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The Eloquence of Fact


ISSUE:  Autumn 1978
Coming into the Country. By John McPhee. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $10.95.The John McPhee Reader.Edited by William L. Howarth. Farrar,Straus & Giroux.$12.95.Vintage.$3.95.Essays of E. B. White.Harper & Row. $12.50.

A writer is a gunner, sometimes waiting in his blind for something to come in, sometimes roaming the countryside hoping to scare something up. Like other gunners, he must cultivate patience: he may have to work many covers to bring down one partridge.” That is E, B. White in an unpretentious little book on usage and style which should last nearly as long as the study of English grammar. Plain style and homely metaphor mark the signature of a writer who has stayed close to “the small things of the day, the trivial matters of the heart, the inconsequential but near things of this living” that he described to his brother in 1929 as the staple subjects of his writing. His world embraces New York City, a salt-water farm in Maine, a Florida key, a New England railroad, the carnival and the fair, and (on one occasion) a ship plying the waters between Seattle and Alaska. He has written children’s books, parodies, poetry, book reviews, political commentary, taglines for the New Yorker’s newsbreaks, casuals for the Talk of the Town in the same magazine, letters public and private; but he is first and foremost an essayist who with George Orwell has elevated the personal essay to its highest level in this century and perhaps any century. When White offhandedly likens himself to Montaigne, the comparison is apt. As he also says in the preface to this new collection, he is an egoist whose last resort is the essay—which is to say that E. B. White’s principal subject is himself.

Essays of E. B. White, which Harper & Row has published as a companion volume to Letters of E. B. White, contains the essays—together with One Man’s Meat— that the writer wants to be remembered by. From that collection he has taken only three essays (including “Once More to the Lake”). Essays is based largely on The Points of My Compass, a book that in some respects rivals One Man’s Meat, which has long been a minor classic. The new collection should prove as durable: a century hence the informed general reader will know Charlotte’s Web, One Man’s Meat, and Essays of E. B. White.

All of this is so much preamble—a way of sidestepping the job of describing the grain of White’s prose, the complexion of his world, the weather of his works and days. No one has ever come to grips with White’s elusive but unmistakable idiom or the geography of his universe in the way that many critics have fronted, say, the essential Hemingway and Wolfe or Twain and Faulkner. This shows the poverty of modern criticism and the narrow taste of modern critics, most of whom ignore literature which isn’t fiction, poetry, or criticism. White has had many admirers, of course, including James Thurber and Morris Bishop; in addition to Thurber and Bishop, his most perceptive critics include Warren Beck, Spencer Brown, and D. J. Enright.(Beck’s appreciation is astonishingly fresh after 32 years; Brown’s reviews and Enright’s Encounter review are the best of the recent past.) Through his discipline and restraint and his canny commitment to the craft of writing, White has been his own best critic in many respects. He has refused to allow popularization to overwhelm creation; he has written largely within his own self-imposed limits and has not let money affect his judgment (he rejected a $20.000 advance from the Book-of-the-Month Club for The Second Tree From the Corner, one of his finest collections of essays); he has been willing to ignore the blandishments of everyone from the children’s librarian at the New York Public Library to the moguls of Hollywood to maintain his “amateur standing,” his identity and integrity, his independence. With his wife’s help, he has brilliantly edited his work. The result is that little or no chaff can be found in the books still in print, even though many of them have been best sellers.(That is true of Letters and Essays.)

Few writers have been so shrewd about the painful facts of their profession/White has usually stayed in his blind rather than roaming the countryside, the blind usually being an apartment in Manhattan or the farm in Maine. From such a post he has remarked wryily on authorship: “Writing is not an occupation nor is it a profession. . . . It is more an affliction, or just punishment” (1942).”I don’t know which makes me more miserable: writing, or being unable to write” (1957). “The conflict is fundamental, , .. Here, then, is the very nub of the conflict: the careful form of art, and the careless shape of life itself” (1941).”A writer, like an acrobat, must occasionally try a stunt that is too much for him” (1956). The stunts that White did not succeed in performing seem to have been tried before he joined the New Yorker.Even his homemade political commentary remains readable in large part 20 years and more after its publication.

