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“Why’s this so good?” No. 2: McPhee takes on the Mississippi

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When the Mississippi River recently surged down through the middle of the country, a lot of people I follow on Twitter took the opportunity to point to John McPhee’s marvelous 1987 article “Atchafalaya.”I took their advice and revisited the piece.

After 24 years, the story is still valuable simply as a guide to the risks faced by people who live along the Mississippi. But it would be ridiculous to think of McPhee’s articles as nothing more than service journalism. Over the past four decades, McPhee has plunged into a series of obsessions – with plate tectonics, athletes, shad fishing, the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, the entire state of Alaska. At its best, McPhee’s work feels like a journalistic version of an Iron Man competition. He pushes long-form journalism to the extremes, to encompass the world in staggering detail. And “Atchafalaya” is particularly staggering, because its subject is nothing less than the endless, spectacular, and sometimes absurd struggle of modern civilization to control the natural world.

As I reread “Atchafalaya,” I tried to reverse engineer it to figure out why it’s so good. At its core is a journey McPhee took down the Mississippi in a towboat, accompanying some of the members of the Army Corps of Engineers. For most journalists, that would be more than enough material enough for an excellent article. For McPhee, it is only the start. The river, after all, was not just what he could see in 1987. It was also the product of history – the geological history of the region, and then the human history overlaid on it – history that includes politics, warfare and centuries of engineering. McPhee mastered this vast backstory, but he was not yet done. He also became intimately acquainted with the colossal system of levees and weirs that line the Mississippi: a grand construction that is both longer and wider than the Great Wall of China.

I get the sense that McPhee spends every waking hour gathering observations, stories and plain facts that he stores away for articles he may not write for decades to come. In “Atchafalaya” he smoothly slips away from his journey down the Mississippi to recall earlier experiences – flying over the river, running lines with a Cajun crawfisherman.

Once McPhee assembled this mountain range of raw material, he mined it to build a 28,000-word article. McPhee builds articles like few other journalists can. He scrupulously avoids all stock tricks. His paragraphs encompass worlds. He writes from a dictionary full of strange words: revetments, whaleback, distributaries. They’re not obscure words McPhee chose to make the reader feel undereducated, but the precise language required to describe something most people know little about. It takes time to submerge into this language – this is not a story to shave away one iPhone screen at a time.

If there’s any weakness in “Atchafalaya,” it’s McPhee’s portraits of people. We meet engineers and pilots along the river. McPhee records plenty of exquisite details about their backgrounds. And yet I couldn’t recall any of them as individuals later on. They all talked about the great river, but interchangeably. McPhee knows how to write a great profile (I’m thinking of “Levels of the Game,” a book-length account of a U.S. Open tennis match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner). So I can only assume that he has made a strategic choice in “Atchafalaya” to let the people in the story blur into a wall of humanity massed against the river.

Still, this remains a great piece of writing. By that I don’t mean that it’s an exemplar of what all journalism should be. It is McPhee excelling at being McPhee. It’s impossible to steal tricks from a piece like “Atchafalaya,” because you just end up sounding like a bad imitation of someone else. Instead, it sends me flying back to my own work, re-energized to dig as deeply as I can into the subject at hand, and to craft out of it something distinctively my own.

Carl Zimmer‘s science writing has appeared in The New York Times, National Geographic, Time and Scientific American, among other publications. He lectures at Yale University and has 10 books to his name, the latest of which is “A Planet of Viruses.” He is on Twitter at @carlzimmer.

For more from this new collaboration with Longreads, check out the first post in the series, written by Alexis Madrigal. And stay tuned for more inspiration and insight from fabulous writers in the coming weeks.




3 comments

  1. posted July 7, 2011 at 6:18 pm | permalink

    I love McPhee’s writing, although some pieces appeal more than others. My take on him is that he cares about how people work, which informs his interest in what they do; and, most important, that he pays attention.

    And do keep it up! Your own writing is like silk.

  2. posted July 7, 2011 at 10:31 pm | permalink

    Thanks for this. McPhee is my favorite living nonfiction writer, for the reasons you cite, and more. He rewards close, slow reading, to savor his sentences, his sonorities, his dry wit and tall tales, and his legendary lists.

    I read once that for each piece he has in mind a structure, which he can describe graphically. I’ve kept that in mind in my own work.

    Most of all, he has the ability to make one suddenly fascinated by a subject one never would have thought interesting. Oranges, say, or golf, or the merchant marine. Good writing takes you somewhere you didn’t know you wanted to go.

  3. Monte Davis
    posted July 14, 2011 at 11:22 am | permalink

    “My favorite living non-fiction writer”: enthusiastically seconded. On my first trip to the Colorado plateau, having “Annals of the Former World” along multiplied many times over what I saw and understood.

One trackback

  1. by What makes that story so good? | Angela Dice on January 30, 2013 at 2:17 pm

    [...] of classic narrative nonfiction pieces. So far, they’ve taken on pieces by Truman Capote, John McPhee and W.C. Heinz. In a similar vein, a group of noteworthy editors take a look at contemporary [...]

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