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July 10, 2013

Vol. 113, No. 15

Features

Talking metaphors with John McPhee ’53

By Jennifer Altmann
Published in the July 10, 2013, issue


The Class of 1953 hosted a 60th-reunion tribute to one of its own, journalist and Princeton professor John McPhee. Two of McPhee’s former students, journalists Robert Wright ’79, left, and Joel Achenbach ’82, ­interviewed their teacher and mentor.
PHOTO: FRANK WOJCIECHOWSKI
The Class of 1953 hosted a 60th-reunion tribute to one of its own, journalist and Princeton professor John McPhee. Two of McPhee’s former students, journalists Robert Wright ’79, left, and Joel Achenbach ’82, ­interviewed their teacher and mentor.

Joel Achenbach ’82, a longtime writer for The Washington Post, was perched on a stage next to Ferris Professor of Journalism John McPhee ’53, recalling the day McPhee handed him back his first writing assignment. 

“The paper came back, and there were red marks all over,” Achenbach said. “I thought I was a hotshot writer, and it was just a bloodbath. No professor had ever done that before. If there was an infelicity, it was marked. He didn’t let anything through.”

McPhee — who is known for mentoring students for decades after their graduation — replied, “I’m a little disappointed that you remember things with metaphors like ‘bloodbath.’”

The occasion was a Reunions tribute to McPhee, considered the country’s premier practitioner of long-form ­journalism. A New Yorker contributor for five decades and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of 28 books, McPhee has taught “Creative Non­fiction” for almost 40 years to aspiring journalists such as Achenbach and Robert Wright ’79, who interviewed him before a crowd of ’53 classmates and guests in the Trustee Reading Room at Firestone Library.

McPhee recalled that he first was asked to teach at Princeton in 1975, after the professor who had been lined up for a journalism course quit. These days, after selecting 16 students from as many as 80 applicants, he teaches them, he said, “how to improve their efficiency in the water.”

“He taught us to cut and revise,” Achenbach recalled in an email after the panel. One exercise was to trim a well-known text. “That’s hard when the assigned text is the Gettysburg Address.” 

McPhee talked about his early days as a writer, recalling that he wanted “to write for The New Yorker from the time I was in college. I sent dozens and dozens of things to them, all of which were rejected. ... That went on ’til I was 31 years old, and the first piece got in. A writer has to try this, try that, work your way forward against trial and error, against rejection.”

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