White has included “Death of a Rg,” “The World of Tomorrow,” “Here Is New York,” “The Ring of Time,” “Farewell, My Lovely!,” “The Years of Wonder,” “Once More to the Lake,” and “A Slight Sound at Evening” in this new book. It would be preposterous to expect more, and yet some of the lesser-known essays such as “Afternoon of an American Boy,” “The Railroad,” and “Mr. Forbush’s Friends” are nearly as good as the recognized classics. By now Joel White, caught forever in the act of buckling his soggy swimming trunks on the bony body of a ten-year-old boy, seems nearly as much a part of the American literary mythology as Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. By now the performance of the nameless girl in “The Ring of Time” seems as deeply imbedded in our psychic history as carnival scenes from Twain to Sinclair Lewis, Ring Lardner, and beyond. By now White’s pig and his coons and dogs in the various essays are nearly as memorable as Charlotte and Wilbur, which is to say that they almost rival the animals in Beatrix Potter and A. A. Milne. By now—-dare I say it?—there are some readers, myself among them, who think that E. B. White’s world is more significant and admirable than the worlds of many famous poets and fictionists—writers who have trained their sights on gaudier targets than White has fired upon but who have not seen the stillness at the center of the target so clearly.

John McPhee’s compass has more points and greater breadth than any journalist today. In the past 13 years he has written as many books, and The McPhee Reader, superbly edited by William Howarth, brings the number to 14.The books range from profiles of Frank Boyden (Deerfield’s archetypal head-master), Bill Bradley (lately of the New York Knicks), Thomas P. Hoving (currently of the Metropolitan Museum), Clark Graebner and Arthur Ashe (tennis players), and David Brower (a conservationist) to anatomies of the orange, the New Jersey pine barrens, an airship, the bark canoe, and the state of Alaska. McPhee seems as comfortable in writing about aerobatics and atomic physics as he does in describing the natural world. His grasp of detail when he is writing of any subject seems as authoritative as A. J. Liebling on boxing or cooking or E. B. White on life at his farm or George Orwell on the poor in London and Paris. In the hands of a lesser craftsman these details would overwhelm the average reader: they would rapidly become technical, tedious, numbing.

McPhee does not generate interest mainly through his artful rendering of concrete detail. The essence of his fascination with the actual world is revealed in his attachment to character, to what Henry James calls “character expressed and exposed.” McPhee has said in a recent interview that “now factual characters can live as much on the page as any fictional character,” His commitment to character is fictive in its comprehensiveness and intensity, and his scenes are more powerful than most contemporary fiction, He has an ear for conversation that is Boswellian, and his natural sense of the dramatic is enhanced by his still stronger sense of narrative pace and proportion. McPhee doesn’t let a single character dominate his narrative. In his early work—the profiles of Bradley and Boyden—he was inclined to do that; now he plays off one character against another, never letting the leading figure assume center stage for too long a time. The measure of his objectivity and power may be seen in Encounters with the Archdruid, for Brower is matched by his opponents.

The McPhee Reader incorporates narrative sequences from McPhee’s first twelve books together with an excellent introduction and headnotes by Howarth. Only one of these books is a collection of essays (Pieces of the Frame}; the remainder are long narratives.(“Your motive is always to tell a good story,” McPhee remarks.) The editor has provided a series of self-contained essays which average about 10,000 words. McPhee is at his best in the long narrative: in this and other respects he is a novelist rather than a short-story writer. White, on the other hand, is at his best in the informal essay of five to six thousand words. If White is the quintessential personal essayist, McPhee is the quintessential impersonal journalist, Until recently McPhee was all but invisible in his work: he was like Joyce’s ideal artist and was perhaps too invisible and godlike.

