John McPhee's "factual story" brand of writing successfully revives Henry David Thoreau's (Class of 1837) ideas on creative factual writing, William Howarth, associate professor of English at Princeton, told a small audience yesterday.
McPhee, author of 13 books and numerous pieces in the "New Yorker," was at the Freshman Union with Howarth to discuss Thoreau in the second part of a series on "Thoreau the Writer," sponsored by the Department of Expository Writing and the Freshman Dean's Office.
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McPhee, who has written on such diverse subjects as ex-basketball star Bill Bradley, oranges, and new forms of powered flight, takes factual material and tries to deal with it in an unusual way, Howarth said.
McPhee said he tries to escape from conventional journalistic approaches, the "chronological" accounting of his experiences and the lives of others. One of his biographical pieces used "thematic sketches," dealing with different recurring patterns in the subject's life, he said.
Howarth said McPhee approaches his readers completely differently from Thoreau, who possessed "a lot of contempt for his audience" and "a fear of it."
"Readers are the real creators," McPhee said, because they have to create ideas and images out of the simple words an author puts down on paper.
He added that he often finds writing can be very difficult. "It's the pits," he said.
McPhee's latest book, "Coming into the Country," deals with the frontier in Alaska.