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 Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear 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.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

5 Great "New Yorker" River Pieces

James Graves, "St. John River" (1976)

I love rivers and I love river stories – especially factual ones. The New Yorker has a long history of great river writing. Here are five of my favorites, with a choice quotation from each in brackets:

1. Berton Roueché, “The River World,” The New Yorker, February 26, 1972; included in Roueché’s 1978 collection, The River World and Other Explorations (“At the head of the tow, where I am sitting on a coil of rigging near the bow of the starboard barge, there is the feeling of a raft – a peaceful sense of drifting, a sense of country quiet. The only sound is the slap of water under the rake of the bow. I am alone and half asleep in the silence and the warmth of the mild midmorning sun. The river is empty. There is only the bend ahead, a sandy shore of brush and willows on the near bank, and a steep bluff crowned with cottonwoods a quarter of a mile away on the other – no towns, no houses, no bridges, no roads, not even another boat”).

2. John McPhee, “The Keel of Lake Dickey,” The New Yorker, May 3, 1976; included in McPhee’s 1979 collection, Giving Good Weight (“We are a bend or two below the Priestly Rapid, and we can see more than a mile ahead before the river turns from view. Bank to bank, the current is running fast. It is May 28th. The ice went out about a month ago. We have seen remnant snow in shadowed places on the edges of the river. The hardwoods are just budding, and they are scattered among the conifers, so the riverine hills are bright and dark green, streaked with the white stems of canoe birch”).

3. Bill Barich, “Steelhead,” The New Yorker, March 2, 1981; retitled “Steelhead on the Russian,” in Barich’s 1984 collection, Traveling Light (“From my available gear, I’d assembled a kitful of lures and a makeshift steelhead rig – an eight-foot fiberglass rod and a medium-sized spinning reel wound with twelve-pound test – and I took it in hand and walked off into a seemingly static landscape that could have been painted by Hokusai: twisted live oak trees, barren willows, new winter grass, and vineyards laced with yellow mustard flowers, everything cloaked in river mist”).

4. Alec Wilkinson, “The Riverkeeper,” The New Yorker, May 11, 1987; included in Wilkinson’s 1990 collection, The Riverkeeper (“I went out with him one evening in December to look at a cove that is so choked in the summer with water chestnuts that he can’t get the boat into it, and we came home in the dark, and it was really cold, and the water was so smooth that the sensation of crossing it was almost like flying. I have been out with him on hot, hazy days when the river is gray and the sky is white and the hills in the distance are blue. I made a trip with him one spring day from Cold Spring to Catskill Creek – sixty miles. In Poughkeepsie, we stopped and watched police divers haul the body of a drowned man from the river. We spent the night in a slip at Hop-O-Nose Marine, on Catskill Creek. Herring jumped all night in the creek. It sounded like someone spooning water from a basin with his hands”).

5. Ian Frazier, “Five Fish,” The New Yorker, October 8, 2001; included in Frazier’s 2002 collection, The Fish’s Eye (“Storm clouds moved in, and the afternoon light became a wintry gloom. Snow began to fall hard, hissing in the bare branches of the cottonwood trees. The river scenery – bare-rock bluffs, dark-red willows, and tawny grasses along the shore – faded like something you see as you fall asleep. Daryl and I waded in deeper, crossed the river, tried different spots. The water in the Bitterroot actually felt warmer than the melted snow trickling around our ears. My fly line began to make a raspy sound in the line guides as it passed over the edges of ice building up in them. Steam rose from the water and moved in genie-sized wisps with the current”).

Credit: The above illustration by James Graves is from John McPhee’s ““The Keel of Lake Dickey” (The New Yorker, May 3, 1976).  

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