McPhee’s work cannot be easily labeled, as his editor argues; but the man himself can be described in Liebling’s phrase as an interpretative reporter, “who writes what he sees and what he construes to be its meaning,” as opposed to the reporter, “who writes what he sees,” and the expert, “who writes what he construes to be the meaning of what he hasn’t seen.” (Liebling would have had no more use for investigative reporters than for experts.)

Sometimes I wonder who influenced John McPhee aside from Thoreau and New Yorker writers like White, Liebling, and Joseph Mitchell. To argue that he has read Orwell and earlier English writers in the same vein (Defoe and Henry Mayhew, for example) would be so much academic speculation. In any case, McPhee has the instincts of the good amateur sociologist that are abundantly evident in Defoe, Mayhew, and Orwell. In his latest book he shows an affection for the poor and the dispossessed (an affection which appears also in The Pine Barrens) that is characteristic of all the writers whom I have mentioned but White. Like these men, McPhee does not write out of an impulse that is didactic or reformatory; and if he is on the side of the angels, he takes pains not to show it.

From Liebling McPhee may have learned the technique of quoting a colorful source and using it as a commentary or chorus undergirding and fortifying the main timbers of his narrative. If Liebling quotes Pierce Egan in his boxing sketches, McPhee quotes Thoreau and many other sources (obscure but always relevant and interesting) in The Survival of the Bark Canoe and everything from official reports to a semiliterate and curiously moving journal in Coming into the Country.(From an agent of a riverboat company in Dawson came this letter in the early 1900’s: “Dear Sir: I have your letter of May 31 advising me of four insane persons coming up on the Lavelle Young. . . . We have no regular place for the accommodation of insane people; however, . . .if they are violent or apt to annoy passengers we construct cages for them on the main deck.”)

McPhee is extraordinarily surehanded with the catalogue, which sometimes can be the vehicle of his droll humor. Eagle, Alaska, “has a reputation for grace and beauty. This is not always evident to the eye of the outsider, which tends to alight on yards full of old tires, fencing, caribou racks, dog-sleds, snowshoes, lynx pelts, pole wood, fifty-five-gallon drums, cans, kayak frames, kerosene heaters, cast-iron grain mills, tarpaper, fuel cans, six-cell batteries, corrugated roofing material, and rotting fish compost in open pits. The inhabitants have the aesthetic disadvantage of being human beings,” A citizen of Eagle says: “The town is corroded with ne’er-do-wells. It is, in effect, Forest Lawn for the living.” This same man advised McPhee (who throughout Coming into the Country affects a compulsive fear of grizzly bears): “When you walk out from Cook’s cabin, your chances, in effect, of encountering a bear will be roughly equivalent to your chances of encountering Jesus Christ.” (Note the speaker’s tic in effect, which McPhee duly records.)

Coming into the Country is John McPhee’s magnum opus. It takes no Edmund Wilson to perceive the author’s continuing interest in the natural world and in conservation which has culminated in this brilliant book. McPhee’s growing commitment to nature can be seen in Oranges, The Pine Barrens, Encounters with the Archdruid, Pieces of the Frame, and The Survival of the Bark Canoe.On this occasion, however, the deck is not stacked in favor of conservation, and this complication makes the book richer, more varied in consequence of this ironical tension. At the same time, McPhee has been projecting himself a little more prominently and surely into the action of his most recent work, so that in the opening pages of Coming into the Country we meet him in the wilds of Alaska with four other men. At the end of his narrative McPhee bids farewell to an “immense young man” who is heading purposefully into the Yukon just as the writer and the reader are wistfully leaving it. We have come into the country from the Lower Forty-Eight, and life here is not quite the same in consequence, despite our having met a bizarre collection of misfits, dropouts, and anarchists who live in a world as foreign to most of us as equatorial Africa.

