John McPhee’s Legendary Course Meets the Moment

March 24, 2020

By Margo Bresnen

After the most extraordinary spring break in recent memory, Princeton University resumed classes yesterday—virtually, in light of the ongoing coronavirus outbreak. Among the first to tackle the change was JRN/CWR 240: Creative Non-Fiction, a course that John McPhee ’53 has taught on campus for the last 45 years. For the first time, McPhee, 89, hosted his seminar remotely, and that was not the only first. The Ferris Professor of Journalism also welcomed a new guest speaker to class: his former student David Remnick ’81, editor of The New Yorker.

In his apartment on West 86th Street, Remnick lightly strummed a nearby Gibson J-45 guitar while 15 students, all sophomores now scattered across the globe, joined a Zoom session. McPhee pointed out that the group was aware of Remnick’s college gap year spent as a busker in Paris’s Odéon metro station, and asked how much money he made during that time. “Be honest,” McPhee added. “About 59 dollars,” Remnick replied.

The following hours brought a rich and wide-ranging discussion. The students, who were asked to identify their current location upon introducing themselves, posed probing questions about writing, the magazine industry, and how each issue of The New Yorker comes together, down to the placement of cartoons and ads. Remnick shared his thoughts on the importance of reading to a young writer, how economics and technology influence art, and the unexpected trajectory of his career.

McPhee later sent a note to his students: “Searching for the mot juste for the way you shaped that seminar with David Remnick, the word ‘stupendous’ comes along readily. David, to say the least, was up to the challenge. If you were impressed by him, he was no less impressed by you.”

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