The world of John McPhee
It’s 40 years since the appearance of John McPhee’s travel book about Alaska, Coming into the Country. To mark the occasion, Work in Progress, the excellent website of his American publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux, has put an extract up online.
On this side of the pond, there’s a lovely recent (2015) edition from Daunt Books, which is not just one of the best travel bookshops in London but also a publisher in a small way, dedicated to introducing works by fresh voices or reissuing lost classics. Coming into the Country falls into the latter category, having been published in Britain in 1977, the year the first barrel of oil was taken from what McPhee calls “America’s ultimate wilderness”. It began life as a series for The New Yorker — where McPhee has been a staff writer since 1963 — and is really three books in one: the story of a river journey he made in 1975; an exploration of “urban” Alaska; and sketches of people, from American Indians to oil drillers, who had “come into the country” around the town of Eagle. In our time, as Robert Macfarlane puts it in his introduction, it reads “like a combination of prophecy and elegy”.
Last autumn Daunt published a second title by McPhee, Oranges, about growers and traders of the world’s most popular fruit. Later this month it is due to bring out a third, The Crofter and the Laird, for which he moved his family from New Jersey to the land of his forefathers: the island of Colonsay, “17 square miles of dew and damp” off the west coast of Scotland.