A half hour before John McPhee’s reading Thursday night, the Branford College common room was two-thirds full. When McPhee arrived, the room was packed and many students were standing to catch a glimpse of one of America’s preeminent nonfiction writers.
Public readings by McPhee are rare, according to Fred Strebeigh, who teaches nonfiction writing at Yale. McPhee — a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1965, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of 27 nonfiction works — seldom strays from Princeton University, where he writes and teaches.
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Famously elusive, McPhee declines most interviews, and his books lack his photograph. Strebeigh said faculty members invited McPhee to speak at Yale for years before he finally agreed to come this semester.
“The ‘English 120’ faculty, for years, when asked who they would most like to come speak, always put McPhee at the top of the list,” he said. “I believe he has been taught by more nonfiction courses at Yale than any other writer.”
McPhee’s prose covers many topics, ranging from geology to the citrus industry to the U.S. Merchant Marine. Francis Writer-in-Residence Anne Fadiman, who was responsible for bringing McPhee to Yale, said he is “probably the greatest writer of literary nonfiction alive.”
“He and [Joan] Didion, in my view, stand above everybody else,” she said.
But when asked to describe his own work, McPhee downplayed his achievements.
“What my writings have in common is that they’re about real people in real places,” he said. “I like to sketch people — their personalities and natures — against the background of what they do. I don’t have a hidden motive under all that.”
McPhee began his reading by describing how he met Don Ainsworth, the driver of a chemical tanker who is the subject of “A Fleet of One,” the first essay in his recent book “Uncommon Carriers.”
Dressed in a knit vest and enunciating his words in what some students called a grandfatherly voice, McPhee seemed like an old friend or relative, audience members said. McPhee drew laughs when he recalled his own trip to “bad driver school” and described Ainsworth honking at a woman in a bikini.
Students said they were surprised by how informal and friendly McPhee was in spite of his fame. Ben Lasman ’10 noted that although the room was full, the reading was intensely intimate.
“When you hear him read like that, it gets more personal,” said Lasman. “It’s almost like storytelling.”
Many said McPhee’s visit reflects the University’s increased commitment to promoting writing and journalism through programs such as the Yale Journalism Initiative. Caroline Savello ’09 said McPhee’s visit offered inspiration to students interested in pursuing careers in writing.
“There are so many professional writers on campus,” she said. “They’re so approachable, and there are so many aspiring young writers here that it’s very encouraging.”
Savello is a staff reporter for the News.
McPhee said he hoped to offer ideas that students could incorporate into their own lives and writings.
“I’m just a writer,” he said. “And I come to share the experience of having written.”