John McPhee – The Pine Barrens (1968)

“… John Angus McPhee was born in Princeton, New Jersey, on March 8, 1931, to Dr. Harry McPhee, a physician for the Princeton University athletic department, and his wife Mary. As a boy, McPhee enjoyed sports and the outdoors, but by the time he entered Princeton University, writing had become his main passion. His career in journalism began at Time, but in the early sixties he moved over to The New Yorker, where he has continued to write for over half a century. The sixties were a decade of upheaval and progress, and one of the many areas where that revolutionary spirit reared its head was in the art of nonfiction. In previous decades, nonfiction—particularly if written for periodicals—had been seen mostly as ephemeral reportage. It was for catching up on world events, local matters, and human interest, usually read over a morning cup of coffee, stained with those wet, brown rings. Partially because it was churned out on deadline, factual writing was often pooh-poohed as a lesser art form than fictional writing, with the focus merely on the transfer of information, rather than aesthetic splendor, thematic heft, and formal precision. ‘Whatever else they do, men in the Pine Barrens are firefighters throughout their lives,’ begins one section in McPhee’s The Pine Barrens. That opening paragraph culminates in a characteristically stark, suggestive image: ‘In 1936, a cousin of the fire watcher Eddie Parker was caught in the middle when a head fire and backfire came together. He had no time to get to burned ground. The last living thing he did was to kneel, as he burned, and embrace a pine tree.’ McPhee’s sentences are as varied as the geographic features he so often describes: some move at a glacial pace, some jut up unexpectedly like exposed granite, others gooseneck like snaking streams, still others burn like understory, quick, dangerous. Always his sentences capture some crystalline essence in their intricate, melodious designs—making connections, spinning webs, accreting meanings. … In the sixties, writers like Truman Capote, Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, and John McPhee changed that perception by imbuing the factual with as much artistry as the fictional. Of course, the ‘New Journalism,’ as it has often been called, might not have been as revolutionary—as new—as our cultural myths imply. McPhee, for his part, thinks this narrative is a bit of hooey. …”
LitHub – John McPhee: Seven Ways of Looking at a Writer
NY Times – The Mind of John McPhee
W – The Pine Barrens

About 1960s: Days of Rage

Bill Davis - 1960s: Days of Rage
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