What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

McPhee and Names

I crave specificity. No writer satisfies this craving more completely than John McPhee. One way he does it is by providing a wealth of proper names. The proper name is a form of specificity par excellence. “It is a voluminous sign, a sign always pregnant with a dense texture of meaning,” Roland Barthes says, in “Proust and Names” (New Critical Essays, 1980). McPhee is a compulsive namer; he names everything in sight – rivers, lakes, mountains, towns, valleys, rocks, geologic periods, rapids, dams, canoes, even such details as chocolate bars (“Militärschokolade, Chocolat Militaire”), lacrosse sticks (“Cyber head on a black Swizzle Scandium,” and Bubba Watson’s driver (“His 460cc Grafalloy driver has a pink shaft”). It’s an aspect of his phenomenal art of description. Here are a dozen passages exemplifying his use of proper names:

The canton is divided in language as well, part French, part German, and not in a mixed-up manner, which would be utterly un-Swiss, but with a break that is clear in the march of towns – Champéry, Martigny, Sion, Sierre, Salgesch, Turtmann, Ausserberg, Brig – and clearer still in the names of the hanging valleys that come down among the peaks and plummet to the Rhone: Val de Bagnes, Val d”Hérens, Val d’Anniviers, Turtmanntal, Lötschental, Mattertal. (“La Place de la Concorde Suisse,” The New Yorker, October 31 & November 7, 1983)

At Gornergrat one day, at the top of a cog railway five thousand feet above Zermatt, I was sitting in an almost windless stillness, slowly moving my gaze in full circumference from the Breithorn to the Matterhorn to the Dente Blanche to the Zinalrothorn to the Weisshorn to the Dom – all well above four thousand metres – and on to the Dufourspitze, the highest mountain in Switzerland. (“La Place de la Concorde Suisse,” The New Yorker, October 31 & November 7, 1983)

Twelve miles from Rawlins, the horses were changed at Bell Spring, where, in a kind of topographical staircase – consisting of the protruding edges of sediments that dipped away to the east – the whole of the Mesozoic era rose to view: the top step of the Cretaceous, the next Jurassic, at the bottom a low red Triassic bluff, against which was clustered a compound of buildings roofed with cool red mud. (“Rising from the Plains,” The New Yorker, February 24 & March 3 & 10, 1986)

From level to level in a drill hole there – a hole about a mile deep – oil could be found in an amazing spectrum of host rocks: in the Cambrian Flathead sandstone, in the Mississippian Madison limestone, in the Tensleep sands of Pennsylvanian time. Oil was in the Chugwater (red sands of the Triassic), and in the Morrison, Sundance, Nugget (celebrated formations of the Jurrasic), and, of course, in the Crataceous Frontier. (“Rising from the Plains,” The New Yorker, February 24 & March 3 & 10, 1986)

We shivered in the deep shadows of bluffs a thousand feet high – Calico Bluff, Montauk Bluff, Biederman Bluff, Takoma Bluff – which day after day intermittently walled the river. (“Coming into the Country,” The New Yorker, June 20 & 27, July 4 & 11, 1977)

They arrived in a pickup – with their axes and hammers, drill bits and drawknife, whipsaw; their new, lovely, seventeen-foot Chestnut Prospector canoe. (“Coming into the Country,” The New Yorker, June 20 & 27, July 4 & 11, 1977)

Above the line rise the Kennebec, the Penobscot, the Allegash, the St. John. Above the line is the Great North Woods. (“North of the C.P. Line,” The New Yorker, November 26, 1984)

Since 1960, some two hundred small-river dams have been removed in the United States, nowhere as feverishly as in Wisconsin, where the Slabtown Dam, on the Bark River, was destroyed in 1992; the Wonewoc Dam, on the Bark River, in 1996; the Hayman Falls Dam, on the Embarrass River, in 1995; the Readstown Dam, on the Kickapoo River, in 1985; the Mellen Dam, on the Bad River, in 1967. (“Farewell to the Nineteenth Century," The New Yorker, September 27, 1999)

After passing under three bridges, two of them abandoned, we would come to the end of our trip at A. J. Lambert Riverside Park, Hooksett Village, below Hooksett Dam – a spectacular scene colluding natural white cascades with water falling over the dam and plunging from the powerhouse. (“1839/2003,” The New Yorker, December 15, 2003)

From Breaky Bottom out through Beachy Head, under the Channel, and up into Picardy, and on past Arras and Amiens, the chalk is continuous to Reims and Épernay. To drive the small roads and narrow lanes of Champagne is to drive the karstic downlands of Sussex and Surrey, the smoothly bold topography of Kentish chalk – the French ridges, long and soft, the mosaic fields and woodlots, the chalk boulders by the road in villages like Villeneuve-l’Archêveque. (“Season on the Chalk,” The New Yorker, March 12, 2007)

Credit: The above photo of John McPhee is by Peter Cook.

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