My connection to John McPhee began as a happy accident. In 1966 I arrived at Princeton as a non-Ivy product, trained at universities in Illinois and Virginia. I had a strong interest in nonfiction writing and soon began to teach a seminar on autobiography. In 1969, my colleague John Fleming asked me to write a roundup of anything I liked for a Princeton Alumni Weekly insert called Good Reading.
“How about John McPhee’s four books?”
In the review, I stressed that McPhee was not just a reporter, the topic more important than his method, but a genuine artist in the way he handled evidence, character, and most of all, structure. He was imaginative and creative in dealing with facts, shaping them into stories of lasting narrative value. (He gave credit to William Shawn for approving topics, and to Robert Bingham for serving as a sympathetic, demanding editor.)
McPhee liked the review and wrote me a friendly note. Soon we began to play squash, and by the early 1970s we were all-weather jogging pals, mostly on the Lake Carnegie towpath. Moving along in unison, feet crunching on sand and cinders, McPhee eased out of his usual reticence and began to talk about current projects and his ideas about writing. I began to hatch the idea of writing nonfiction myself, a radical enterprise for a literary biographer who had spent years on the trail of Henry Thoreau.
I accepted with delight when John asked that I edit an anthology of selections from his first 13 books, to be called “The John McPhee Reader.” With his advice I made the selections, wrote backgrounder headnotes, and then tried writing an introduction. My early efforts met with pained incredulity on his part, and we launched a series of editorial sessions. Without knowing it, I was getting the Bingham-McPhee course of self-improvement that John later used with his students. McPhee was a natural teacher who knew instinctively when to push a budding author and when to hold off, when to mock, when to praise . . . and when to say, “But you can do better.”
“The McPhee Reader” was blessed with fortunate timing, for it appeared in 1976, only months after his magisterial breakout book on Alaska, “Coming into the Country.” While in earlier days he had received many positive reviews, no one had previously described McPhee’s writing methods, especially his near-mystical belief in structure. To work together to anatomize his literary alchemy was a great gift for a young scholar. Time spent with John let me observe a fine living writer, as opposed to safely dead specimens of yesterday; hearing him explain himself let me see how literature is born.
But the weeks of editorial back-and-forth also gave me, in his terms, a sense of where I was. My first years as a young instructor were a riptide of lectures, precepts, and Saturday classes (yes, really). As a lifelong resident of Princeton, John had a story for every nook in its crannied walls. He shared his mental map of this place, where he so confidently roamed. Yet as the child of a university doctor, and as an ardent English major, he regarded the faculty with largely unjustified awe.
One fall afternoon in 1974, I was painting my living room when called by Edward Sullivan, shrewdest of deans and director of the Humanities Council. His assistant, Professor Carol Rigolot, had suggested McPhee as the next Ferris Professor to teach a course called the Literature of Fact.
“Is Johnny McPhee a good bet for teaching a seminar here?”
“Sure,” I said, surprised he would even ask. “Great idea.”
“Well, he’s being shy about it. You talk to him. Maybe he’ll come around.”
And hundreds of alumni will be always grateful.
Will Howarth is an English professor emeritus at Princeton.