John Angus McPhee is among the twentieth century’s most acute observers of the natural world, but he cannot be classified as a “nature writer.” His range is wide, from biographies and portraits of athletes, leaders of conservation movements, and educators to books about geology, physics, new inventions, and ordinary people doing ordinary jobs. Born and reared in Princeton, New Jersey, he gravitated toward the university there and graduated in 1953. By 1957 he was a staff writer for Time. In 1965 he became a staff member of and a regular contributor of nonfiction to The New Yorker, where much of his work first appeared.
McPhee’s early books centered on sports, education, and New Jersey. A Sense of Where You Are, the piece which established him as a contributor to The New Yorker, is about the Princeton career of basketball star Bill Bradley, who later became a United States senator; Levels of the Game looks closely at a single tennis match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner. The Headmaster is a portrait of the famous principal of Deerfield Academy, Frank Boyden, who ran the school in idiosyncratic fashion for sixty-eight years. The Pine Barrens looks at the history and people of an isolated backwater in New Jersey that is physically close but spiritually and economically distant from the urban world of the northeastern corridor.
These books convey a sense of the breadth of McPhee’s interests and the diversity of his subjects. They share very little except McPhee’s interest in and skill at conveying unusual people and settings, as well as his skill at precise and detailed description. He is a conscientious researcher, spending time observing his subjects and listening to anyone about whom he intends to write and anyone else who knows about his subject. He returns again and again, if necessary, to be sure that he has all the necessary information.
His classic study of Alaska, Coming into the Country, for example, is based on months spent in the largest of the states, especially in the remote community of Eagle and in hazardous trips through the remote regions of the interior. The book is a combination of acute observations of the natural world and its wildlife,...
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