John McPhee

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John McPhee
John Mcphee.jpg
Born John Angus McPhee
(1931-03-08) March 8, 1931 (age 83)
Princeton, New Jersey, USA
Occupation Writer
Spouse(s) Yolanda Whitman (2nd wife)
Children four daughters of first marriage, Jenny, Martha, Laura, Sarah

John Angus McPhee (born March 8, 1931) is an American writer, widely considered one of the pioneers of creative nonfiction. He is a four-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in the category General Nonfiction and he won that award on the fourth occasion in 1999 for Annals of the Former World[1] (a collection of five books including two of his previous Pulitzer finalists). In 2008 he received the George Polk Career Award for his "indelible mark on American journalism during his nearly half-century career."[2]

Since 1974, McPhee has been the Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University.[3]


McPhee has resided in Princeton, New Jersey, almost his entire life. He was born in Princeton, the son of the Princeton University athletic department's physician, Dr. Harry McPhee. John was educated at Princeton High School, then spent a postgraduate year at Deerfield Academy, before attending Princeton University and the University of Cambridge.

While at Princeton, McPhee went to New York once or twice a week to appear as the juvenile panelist on the radio and television quiz program Twenty Questions.[4] One of his roommates at Princeton was 1951 Heisman Trophy winner Dick Kazmaier.[5]

Twice married, McPhee is the father of four daughters: the novelists Jenny McPhee and Martha McPhee, photographer Laura McPhee, and architecture historian Sarah McPhee.[6][7]

Writing career[edit]

McPhee's first book (1965), was a profile of Princeton senior – and future pro basketball star – Bill Bradley

McPhee's writing career began at Time magazine and led to a long association with The New Yorker weekly magazine beginning in 1965 and continuing to the present. Many of his twenty-nine books include material originally written for that magazine.

Unlike Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson, who helped kick-start the "new journalism" in the 1960s, McPhee produced a gentler, literary style of journalism by incorporating techniques from fiction. McPhee avoided the streams of consciousness of Wolfe and Thompson, but detailed description of characters and appetite for details make his writing lively and personal, even when it focuses on obscure or difficult topics. He is highly regarded by fellow writers for the quality, quantity, and diversity of his literary output.[8][9]

McPhee's subjects, reflecting his personal interests, are highly eclectic. He has written pieces on lifting body development (The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed), the United States Merchant Marine (Looking for a Ship), farmers' markets (Giving Good Weight), freight transportation (Uncommon Carriers), the shifting flow of the Mississippi River (The Control of Nature), geology (in several books), as well as a short book entirely on the subject of oranges. One of his most widely read books, Coming into the Country, is about the Alaskan wilderness.

McPhee has profiled a number of famous people, including conservationist David Brower and the young Bill Bradley, whom McPhee followed closely during Bradley's four-year basketball career at Princeton University. The resulting book, A Sense of Where You Are, is a classic of non-fiction writing – a literary craftsman's admiring profile of a basketball craftsman. But some of McPhee's most memorable work describes people who work out of the limelight: a builder of birch bark canoes (Henri Vaillancourt), a bush pilot, and a French-speaking wine maker in the Swiss army.


McPhee is also a renowned nonfiction writing instructor at Princeton University, having taught generations of aspiring undergraduate writers. McPhee still teaches his writing seminar two years out of every three, most recently during the spring 2012 semester.[10]

Many of McPhee's students have achieved distinction for their writing:[7]

Awards and honors[edit]

McPhee has received many literary honors, including the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction, awarded for Annals of the Former World. In 1978 McPhee received a Litt.D. from Bates College, in 2009 he received an honorary Doctorate of Letters from Yale University, and in 2012 he received an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Amherst College.



  1. ^ a b c d e "General Nonfiction". Past winners & finalists by category. The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved 2012-04-11.
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^ "A Letter From The Publisher: 23 Nov. 1962". Time. November 23, 1962. ISSN 0040-781X. Retrieved September 18, 2008. 
  5. ^
  6. ^ Birnbaum, Robert (December 25, 2002). "Jenny & Martha McPhee". Identity Theory. Retrieved March 16, 2008. 
  7. ^ a b Peter Hessler (Spring 2010). "The Art of Nonfiction No. 3, John McPhee". The Paris Review. Retrieved October 2, 2011. 
  8. ^ While being interviewed on the August 27, 2009, edition of Radio West (KUER, Salt Lake City, Utah), writer Christopher Cokinos said that he has a sign above his desk which says Too tired to write? John McPhee isn't.
  9. ^ Royte, Elizabeth (March 21, 2010). "At Close Range". The New York Times. 
  10. ^ "Course Details « Office of the Registrar". Princeton University. Retrieved March 19, 2012. 
  11. ^
  12. ^ a b "National Book Awards – 1975". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-04-11.


  • Weltzein, O. Alan and Susan N. Maher (2003). Coming into McPhee Country: John McPhee and the Art of Literary Criticism. ISBN 978-0-87480-746-2.

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