You may not have heard of him, but John McPhee is one of the most respected names in the world of narrative non-fiction, a man who’s far more admired by working writers than Hunter S Thompson or Tom Wolfe. In an interview in the latest Paris Review, McPhee questions the validity of the term “New Journalism”.
Amongst other things, Hunter S Thompson is famous for not writing the greatest sports story of all time. It was 1974, in Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire, and Hunter was there with friend and illustrator Ralph Steadman to cover the heavyweight title contest between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali, a fight that would later go down in history as the “Rumble in the Jungle”. On the day of the fight, Steadman, who had organised a pair of ringside seats, called Hunter’s room to tell him to get ready. Nothing doing. “We’re not going, Ralph,” Hunter said, as he strode down the stairs in his nightgown and boxer shorts, a huge dustbin bag of marijuana slung over his shoulder. He dumped the marijuana in the hotel pool and dove in after it.
Tom Wolfe, amongst other things, is famous for his white suit. He adopted it as a trademark in 1962, after he had bought it in summer to wear in the style of the plantation-owning southern gentleman. At the time Wolfe was in his early thirties, about to take up a post at the New York Herald Tribune, and he’d become quite proud of his accomplishments as a journalist. He found that wearing the suit in New York in winter disarmed the people he observed. He soon took to wearing it with a matching white tie, white homburg hat, and two-tone shoes.
Photo: Hunter S. Thompson. (Reuters)
John McPhee, on the other hand, is famous for nothing so much as the quality of his prose. In the 60s and 70s, he eschewed the attention-grabbing antics of Thompson and Wolf – whose stream-of-consciousness on-page techniques were about as showy, and effective, as their off-page eccentricities – for a more subdued attention to detail and character. While his better-known peers were defining the “New Journalism,” a brand of non-fiction that draws on the so-called principles of fiction (scene-setting, characterisation, plot, etc) to create a compelling narrative, McPhee was getting on with the business of writing great books. As of today, at the age of 79, he has published over thirty of them.
Over the course of his long and productive career, McPhee has won the Pulitzer Prize and the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. More important than this, though, he has earned a reputation as a writer’s writer: amongst the journalists and authors that call him “mentor” are Adam Hochschild, of King Leopold’s Ghost fame, and David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker and arguably the most accomplished journalist working today.
Philip Gourevitch, author of a widely acclaimed work of non-fiction on the Rwandan genocide (We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families), and a part-time employee of Remnick’s at the New Yorker, is likewise a fan of McPhee’s. As outgoing editor of The Paris Review, a publication Time recently called “America’s greatest literary journal,” Gourevitch’s final issue includes an in-depth interview with the master himself. The piece is a series of invaluable insights into the non-fiction craft. It is also a piece that gives the lie to the myth that contemporary narrative non-fiction was invented by the New Journalists.
“Well, something was happening in the Sunday magazine of The New York Herald Tribune,” McPhee told the interviewer. “It’s often described as some kind of revolution, but I never really understood that. Nonfiction writing didn’t begin in 1960. Going back, there were so many nonfiction writers – what about Liebling? Walter Lord, James Agee, Alva Johnston, Joseph Mitchell – these are people who had prepared the way, and, more than that, had written many better things than these so-called New Journalists would ever do. Henry David Thoreau, for all that, was a New Journalist of his time, as were Dorothy Day, Ida Tarbell, Willa Cather between the ages of twenty and forty at ’s Magazine, John Lloyd Stephens, Richard Henry Dana Jr., and on back to Thomas Browne, Robert Burton, Francis Bacon, James Boswell, and Daniel Defoe. You get the point.
“New Journalism sounded like labeling for labeling’s sake. Some of the things were really interesting to read, but there was too much precedent challenging the word ‘new’. Anytime I was called a New Journalist I winced a little with embarrassment.
“Tom Wolfe helped bring a certain amount of attention to this kind of writing. But he’s just Tom Wolfe. It didn’t happen because one person did it. It happened because a whole bunch of people across a lot of time were interested in making pieces of writing out of factual material that would stand up on their own. They were not just writing articles telling you how to recover from hypothermia.”
Since we’re listing them, the one name missing from this pantheon of non-fiction gods is Norman Mailer’s. While Thompson was doing laps through the film of marijuana in his hotel pool, Mailer was at ringside, compiling material for what would later become The Fight, a book that captured the genius of Ali like no other before or since. A few years later, Mailer would write The Executioner’s Song, a Pulitzer Prize-winner, and in the opinion of many critics the pre-eminent work of narrative non-fiction of the twentieth century. Like McPhee, Mailer was no big fan of Thompson or Wolfe. Like McPhee, Mailer let his work speak for itself.
By Kevin Bloom
Read more: Interview with John McPhee in The Paris Review
Photo of John McPhee obtained from Princeton, via Wikipedia.