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They Just Fade Away

In 1951, General Douglas MacArthur, at the end of his Army career, made an address before a Joint Session of Congress which ended with the tearful reminder that “old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”

I have often thought that the same is true of writers — once they stop writing, their memory soon fades from public view.

Thus, it was with great joy that not long ago I picked up the New Yorker Magazine to find an article written by one of my favorite authors, John McPhee. It had been years since I had last seen McPhee in print (an article about the population of black bears in New Jersey,) and so I thought he had died, gone into hibernation or had just given up on writing.

McPhee has written books about everything from how to build a birch bark canoe to living in rural Alaska on America’s last frontier. His best three books, in my opinion, were about the geology of the United States–now consolidated into a large volume called Annals of the Former World. How anyone could digest and then express to a lay person the complexity of billions of years of geologic change in an understandable way, is a great gift, not given to many writers.

This recent magazine article is proof that age does not necessarily mean that you need to lose such a gift. McPhee admits that he is 88 years old and had sort of put writing behind him as a thing of the past. Then he recites examples of how writing kept old people going, one example being Mark Twain who started writing his autobiography in his seventies and kept writing until it contained more than 700,000 words. As McPhee observed: “Had Mark Twain stayed with it, he would be alive today.”

So, what is going to keep John McPhee busy? He has decided to write about subjects that he wanted to write about in the past, but for whatever reason, he or an editor had sidelined. Among the subjects he is considering are: revisiting the Extremadura in Spain, “a dairy farm in Indiana with 25,000 cows,” and golf course architects who redesign the designs of other famous golf course architects. You can’t say that he doesn’t have a fertile mind!

One day, McPhee ran this new writing idea by a friend, admitted that its purpose was most likely “to keep the old writer alive by never coming to an end,” and, if done, what could such an effort be called? The friend wisely said: “Just call it, ‘Volume One.'” So that is what the article in the magazine was titled: “Volume One.”

I can’t wait for Volume Two, Three, Four, etc.! John McPhee is back with us and I am anxiously awaiting the next installment.

I am not sure there is any great lesson in all of this except to note that sometimes when “they fade away,” it is only temporary, and good writers can come charging back (unlike old generals) and provide spark and interest to old and young alike who enjoy reading a good, well-researched and well-written story.

Rolland Kidder is a Stow resident.

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