is, he might well find the clearest answer in McPhee's true-to-life explorations.


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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   david("at" symbol)phy6.org .

Last updated 18 January 2002