“The Search for Marvin Gardens” by John McPhee (1972)

December 5, 2012 | Posted in Essays in America |

John McPhee

John Angus McPhee is a celebrated American writer and recognized as one of the pioneers of the creative non-fiction genre. McPhee is known for the eclectic mix of subjects in his work and for his resistance to personal writing.

John McPhee was born in 1931, in Princeton, New Jersey. His father was an athletic department physician at Princeton University. McPhee attended college there, and later at Cambridge. In 1974, he returned to be the Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University.

McPhee began his career as a journalist for Time Magazine in the 1950s and ‘60s. He was finally published in The New Yorker in 1963, and continues to write for them. The New Yorker notes that of the more than eighty articles he has published in the magazine, they are “nearly all on distinctly different topics.” They range from a sketch of Princeton basketball star and US Senator Bill Bradley, an assessment of contemporary cattle raids, and even articles on geology.

These New Yorker articles make up, in a large part, the content of his thirty books, which are as varied in subject as his essays. “The Search for Marvin Gardens” recalls the popular board game, Monopoly, to explore the historic significance of Atlantic City, New Jersey (the city the game is based on). The essay’s topic may seem a bit strange, but his beautiful prose and smart reveals make this essay an American literary treasure.

McPhee was twice nominated for the National Book Award and won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for his collection on geology, Annals of the Former World.

Essay’s Form

“The Search for Marvin Gardens” is a disjunctive essay, written in many sections that alternate between two narrative strands. In the first strand, McPhee provides the account of a hypothetical Monopoly tournament. The second strand gives a detailed account of Atlantic City, both its history and McPhee’s travels through the city in search of Marvin Gardens.

The first page of “The Search for Marvin Gardens” shows the disjointed style of the essay and the dual narrative strand which is to follow.

The progress of the Monopoly games themselves dictates the accounts of the Atlantic City discovery, which the reader receives in the second narrative: each time a player lands on a Monopoly board spot, the reader learns about the corresponding location in Atlantic City.

As the tournament progresses, it seems as though the opponent, a “tall shadowy figure” whom the author “know[s]…well”, may actually be McPhee himself. Connections are made between the opponent and the original investors of Atlantic City real estate; both are known to “go for the quick kill” (361). This description, harkening to a more opulent time, is contrasted sharply against the general squalor of the city in 1972: “Whole segments of [houses] are abandoned, a thousand broken windows…. A mattress lies in the street, soaking in a pool of water” (366).

By drawing parallels between himself and the barons who led to this ruination, McPhee seems to implicate himself and the reader in the city’s continued decay. The Monopoly tournament narrative is very effective for the reveal because it exemplifies the trivial pursuits the assumed readers of The New Yorker are occupied with.

(All quotes from the essay refer to the Best American page numbers.)

Immediate Context

“The Search for Marvin Gardens” appeared in The New Yorker in 1972. The articles of this issue generally deal with high culture and include literary fiction and poetry, and articles about art and the cinema. Advertisements usually appeal to a sense of appearance or a means of escape: high-end clothing, expensive cars, foreign trips, and alcohol. The ads and articles paint a picture of a readership who is affluent, highly literate, or intent on feigning such a persona.

Ads flank “The Search for Marvin Gardens,” making the text itself often difficult to find. McPhee had been

Here is a more typical page of the essay as it is presented in The New Yorker. Ads for upscale clothing flank the text. In the middle of the page, a description of a woman reads: “She wore blue sneakers, worn through. Her feet spill out.”

continually published in The New Yorker for nine years at this point, and would have known the intentions of the magazine and its audience. However, he may have had subversive intentions by placing the essay, which deals so heavily with poverty at the hands of big business, in this magazine. It is a means to point a finger at the readers and hold them accountable.

However, the ads dominate the text and make it difficult for this message to come across. As figure two illustrates, McPhee’s description of a woman whose “feet spill out” of her shoes is overpowered by advertisements for luxury men’s wear to either side of the text.

Subsequent Appearance

“The Search for Marvin Gardens” has appeared in two subsequent McPhee collections: Pieces of the Frame (1975) and The John McPhee Reader (1976). It is reprinted in the same form as the 1972 version in The New Yorker.

The essay occasionally receives negative criticism. In his review of The John McPhee Reader, Spencer Brown calls “The Search for Marvin Garden’s” dual structure “gimmicky,” because McPhee “laminates bits of description of the decay of Atlantic City with bits of the game Monopoly” (151).

More often, though, it is this very double narrative which is praised. In his introduction to the essay, William L. Howarth says: “The crosscutting produces a formal tour de force, reminiscent of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying” (309).

As a result of continuous positive receptions, “The Search for Marvin Gardens” is still reprinted in prominent anthologies, most notably The Best American Essays of the Century (2000), The Next American Essay (2002), and Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction (2007).

Appearances of “The Search for Marvin Gardens”

The Best American Essays of the Century. Ed. Joyce Carol Oates and Robert Atwan. New York:   Houghton Mifflin, 2000. 361-372. Print.

D’Agata, John, ed. The Next American Essay. St. Paul: Graywolf Press, 2002.

McPhee, John. Pieces of the Frame. New York: Farrar, Strous, and Giroux, 1975. Print.

— “The Search for Marvin Gardens.” The New Yorker. 9 Sep. 1972. 45-62. Print.

The John McPhee Reader. Ed. William L. Howarth. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976. Print.

Neville, Susan. Sailing the Inland Sea : On Writing, Literature, and Land. Bloomington: Quarry Books/Indiana University Press, 2007. Print.

Nguyen, B. Minh, and Porter Shreve. Contemporary Creative Nonfiction : I & Eye. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2005. Print.

Williford, Lex, and Michael Martone, eds. Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction. New York, Touchstone: 2007. Print.

Selected Bibliography

Brown, Spencer. Rev. of The John McPhee Reader, John McPhee. Ed. William L. Howarth. The   Sewannee  Review 86.1 (1978): 146-152. Print.

“Contributors: John McPhee.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2011.

John McPhee. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006. Web. 12 Apr. 2011.

Lemongello, Steven. “Houses sell, get renovated in Margate’s Marvin Gardens like the real estate bust never happened.” PressofAtlanticCity.com. Blox Content Management     System. 23 Jan. 2011. Web. 13 Apr. 2011.

McPhee, John. “The Search for Marvin Gardens.” The Best American Essays of the Century. Ed. Joyce Carol Oates and Robert Atwan. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. 361-372.     Print.

Travis, Trysh. “What We Talk About When We Talk About The New Yorker.” Book History. 3   (2000): 253-258. Print.

Text and images: Justin Reed.