John McPhee wrote his first essay for The New Yorker in 1963 and published his first book with Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1965. Over a hundred essays and more than 30 books later, McPhee still writes for the same magazine and publisher. He still lives in Princeton, N.J., where he was born in 1931 and attended high school and college (he’s taught at Princeton University himself since 1974). In an era when freelance writers flock from market to market, McPhee is a throwback to a time when writers found success through a steady output, a methodical approach, and a sense of loyalty.
The Patch, his new book of essays, pairs nicely with his previous volume of writing instruction — Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process. McPhee is the prototypal writer who has built a career on talent and craft rather than ideology; on patience and perception over outrage. Yet to call McPhee “prototypal” suggests that others have followed in his keystrokes. He is a singular gem within the contemporary nonfiction genre: a writer who is known for his reported long-form narratives but who has a prose-poetic sense that extends down to his paragraphs and sentences.
The collection begins with the title essay. The Patch was a “quarter mile of sharply edged lily pads.” McPhee has been fishing pickerel in Lake Winnipesaukee, N.H., for 40 years. Other anglers on the lake prefer bass and call pickerel “slime dart” — trash fish.
McPhee’s father, the former head physician for several U.S. Olympic teams, used to wake his son before dawn to go trout fishing in New Jersey streams on opening day. “One time,” he reflects, “as dawn broke, we discovered that the stream was frozen over” — whether the fishing was successful or not, those are his “fondest memories” of his father. Yet McPhee’s interest in fishing waned as a teenager — the memory is resurrected only when his father has a stroke. Visiting him in the hospital, McPhee tells his father that he’s been fishing the Patch with the older man’s bamboo rod and has caught a pickerel. His father, incapacitated, makes no response, and the essay ends with the grave pronouncement of his father’s death rather than any lesson or joy.
Such an ending feels appropriate for McPhee, who typically avoids sermonizing — or even offering his readers the gift of relief, other than the sense that we go on because we must go on. McPhee speaks of writing in this way. “Routine,” not inspiration, is what “causes a piece of writing to be done.” Most of the time in his writing office is spent sitting alone, “doing nothing.” As the time passes, a sense of panic increases, and then finally, the words come.
McPhee is more vessel than magician — and this is said with recognition of his skill. His work is behind the scenes and beneath the surface: The page belongs to the story. This is true even when McPhee himself is at the center of the narrative, as in “Direct Eye Contact.” Years earlier, McPhee had moved into a home built on “an unpaved road, running through woods and past an abandoned cornfield that had become a small meadow.” He had a “yearning” to see a bear in that meadow. Back in 1966, after a conversation with the head of the state’s Division of Fish and Game, McPhee learned there were 22 wild bears in New Jersey, most of them among the Kittatinny Mountains in Sussex County, a place McPhee says “looks like Vermont.”
Now bears are legion in the state, spotted in every county. Here they have a “concentrated forage of acorns, hazelnuts, beechnuts” — food that builds fat. McPhee is at once excited for an encounter and cautious about it, interspersing the essay with state warnings to avoid eye contact with bears. He is realistic about the low probability of deadly attacks — “Horrible as such events are, bear stories gathering in the mind across time tend to exaggerate their own frequency” — but knows it is better to admire the animals from a distance. “Direct Eye Contact” ends without any: McPhee has never encountered a bear. The closest he got was through his wife, who saw a bear “rolling its shoulders, flexing, shrugging, soaking up the sun” late one morning, while McPhee spoke with Mitch Henderson, the men’s basketball coach at Princeton University, in the cellar. The missed opportunity is less a complaint and more a plainspoken sigh: the recognition that the world moves on, without us.
The second half of The Patch is titled “An Album Quilt” and includes excerpts from essays that have never appeared in a book. The approach doesn’t always work. It would be nice to have firmer outlines between the pieces, and a bit more context. A quilt is an object: We can move back and forth across it and see all even of a large one there in front of us. A book is fragmentary, so too much excision can choke a narrative. One section of “An Album Quilt,” about old New England homes, is full of lush language and curious anecdotes (“If a family had a bridge on their land, they charged neighbors and strangers a toll to cross it”), but the excerpt as a whole is short and feels abbreviated.
The method works best when the prose matches the subject, as in a section about the Hershey chocolate factory. “Big, aromatic rooms. Chocolate, as far as the eye can see. Viscous, undulating, lukewarm chocolate, viscidized, undulated by the slurping friction of granite rollers rolling through the chocolate over crenellated granite beds at the bottoms of the pools.” The syntax is a treat, as tempting as its subject.
One of McPhee’s talents is noticing something and nudging it toward an essay. Consider the winding, endless line at Radio City Music Hall, “doubling and redoubling upon itself through a maze of sawhorses set up by New York police.” Or the first time McPhee drank. It was whiskey, and he was ten years old, playing sandlot football on a vacant lot at the university. The games had an unlikely spectator: “Walking to work from his house on Mercer Street, Albert Einstein, leonine and sockless, would stop for a while to watch the action.”
His subjects are eclectic, and his range is impressive: Mensa meetings, Richard Burton, the etymology of the word “notion,” playing basketball with legendary Princeton coach Pete Carril, learning from an altimeter specialist, and a summer spent in Alaska. Discussing the last, he tucks a lament near the end of his book: “To become absorbed in an almost total way with a people and a place and then suddenly to be cut off from those people, except through the mail, is something that could be listed among the liabilities of the writing life.”
McPhee has always been honest about the work of writing. In Draft No. 4, he explains that “the daily journalist has to go out, get the story, and write it in one day.” Unlike them, “I just stay there and fade away as I watch people do what they do.” The locus of McPhee’s identity as a writer is time. He knows we have a finite amount, and yet great writing demands so much of it. More writers of McPhee’s age could learn from his example: find a subject and story, pick up a notebook, and then listen, watch, and wait.