The New Journalism of the 1960s and 1970s – by Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson, and others – made the biggest collective splash in recent American nonfiction, and certainly enlarged our idea of what the genre could do. The best of it may endure, but, 50 or 100 years from now, will people still be enthralled by Thompson’s psychedelic ramblings or the early Wolfe’s strings of italics and exclamation marks? More lasting, I think, as a grand pointillist mural of our time and place as expressed in the lives of an encyclopedic range of people, will be the work of John McPhee.

For one thing, there is more of it. McPhee has now written some 30 books, while some of the most notable New Journalists lapsed into silence. Truman Capote never published another substantial nonfiction book after In Cold Blood, nor did Michael Herr after his remarkable reporting of the Vietnam War collected in Dispatches. McPhee, however, has steadily averaged close to a book a year. Some of us for whom it’s a struggle to get a book out every five or six years feel he should be prosecuted under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

McPhee’s choice of subjects is driven by certain personal predilections. Among other things, he is drawn to geology (four books), practitioners of ancient arts (The Survival of the Bark Canoe), eccentrics (The Headmaster), the American wilderness (Coming into the Country), and people obsessed by unusual technology, as with the blimp enthusiasts of The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed. He also has found wonderfully fertile terrain by simply doing things that small boys dream of. For what other thread connects his flying with a bush pilot, traveling the seas on the bridge of a merchant ship, crossing the country in the cab of a railway engine, and going on maneuvers with the Swiss Army? In an age besotted by celebrities, the people McPhee has chosen to bring alive on the page are not presidents, singers or movie actors, but country doctors, canal-boat pilots, pinball players, produce sellers in a farmers’ market, aid workers in Africa, a long-haul trucker, and the man responsible for cutting and grooming the grass at Wimbledon.

Like so many of the people he writes about, McPhee is a consummate craftsman. There are many aspects of his craft that a fellow writer can envy, from his keen, loving ear for the quirks and rhythms of American speech, to his arsenal of tools – including shifts of tense you only notice on the second reading – for nimbly hopping about in time. But I’m here to talk about his engineering.

A few years ago I was with a young cousin, a college student who told me she was majoring in civil engineering. “I’ve never really understood,” I asked her. “What’s the difference between an architect and an engineer?”

“Ah,” she said. “An architect is the person who plans what the skyscraper is going to look like from the outside. An engineer is the person who makes sure it doesn’t fall down.”

I’ve always felt that when we think about writing, we pay too much attention, in these terms, to the architecture, and not enough to the engineering. We focus on the outside of the skyscraper – the sparkle of someone’s prose, images, metaphors, bits of description – and not enough on the innards: the structure, the plot (a word that applies to nonfiction as much as to fiction), the careful doling out or withholding of information to create suspense, all of which, in the long run, ultimately determines whether or not we keep on reading. A piece of writing can sparkle aplenty from one paragraph to the next, but if the inner engineering isn’t there, our attention wanders. This is all the more important when someone writes, as McPhee usually does, of relatively unknown people, in whom we have no interest to begin with. For the writer, this sets the bar higher.

A key secret of McPhee’s ability to make us care about his vast and improbable range of subject matter lies in his engineering. From the pilings beneath the foundations to the beams that support the rooftop observation deck, he is the master builder of literary skyscrapers. Other writers may have more glittering prose (although his often glows bright) or weave more elegant metaphors, but no one has built such an interesting and varied array of structures. With many authors of narrative nonfiction, even well-known ones, I often feel that structure is almost an afterthought: An array of lively scenes is arranged more or less chronologically, with one that feels like a good place to start placed at the beginning and one that seems to wrap things up placed at the end. But when McPhee picks up his pen, I sense a writer thinking long and shrewdly about structure before he even puts a word on paper.

