A Roomful of Hovings and Other Profiles, John McPhee 1968

Continuing to work my way through McPhee’s oeuvre with this, his fifth book, a collection of profiles that originally appeared in The New Yorker between 1966 and 1968.  McPhee turns his sharp eye for details, his incredibly resourceful probing, and his interest in off-beat characters to four individuals and a group of people comprising MIT’s Fellows in Africa program.  Three of the individuals were household names at the time of the profiles, though sadly a snap quiz administered to my older daughter showed that fame is fleeting. When asked who Thomas Hoving (the Director of the Metropolitan Museum from 1967 (at the age of 36) to 1977, acquiring a number of famous works including the Egyptian Temple of Dendur and the Cloisters Cross of Bury St. Edmonds), Euell Gibbons (the author of Stalking the Wild Asparagus and a TV personality around foraging and eating foods from nature), Robert Twynam (the keeper of the grass on center court, Wimbledon), and Temple Fielding (the author of the most popular guides to travel in the 1960’s and ’70’s), she came up with a zero.  Tempus fugit!  The good news is that you don’t need to remember these folks to enjoy McPhee’s lively observations and the bon mots that seem to fill nearly every page.  I especially enjoyed the chapter on the MIT program which placed graduates of MIT and Yale and Harvard Law Schools in civil service positions in the newly liberated nations of Africa in the 1960’s.  That chapter brought back a time when the US had an important position and role in spreading democracy, freedom, and improved conditions world wide.  Again, tempus fugit!

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