McPhee

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Time magazine recently published a profile of John McPhee. He is one of, maybe my favorite writer.  First published in the New Yorker in 1963;  87 years old.  The Time interview takes place on the 4th floor of Guyot Hall, the geosciences building on the campus of Princeton University.  McPhee is reviewing applications for his Sophomore writing class. He’s taught at Princeton for decades.  Years ago I wrote him asking if I could audit  a class.  He responded that Princeton did not allow audits of his classes but he was giving a public lecture.  I went but was disappointed; I thought his writing was much better than his speaking.

I don’t think I realized McPhee’s childhood was in Princeton. From Time:

While growing up in Princeton, where his father was a sports-medicine physician at the university, Albert Einstein–leonine white hair and all–would watch McPhee and his buddies play ragtag football on the lawn of the Institute for Advanced Study, Einstein’s workplace. “He would stand there and contemplate us,” McPhee says. In high school he had a gig killing fruit flies and washing centrifuge tubes stained with beef blood for the university’s biology department, in the very building where his office now sits.“

I  enjoyed some of the personal stories.

“To keep sharp, McPhee tries to ride a bicycle 15 miles every other day in and around Princeton, where he’s lived all his life. During these treks, McPhee shares with his riding partners stories about the history of local landmarks, his journalistic adventures, his family. (McPhee dedicates The Patch to his 10 grandchildren.) One friend describes him as the world’s nicest know-it-all.”

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I think “The Pine Barrens” (1968) was probably my first exposure to McPhee.  “The Survival of the Birch Bark Canoe” (1982) was second.  Both of them were on a reading list I had for a junior English course at Holy Ghost Prep. McPhee’s New Yorker, magazine style combining history, science and personal observation had me hooked.

I began to read anything he published in book form.  Oranges (1975),   Encounters with the Archdruid (1977), Levels of the Game (1979), Pieces of the Frame (1979), A Roomful of Hovings (1979), Basin and Range (1982), The Control of Nature (1990), Coming into the Country (1991), Looking For a Ship (1991),  The Crofter and Laird (1992), The Headmaster: Frank L Bowden of Deerfield (1992),  The Curve of Binding Energy (1994), The Ranson of Russian Art (1998), Irons in the Fire (1998), A Sense of Where You Are: Bill Bradley at Princeton (1999),  Assembling California (1994), La Place de la Concord Suisse (1994), The Founding Fish (2003).  I’ve missed a few.

I have strong memories of many.  The geology books were not favorites but I was always intrigued by how McPhee made them interesting, especially Assembling California.  The more I learn about his life; it explained his books.  He went to Deerfield Academy after high school, before Princeton.  In Silk Parachutes (2011) which I just read, he writes about Deerfield and Lacrosse.  Diane and I have visited the historic town and taken open hearth cooking classes there several times.  I remember his fishing in the Delaware River near Trenton in Founding Fish; Bill Bradley; both Princeton connections.

Decades ago I wrote to McPhee asking if I could audit a class at Princeton, a day, a semester.  He responded saying the University did not allowbaudits of his classes but he was giving a public lecture that I could attend. I did.  Unfortunately I didn’t find McPhee the speaker as fluid or engaging as McPhee the writer.

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Last year I read Draft No. 4: the writing process (2017).    I was surprised when I recently found several McPhee books that I hadn’t read.  Heirs of General Practice     (1986) and Silk Parachutes (2011). I ordered and read both.  Still on my Amazon buy list is The Patch (2018).  This is a shelf in my library devoted to McPhee.  Most books are Farrah, Straus and Giroux paperbacks.  Somewhere there should be a hardback edition of the Pine Barrens with photographs by Bill Curtsinger.  Bill, a National Geographic photographer illustrated a magazine Pine Barrens article and later contributed to the  book.  He told a story of being high when he shot the National Geographic cover image.

Like many things in my life, it’s time to revisit, reread, reexperience John McPhee.  Maybe Princeton allows audits or I could apply for his writing class.  Dreams.

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Benjamin Franklin

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I just finished reading “Young Benjamin Franklin; the birth of ingenuity,” by Nick Bunker (2018).  The book was a Christmas gift from Jerry and Susan Taylor.  Interestingly Bunker dedicated the book to Doylestown’s Henry Chapman Mercer, “an ingenious American.”

I’ve read other biographies of Franklin but I’m amazed at how a historian or biographer can mine new information; there are 42 pages of footnotes.  Franklin was born in 1706.  He died in 1790.  A long life.  “The Young . . .” only explores his first 41 years until 1747.  Decades before the American Revolution and Constitutional Convention.

The details of Franklin’s early teen years, apprenticed to his printer brother, James, in Boston, journey to Philadelphia are amazing.  There are his family relationships, father Josiah, mother Abiah Folger (she was from Nantucket), older brother James, and other siblings, he had 16.  The Franklin clan were craftsmen, mechanics, striving to be gentlemen.  Franklin inherited their ambition.

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There are many new stories but also the classic ones recorded in his autobiography.  Interesting details about his work for brother James’s on The New England Courant and his Silence Dogood letters. There was his comic first meeting with Deborah Read, who he would marry.  Then there is the false promise from Governor William Kieth and the trip to London.  Franklin, so young, was being exposed to a world bigger than Boston or Philadelphia.  He also learned more about printing and publishing.  And the most memorable story about Franklin’s plan/program to eliminate vices from his life. His jokes, hoaxes, Poor Richard’s all bring back memories.  I need to find a copy of the Autobiography to reread.