Consider, for example, his wonderful portrait of the late Thomas Hoving, director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. A lesser writer might have followed Hoving around for a time and interwoven that material with background information about his childhood and comments that others made about him. But McPhee does it differently. He assembles roughly a dozen scenes from Hoving’s life: some from the present (Hoving answering the mail, talking with his wife, hunting art for the museum in Europe) and some from the past (getting into trouble in high school, working in a clothing store and realizing this was not for him). Almost all involve closely observed or reconstructed interplay and dialogue between Hoving and other people. And then McPhee arranges them, just as one might find an artist’s work on the walls of a museum, not in chronological order. The headline on the article? “A Roomful of Hovings.” (It is the title piece in one of McPhee’s many collections.)

Examples of similarly imaginative structure appear in almost all his books. Levels of the Game, for example, is built around a single tennis match, between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner at Forest Hills in the 1960s. It begins with the opening serve and ends with the final point. But into this one match are woven portraits of two players who differ radically by style of play, politics, background, race, and approach to life. In the article “In Search of Marvin Gardens,” McPhee uses the Monopoly board – whose street names all come from Atlantic City – as his starting point to explore the real Atlantic City, right down to the jail. The city, of course, turns out to be a far shabbier place than the one conjured up by the thousands of dollars of play money on the Monopoly board. The structure therefore reinforces the impact of the piece; as McPhee put it in a recent Paris Review interview, “Structure is not a template. It’s not a cookie cutter. It’s something that arises organically from the material.” But I think he understates his point, for surely in the Atlantic City article, and in many others, he must have had an engineering blueprint in mind in order to decide what kind of material to gather.

Sometimes the structure McPhee uses is an ancient one. In “A Forager” (another piece in A Roomful of Hovings), he spends an entire week with his subject, Euell Gibbons, an expert in edible wild plants, gamely munching on dandelions, watercress, ground cherries, chicory greens, and the like along the way. A week in the life of someone is, of course, virtually the very oldest narrative structure there is, going back to the Book of Genesis. Layered on top of that is another classic narrative structure, at least as old as The Odyssey, for McPhee and Gibbons spend that week on a journey, by canoe and foot, eating their way along the Susquehanna River and then a portion of the Appalachian Trail.

Sometimes McPhee devises a framework of columns, beams, and trusses entirely his own, as in one of his most anthologized pieces, about another journey, “Travels in Georgia.” Here he follows a man and a woman on a strange trek across that state, telling us in great detail how they poke about in streams, swamps, and roadside ditches, make notes on clipboards, and collect a strange variety of stuff, including the carcasses of small animals that have been struck by cars. Who are these people, we wonder, and why on earth are they doing this stuff? That’s what keeps us reading, because it’s what you withhold that makes suspense. We’re nearly half way through the piece before we learn that its subjects work for an obscure state agency that has to do with designating protected areas for endangered plants and animals. All good narrative writers purposely withhold some information for a while, but I’ve never seen one bold enough to withhold the very profession of the people he is profiling.

* * *

To my mind, McPhee’s engineering masterpiece is his Encounters with the Archdruid, the text of which, like almost all of his books, first appeared in The New Yorker. A portrait of the environmental activist David Brower (1912-2000), it is structured like no other biography or profile you will read. Brower was a militant, not a compromiser or deal-maker, and his passionate, lifelong defense of the American wilderness against any threat dependably left his enemies fuming. And so the book is arranged around three prolonged encounters between the “evangelical” Brower, as McPhee calls him, and people who detest everything he stands for.

The first is a prominent mining geologist named Charles Park, whose entire life has been devoted to targeting deposits of valuable minerals, wherever they are found. He was a man who believed, McPhee says, “that if copper were to be found under the White House, the White House should be moved.” How does McPhee bring him together with Brower? He takes the two of them camping and hiking for a week or so in the Glacier Peak Wilderness in Washington State. The setting is shrewdly chosen: Glacier Peak is a federal wilderness area, “not to receive even the use given a national park, not to be entered by a machine of any kind except in extreme emergency, not to be developed or lumbered – forevermore.” But there’s a key exception: mining claims, including a huge one held by Kennecott Copper, remain valid, and, at the time the men were making this trip, for more than a dozen years into the future new claims could still be made. To display two political enemies in combat, McPhee could not have picked a better battleground. Park chips away at rocks with his geologist’s tools, curious about what metals could be mined here to feed the American economy; Brower praises the beauty of the mountains, still unravaged by men like Park. Almost any writer, doing a story like this, would have elicited these rival points of view by interviewing the two men separately. McPhee, however, brings them together, where, with spectacular scenery in the background, they argue at length, providing him with writer’s gold: dialogue.