The vignette that is most illustrative of McPhee’s skill does not concern the hardy and hardheaded people who came to Alaska “in search of a sense of release—of a life that remembered the past. . . . The last frontier.” In this vignette the central figure is Lt. Leon Crane, the only member of a B-24 crew who survived when the crew was forced to bail out over Alaska. After 81 days of brutal privation, he made his way to a trapper’s cabin—and rescue. He survived by having run across two other cabins—uninhabited but well-stocked. Today the U. S.government wants to clear the land of these illegal structures. Crane says: “It’s a little surprising to me that people exist who are interested in living on that ground up there. Why would anyone want to take someone who wanted to be there and throw them out. Who the hell could care?” Crane is in his habitat—Philadelphia. It is typical of McPhee’s incredible ability as a journalist that he located Crane 30 years after the event—and that he tells this fascinating story in less than 5000 words.

Coming into the Country contains more information about Alaska than some readers may want to digest. That information ranges from the cost of groceries at various times and places to a history of the gold rush to a detailed account of where the capital may or may not be located in the future. (One spokesman says: “They will move the capital over my dead body,” to which another lobbyist responds: “That condition is acceptable.”) I marvel at the gallery of characters in book 3—”In the Bush”; I find the first two parts of considerably lesser interest but engaging all the same. In book 3 McPhee not only presents the history of Eagle (which includes anecdotes about the Northwest Passage and the opening of the telegraph in Eagle by Lt. Billy Mitchell) and the sociology of the town (“outlaws and do-gooders”), but he describes some 30 to 40 of its inhabitants in considerable detail and provides detailed accounts of goldmining, trapping, gardening, dogsledding, building a .cabin, etc. The information is presented so clearly and concisely that at some points Coming into the Country takes on the quality of an unusually perspicuous handbook.

Where will John McPhee go from Alaska? I confess that I do not have the slightest notion. One would have to ask the man himself or his editors at the New Yorker or Farrar, Straus & Giroux. I would not be at all surprised to hear that he had gone on a reconnaissance patrol to hell to see whether Satan or Flem Snopes or Hitler is now in command; I suppose that he will go on to the more predictable job of being the first journalist in space. In any event, McPhee’s presence in such company will help bring his companions to Mars.

E. B. White and John McPhee have the New Yorker in common. The magazine’s genius has always lain in the field of reportage: the fiction, poetry, and book reviews cannot touch the journalism at its best.Coming into the Country is one of the magazine’s great triumphs. Both Harold Ross and William Shawn have sympathetically nurtured journalism of the highest order, and it is hard to fault them on any subject but punctuation. Thurber wrote 20 years ago that the “New Yorker’s over-use of commas . . .has become notorious the world over among literary people.” What Thurber called “the weedy growth of that punctuation mark” persists today. I offer a quart of George Dickel’s finest to anyone who can justify the first two commas in this sentence from Coming into the Country: “ In its headlong, violent expansion, Anchorage had considerable, but not unlimited, space to fill.(Actually the sentence could do nicely without commas.) One test of White’s and McPhee’s prose is its triumphant survival despite the New Yorker’s thicket of commas.

In the long innings of the night, when insomnia has me in its cold hard grip, I often repair to essayists like White and McPhee. And I read Orwell and Thurber and Liebling and Larry King and think that this is the age of the personal essay. There is little in the way of prose today that can touch these essayists at their finest, and this fact seems little short of miraculous in a time when journalism is generally at an ebb lower than a mud flat.

E. B. White’s best essays have already achieved classic stature. They fit Frank Kermode’s specifications: “A classic is required, in short, to be a piece of wisdom literature, but also to be [of] a nature susceptible to an indefinite number of physics, some rational, some not. . . . Clarity consistent with condensation, the facade consistent with the meaning of the dream.” John McPhee’s best books, especially The Survival of the Bark Canoe and Coming into the Country, are already beginning to take on this patina. The critics of the future will have to conclude that if he did not invent the nonfiction novel he perfected it,

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