Maybe the nature of comedy itself is why he's not called a humorist. Since it comes in far more varieties than what we normally accept, (like the varieties now considered dorky and old fashioned in the age of cool irony), we often miss comedy when we see it. Conspicuous among these failures of definition and recognition, especially among the intellectually inclined, is the tiresome crap about comedy being tragedy in disguise. We prefer our humorists to be like Mark Twain--sick over the state of the world, ever hounded by despair, and in the end snared by the folly of man. Perhaps McPhee is just not cynical enough or jaundiced enough for people to notice his exceptional comedic gifts.
Watch this video of McPhee reading from his Pulitzer Prize winning collection, “Annals of the Former Earth.” I’ve cued it up to to his explanation about why he decided to write so much about geology (four books make up “Annals…”) His answer is in the form of one paragraph from the book, and lasts until the applause at 7:40. Feel free to join when it happens.
This is classic McPhee--the great list maker, the writer who makes the unfamiliar vivid and the familiar sing. It's also a perfect example of McPhee’s comedy. His talent as a humorist lies in his awe of the natural world, his almost boyish respect for specialists and experts, and his ability to render anything we take for granted suddenly remarkable. Whatever he writes about--golf, lacrosse, the international shipping industry, the citizens who make up the Swiss Army, urban farmer’s markets, oranges, the wilds of Alaska, the rivers of Maine, canoes—he fills with a sense of marvel and wonder. John McPhee may not make you laugh out loud, but his ability to put the joy of living into words is comedy writing at its best.