After spending an on-and-off six years as a journalist, mostly as a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, McKay Jenkins felt the parameters of a newspaper too confining. The space for a typical story was far too tight for the stories Jenkins wanted to write, and the treatment he wanted to give them.”In the daily or weekly newsroom, I found that if you write a 40- or 50-inch feature, you’re just scratching the surface,” said the 42-year-old Jenkins by phone from his home in Baltimore, where his daughter was napping and his son was playing with a new Hot Wheels car.”No editor wanted you to write more than that. I wanted more elbow room,” said Jenkins, who will speak at Paepcke Auditorium on Saturday as part of the Aspen Writers’ Foundation Winter Words series.
Jenkins says he “didn’t have the heart” for a freelance career. Heading straight into the realm of book-writing offered a similarly low level of security. So Jenkins cast his eye about for the ideal model for the career and life he wanted, and found it in the person of John McPhee. McPhee was an institution at Princeton University. A native of Princeton, N.J., McPhee graduated from his hometown school and embarked on a teaching career that is in its fifth decade. More significantly to Jenkins, McPhee was able to write at his pleasure while maintaining his duties as a professor. McPhee’s bibliography counts 26 nonfiction books, ranging from the 1999 Pulitzer Prize winner “Annals of the Former World,” a geological study of the North American continent over several billion years, to 1965’s “A Sense of Where You Are,” about a then-promising Princeton basketball player and scholar, Bill Bradley; to his most recent work, 2002’s “The Founding Fish,” focused on the American shad. “I didn’t want a Ph.D.,” confessed Jenkins, who nevertheless earned his advanced degree from Princeton. “I just wanted the freedom of an academic career. And I wanted to be by John McPhee. I’ve tried to model my career on McPhee, who can write and teach.”
Jenkins has a way to go to catch up to his model. But he is on the right track. Jenkins has been a professor at the University of Delaware for nearly a decade, and has earned tenured status. His fairly relaxed teaching schedule consists of just two 14-week semesters, which he can devote to the topic of his choosing; Jenkins has taught both English and journalism at Delaware.The easy pace of university life has allowed Jenkins to write to his mind’s content. Jenkins began with “The South in Black and White: Race, Sex and Literature in the 1940s,” which he says is about as scholarly as the title suggests. He followed by editing “The Peter Matthiessen Reader,” an anthology of writings mostly about indigenous cultures and the environment.In 2000, Jenkins launched the kind of writing career he most sought. That year brought the publication of “The White Death: Tragedy and Heroism in an Avalanche Zone,” an account of the true story of five young men who died in a 1969 attempt to climb Mt. Cleveland, in Glacier National Park.
Jenkins’ desire for abundant space is not confined to the written word. While growing up in Bronxvile, N.Y., a handful of miles north of New York City, recreation meant skiing in Vermont, hiking in the Adirondack Mountains and canoeing in Maine. While pursuing his studies – undergraduate work at Amherst College in Massachusetts, a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia and the incidental Ph.D. from Princeton – and working in his various careers as journalist, professor and book author, downtime has been passed with canoe trips in Ontario and Montana, and bike-trekking across New England, Virginia and Montana.By design, inclination or happenstance, Jenkins’ books have tended to gravitate toward stories of wide-open spaces, with a marked drift toward the American West. It started with a 1998 visit to a lodge in rural Montana. Jenkins was one of fewer than 10 people to attend a slide show about the ill-fated climb of Mt. Cleveland. Sensing a larger story, Jenkins began writing “The White Death,” which wove the history of mountain climbing and the science of snow into the narrative of the avalanche that ended five young lives.”‘White Death’ was a chance to dig into avalanche science and cold-weather rescue technique. Which is part of that story, but it didn’t have to be,” said Jenkins. “It could have been a 5-inch police blotter story in a newspaper. But in a book, you get to throw in everything you want.”
The man who happened to present that slide lecture, it turns out, had been a veteran of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division. Jenkins included several pages of text about the history of the 10th, the Army’s only troops trained for high-altitude battle. That brief chapter was expanded into 2004’s “The Last Ridge: The Epic Story of America’s First Mountain Soldiers and the Assault on Hitler’s Europe.”The 10th Mountain Division has been the subject of much myth and examination; the past year-and-a-half alone has brought two additional books on the subject – Charles J. Sanders’ “The Boys of Winter” and Peter Shelton’s “Climb to Conquer.” Jenkins’ account explains the causes for the mythology that has built up around the 10th Mountain Division, which trained at Camp Hale on Tennessee Pass, near Leadville. It also transcends those myths, to reveal the truths that the division hardly used their legendary skiing and climbing techniques while capturing Italian mountaintops from Hitler’s army toward the close of World War II.Jenkins’ latest book, his third densely researched tome in a short five years, is “Bloody Falls of the Coppermine: Madness, Murder and the Collision of Cultures in the Arctic, 1913.” It is the story of the murder of a pair of Canadian Catholic missionaries, and the subsequent court trials of the two Eskimos eventually convicted of the crime. The genesis of the book is shrouded in mystery for Jenkins. He vaguely recalls someone telling him of a Reader’s Digest article about the murders some time back. But when he located that article, he found it dated back to 1953. To Jenkins’ surprise, no one has stepped forward as the person who directed him to the topic.
For the first time in some years, Jenkins is uncertain what he will tackle next. He’s thinking of something more about culture than nature, something tied to the current culture clashes that are rocking the world. Whatever it is, Jenkins will be glad to have a canvas of several hundred pages, and not a few dozen inches.”What I love about this genre is you get the best of both worlds,” he said. “The narration pacing of a newspaper article, and the heavy research of academic writing. “But you get to avoid all the pitfalls. Because you write long, you don’t have to stay on the surface, as you do in newspaper journalism. And you don’t have to write dull, academic stuff, because you’re writing for a pop audience. I get to tell it in a compelling way.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.