The second encounter McPhee sets up, again for what appears to be a week or so, is between Brower and a businessman who wants to build a vast housing development on a wild island off the coast of Georgia, complete with an airport suitable for private jets. Compared to the first encounter, the conversation between the two antagonists is much more polite. However, the businessman, Charles Fraser, has great contempt for environmentalists, calling them “druids.” He tells Brower, “I call anyone a druid who prefers trees to people” – hence the book’s title.

The third encounter is the most dramatic, and threaded through it, providing its narrative backbone, is one of the more spectacular journeys available in the lower 48 states: going down the Grand Canyon by raft. In the 1950s and 1960s some of the most furious American environmental battles were over the building of dams. As McPhee puts it, to environmental types:

The outermost circle of the Devil’s world seems to be a moat filled mainly with DDT. Next to it is a moat of burning gasoline. Within that is a ring of pinheads each covered with a million people – and so on past phalanxed bulldozers and bicuspid chain saws into the absolute epicenter of Hell on earth, where stands a dam. Conservationists who can hold themselves in reasonable check before new oil spills and fresh megalopolises mysteriously go insane at even the thought of a dam. … possibly the reaction to dams is so violent because rivers are the ultimate metaphors of existence, and dams destroy rivers.

David Brower regarded the building of the Glen Canyon Dam, upstream on the Colorado River from the Grand Canyon, as “the greatest failure of his life,” McPhee says. But after losing that battle, he went on to furiously wage and win several others, stopping Bureau of Reclamation plans to build two more large dams in parts of the Grand Canyon itself. His arch-enemy in this prolonged warfare, the proud builder of the Glen Canyon Dam, defeated for the moment in the later struggles, was Floyd Dominy, longtime commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, in effect chief dam-builder for the U.S. government.

McPhee’s swift brush strokes make Dominy leap off the page: “He appears to have been lifted off a horse with block and tackle. He wears bluejeans, a white-and-black striped shirt, and leather boots with heels two inches high. His belt buckle is silver and could not be covered over with a playing card. He wears a string tie that is secured with a piece of petrified dinosaur bone. On his head is a white Stetson.”

“Dave Brower hates my guts,” he tells McPhee, who goes to see Dominy in his office:

“…I can’t talk to preservationists. I can’t talk to Brower because he’s so God-damned ridiculous. … I had a steer out on my farm in the Shenandoah reminded me of Dave Brower. Two years running, we couldn’t get him into the truck to go to market. He was an independent bastard that nobody could corral. That son of a bitch got into that truck, busted that chute, and away he went. So I just fattened him up and butchered him right there on the farm. I shot him right in the head and butchered him myself. That’s the only way I could get rid of the bastard.”

“ ‘Commissioner,’ I said, ‘if Dave Brower gets into a rubber raft going down the Colorado River, will you get in it, too?’ 

“ ‘Hell, yes,’ he said. ‘Hell, yes.’ ”

In the very next paragraph, in one of McPhee’s adroit leaps in time and space which a lesser writer might have needlessly elaborated, all three men are on the river, approaching a set of rapids at Mile 130.

In this section of the book, as in the first panel of McPhee’s triptych, the heart of the story is the verbal combat between two antagonists. Their repartee has all the more drama because it takes place in front of an audience – a boatload of tourists who had no idea that these characters would be aboard when they signed up for a few days of camping and rafting down the Grand Canyon:

At Mile 144.8, triumphantly brandishing a map, “‘We are entering the reservoir,’ Brower announces. ‘We are now floating on Lake Dominy.’

“ ‘Jesus,’ mutters Dominy. 

“ ‘What reservoir?’ someone asks. Brower explains. A dam that Dominy would like to build, ninety-three miles downstream, would back still water to this exact point in the river.

“ ‘Is that right, Commissioner?’

“ ‘That’s right.’