Bunker writes a bit about Franklin’s marriage and children.  Deborah was his bookkeeper.  He mentions a few of his extramarital affairs and struggles with the dark side, women, alcohol, sloth.

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It was interesting to read about the many characters in Franklin’s life.  There were printers, employers, rivals, Bradford and Keimer. There were failures who borrowed money and dragged him down.  But mainly Franklin rose to the position of “Gentleman” printer/ tradesman through friendships and partnerships with the better class.  Men, leaders,  like James Logan (Penn’s Secretary), Andrew Hamilton (lawyer) and William Allen (politician). These contacts aided Franklin’s success, his government printing contracts and position as postmaster.

 

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Franklin was always a man of ideas.  The existence of God and role of religion was a perennial question.  At times he wrote and thought like an Athiest.  But he attended church, had a pew at Christ’s Church, respect for other’s religious beliefs, but a dedicated reader of the books that questioned and debated religious questions.  He had a brief fling with the Great Awakening preacher, George Whitefield.  In the final analysis the Diest label probably fit.

Political ideology and eventually political parties, Whig and Tory conflicts in London became part of the colonial experience.  The Whigs opposed an absolute monarchy, maybe a bit liberal in thinking.  Franklin was a Whig.  Remember during the American Revolution, Tories supported England.

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There is no question that Franklin was a hard worker.  The image of him wheel barrow full of paper, an early morning, was probably accurate.  But he wasn’t in it just for money.  He wanted to do good for the community.  I always enjoyed and applauded his civic activism, fire company, Library Company, insurance, the Junto, and American Philosophical Society.  Membership in the Library Company is available today for a initial purchase and annual fee; I’m thinking about joining.

 

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Bunker is particularly interested in “the birth of ingenuity.”  Once he was financially secure, with several print shop partners, a house on Market, investments; Franklin was ready to retire.  Increasingly he becomes friends and associated with scientists in England and a few in the colonies.  John Bertram is one.  The practical physist Franklin invented or improved on the wood stove.  And there are other inventions not mentioned by Bunker.  But it’s electricity that grabs Franklin’s attention.  What is it?  How do you harness it?

In 1747, Franklin is 41 years old.  His life changes and will be devoted to science, politics and civic engagement.  Amazing. This is what is so fascinating about Franklin for me. He lived many lives.  It is almost 30 years before the Revolution, Paris, the Constitutional Convention.

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My Franklin experience was enriched with a National Endowment for the Humanities program.

“The “Landmarks of American History” grant will bring more than 80 teachers to Philadelphia during the summer of 2011 for “A Rising People: Benjamin Franklin and the Americans,” June 25-July 1 and July 10-15. Teachers will study with scholars of early America, visit sites that Franklin knew, examine documents written by Franklin, and experience a host of historic opportunities in the weeks surrounding Independence Day.

‘We’re absolutely delighted that the NEH funding will allow this program to continue,” said Dr. George Boudreau, associate professor of history and humanities at Penn State Harrisburg and the program’s director. “Understanding Benjamin Franklin is essential to understanding the history of the United States.’”

I participated in 2009.  My lesson plan can be reviewed at:

https://www.lasalle.edu/teachingfranklin/files/2015/11/Neighbbors_and_Friends_Profy.pdf

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It was a great week.  Most memorable was George Boudreau reaming me out for missing an evening activity.  I had a graduate class to teach at LaSalle. Another memorable event was the police visit after a student verbally threatened Boudreau.  It was never clear why.

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I took the train daily to 30th street station.  We met at the McNeil Center for Early American History across the street from the University of Pennsylvania.  Mornings were devoted to lectures by different Franklin scholars.  In the afternoons and some evenings there were field trips. We went to Independence Historical Park, the Franklin complex on Market street, visited the Library Company of Philadelphia and the American Philosophical Society.  There was an evening concert of colonial music in a Society Hill church and a luncheon or dinner in City Tavern.  Most memorable was the final day walk from Franklin’s house to Christ Church cemetery.  George was a bit emotional as he described the number of people who came and paraded on the day of Franklin’s funeral.  Drop a penny on his grave.

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Franklin was an amazing person.  I want to not just reread the Autobiography but search out my books for others related to Franklin. It would also be fun to re-explore Philadelphia sites associated with him.  A spring project.

 

 

 

 

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Looking ahead, 2019

 

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January 1, 2019

My plans, hopes for the new year.  Not resolutions really but goals. A list to guide me each day, week, month.  Some are already part of my routine; others new or need development.

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Walk a mile, an hour, most days, push a bit longer,  sometimes with Diane and Nala exploring new and familiar places; sometimes local.

Exercise, upper body with weights; pedals for legs.

Meditate.

Food shop at farm markets, speciality stores.

Weekly lunches out, old favorites, new places.

Bake and cook using cookbooks.

Organize and get rid of stuff. Organize and get rid of stuff.

House repair; yard improvement.

Shop & tools clean up.

Yard Sale.

Read new and reread books.

Watch films, new and classics.

Listen to music more frequently.

Get back into photography. Organize photographs.

Doll house completed.

Local field trips, Philadelphia several times a month, on train, theatre, museums.

Get to NYC.

Ride bicycle, use kayak.

Garden.

Travel, at least a month, six weeks away from home.

New activities with Eli and Viv.

Contact with relatives and friends.

Express thanks to Diane and others who help so much.

Volunteer.

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