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.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Sam Anderson's "The Mind of John McPhee"

John McPhee (Photo by Andrea Modica)

Sam Anderson, in his superb “The Mind of John McPhee” (The New York Times Magazine, September 28, 2017), calls McPhee’s writing process “hellacious.” I agree. But you can’t argue with the results – “The Pine Barrens,” “Travels in Georgia,” “The Survival of the Bark Canoe,” “The Encircled River,” “Atchafalaya,” “The Keel of Lake Dickey,” “A Fleet of One,” “La Place de la Concorde Suisse,” “Coal Train,” on and on. They're among the glories of New Yorker writing.

Anderson’s piece is part interview with McPhee, part tour of Princeton with McPhee as guide, and part tribute to McPhee. It brims with interesting details, e.g., the faded poster outside McPhee’s office door (“It is a print in the style of Hieronymus Bosch of sinners, in the afterlife, being elaborately tortured in the nude – a woman with a sword in her back, a small crowd sitting in a vat of liquid pouring out of a giant nose, someone riding a platypus”); the 10-CD set of Lolita, read by Jeremy Irons, on the center console of McPhee’s minivan; the twice-a-year fishing trips with three of his New Yorker colleagues: Ian Frazier, Mark Singer and David Remnick.

Singer centrally figures in “The Mind of John McPhee” ’s most moving passage:

When I asked Singer what kind of fisherman McPhee is, he started describing the sight of his friend on the river — “He gets out there in a little canoe and sets up below a rapids, he’s got the fly rod in his left hand, he’ll paddle to sort of maneuver around” — and the description got more and more wistful until, finally, it turned into a pure declaration of love. “You just sort of see him in silhouette,” Singer said, “and it’s just — ” He paused, took a breath and was silent for a moment, and then he actually put his hand over his heart. “You know,” he said, “you just want to tell this guy how much you love him.”

“Joe Mitchell’s Secret” (The New Yorker, February 22, 1999) is the best profile of a New Yorker writer I've ever read. Sam Anderson’s “The Mind of John McPhee” is a close second. I enjoyed it immensely.

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