“ …The other passengers are silent, absorbed by what Brower has told them.

“ ‘Do you mean the reservoir would cover the Upset Rapid? Havasu Creek? Lava Falls? All the places we are coming to?’ one man asks Dominy. 

“Dominy reaches for the visor of his Lake Powell hat and pulls it down more firmly on his head. ‘Yes,’ he says.”

Brower gets the best of this exchange, but Dominy scores in a few others. Their argument continues when McPhee takes the two of them for a boat ride on Lake Powell, the huge lake formed by Dominy’s Glen Canyon Dam – which, of course, covers much of what had once been Glen Canyon:

Brower pointed to strange striations in jagged shapes on the opposite canyon wall. ‘That is hieroglyphic, written centuries ago by God Himself,’ he said.

“ ‘Yeah? What does it say?’ said Dominy.

“ ‘It says, “Don’t flood it.” ’

A few additional little touches – the kind of thing that could pass too hasty a reader by – make McPhee’s tri-part structure more sturdy, like rebar hidden in concrete. In each of the three sections, for example, a bulldozer appears. McPhee and his subjects encounter one as they walk out of the Cascades: “Half submerged, its purpose obscure, it heaved, belched, backed, shoved, and lurched around on the bottom of the Suiattle (River) as if the water were not there. The bulldozer was stronger than the river.” In the middle section, the developer Charles Fraser talks cheerfully about moving sand dunes out of the way with a bulldozer. And in the final section, “on a shelf behind Dominy’s desk, in the sort of central and eye-catching position that might be reserved for a shining trophy, was a scale model of a bulldozer.”

Encounters with the Archdruid is not a perfect work: The middle panel of the triptych is weaker than the other two, and McPhee skims too lightly over Brower’s darker side, which included but was not limited to his tendency to tangle with friends as well as enemies. But as an imaginative feat of structure – and as a case where a writer has, quite openly, brought his characters together on a succession of brilliantly chosen stages – it is unmatched.

After being awed by the engineering of Encounters with the Archdruid, I found it a revelation to learn that in McPhee’s mind the idea for the book’s structure preceded his choice of its subject. In that same Paris Review interview, he describes how, many years ago, he got bored with doing profiles of a single person (although that is a form that he has reverted to frequently and well), and wanted to write pieces about people in relationships: “A dancer and a choreographer. … A baseball manager and a pitcher.” Out of this came Levels of the Game. Then “I got ambitious. I decided to escalate, and I had the idea of writing a triple profile – a three-part piece in which three people would be separately profiled as they related to a fourth person. … So I wrote on my wall: ABC over D. I stuck it on a three-by-five card, in big letters. ABC over D. That’s all I knew.”

Eventually, McPhee settled on David Brower as D. “Now, who were going to be the three others?” He knew only that they should be people who hated everything Brower was trying to accomplish. After Brower agreed to the idea, McPhee and a friend “and various other people in Washington got together a list of seventeen possibilities.” They were scattered around the country and the world, and after many months of negotiations, the list was finally narrowed down to three.

An alert reader will notice one small graphic survival of McPhee’s three-by-five card in the finished book. On the title page – and repeated on the title pages of each of the book’s three parts – are three small black triangles above a line, and one small triangle beneath it. So this was truly a case where the engineering of a skyscraper came before the decision about what the building was going to contain. But like the beams in a brick-and-mortar skyscraper, and the structural bones in all good pieces of writing, that engineering is invisible to the casual reader. Those little black triangles on the title page are its only remaining symbol; like the signature of an artist on a canvas, they are the trademark of a literary engineer extraordinaire.

Reprinted with permission from
Understanding the Essay, edited by Patricia Foster and Jeff Porter (Broadview Press, 2012)

Adam Hochschild has written for The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, The New York Review of Books and other magazines, and is the author of seven books. King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, as was his recent To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918. His Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves was a finalist for the National Book Award and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and PEN USA Literary Award.

For more installments of “Why’s this so good?” see our archives. And check back each Tuesday for a new shot of inspiration and insight. 

Most popular articles from Nieman Storyboard

Show comments / Leave a comment