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Writer John McPhee and the gift of 'nice little sentences'

  • Author: Dermot Cole
    | Opinion
  • Updated: January 26, 2017
  • Published January 26, 2017

On a return trip to Eagle 20 years after the publication of his book about Alaska, writer John McPhee spotted a gavel in the restored 1904 Eagle Courthouse and asked his friend Elva Scott about a line in "Coming Into the Country."

"Do you remember in the book, where I compared you to a gavel?" McPhee said.

Scott, a medical professional who served on the City Council and did time as mayor, had earned a reputation by 1997 as the pre-eminent Eagle historian, someone with a great memory, perhaps stopping just short of a gavel simile.

A witness to this conversation, Anchorage Daily News reporter Doug O'Harra, wrote that Scott replied to McPhee, "I don't remember that."

"But it was a compliment. It was a nice little sentence," McPhee said.

"You do make nice little sentences," Scott said.

The sentence in question was, "Through it all, Elva Scott is as calm as a gavel," which I find on page 375 of the battered hardcover my wife received for her 23rd birthday on Jan. 18, 1978.

It followed a passage about an Eagle City Council meeting that evolved into a shouting match. During the clamor, Scott worked on her needlepoint with equanimity, while the decibel level climbed.

"The debate has gone up and out of the larynx and into the bulging eyeball," McPhee wrote.

McPhee said of Scott, "Her insights seem to begin where many people's bottom out."

Those are two more nice little sentences, created by a man from New Jersey who has left us with an enduring guidebook to Alaska that is both a portrait of a vanished era, and a reflection of wilderness dreams and conflicts that continue to this day.

John McPhee wrote “Coming Into the Country” 40 years ago. (Princeton University Office of Communications)

McPhee, a writer for The New Yorker and a teacher at Princeton, is a master of nonfiction. His books are textbook examples that demonstrate it's not the subject that counts, as much as it's how a writer approaches that subject, whether one is writing about oranges, tennis, geology, canoes, cargo ships or Alaska.

McPhee, 85, came into the country again Tuesday via a phone call from his home in New Jersey, the guest on the public radio show "Talk of Alaska."

To this listener, it was like eavesdropping on a gathering of old friends, some who have younger versions of themselves forever preserved in the pages of "Coming Into the Country."

"I understand you're still in pretty good health though, huh, John?" said Mike Potts, calling from Arizona.

"Well, I rode my bicycle 15 miles yesterday," McPhee said. "That tells you something."

Potts has had adventures around the world, found Jesus and done missionary work, listeners and McPhee learned. "I'm doing OK, for an old bald-headed fat man," Potts said.

Writing of Potts four decades ago, McPhee profiled a successful trapper who "has a certain picture of himself and he paints it every day — another daub, another skill, becoming more and more of what he once only dreamed."

"He came into the country for what is here; others have come for what it is not," he said of Potts.

Through all of his work, McPhee connects events, facts and people in ways that seem inevitable, the artist's hand conveying the impression that however complicated, the assemblage had to be formed just this way. He chooses his words the way Dall sheep navigate hillsides, with precise movements.

Here are some from "Coming Into the Country" that have stuck with me since the day I underlined them in 1978 in my wife's hardback: "A bear removed the writer from the tent, ate him, and left nothing much but the pencil."

That sentence from McPhee's pencil still strikes me as nearly perfect, if I don't think too much about the writer-victim and his pencil.

I also have never forgotten a beautiful line from McPhee's encounter with Sen. Bill Ray, the Juneau legislator who boasted that people praised him for possessing the "guts of a second-story man and the brains of a Mafia chieftain."

McPhee wrote, "The second-story-man part was protruding under the hem of a jade-green polo shirt."

Perhaps the most often-quoted lines among Alaskans deal with the charms of Anchorage, which remain true enough to elicit groans from the Chamber of Commerce.

There are gems, such as "condensed, instant Albuquerque," but my favorite is this: "Almost all Americans would recognize Anchorage, because Anchorage is that part of any city where the city has burst its seams and extruded Colonel Sanders."

I had a question for McPhee, one I know defies an easy answer, but I put it to him in an email after the show. "How do you create sentences that bear repetition?"

"If the act of writing includes any fun, it comes in the moments when thought, fact, observation, and whatnot coalesce as something that seems funny and in various ways, right," he wrote back.

"Out of the gloom, I've been known to lift an arm into the air when such moments occur. Known by whom? By me. Who else?"

Readers may not lift an arm, but McPhee continues to lift spirits with nice little sentences.

Columnist Dermot Cole can be reached at dermot@alaskadispatch.com. 

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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