Book Reviews - Summer 2023

Notes and Outtakes

Good writing never gets old

By Robert Wilson | June 1, 2023
Suzy Hazelwood/Flickr
Suzy Hazelwood/Flickr

Tabula Rasa: Volume 1 by John McPhee; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 192 pp., $28

At the age of 92, John McPhee would seem to have earned a rest. The author of more than 30 books, he has been writing for six decades for The New Yorker, where the reporting in many of those volumes first appeared. The John McPhee Reader has been a staple in nonfiction writing classes ever since it was published in 1976. Born in Princeton, where his dad was a doctor for the university’s jocks, he has lived in the town for most of his life, graduating from high school and college there. In 1975, he began a second career teaching “factual writing” part time at the university. His tabula is anything but rasa.

But despite the laurels that have accumulated from this activity, McPhee chooses not to rest, at least this side of the grave. Because eternal rest is something he also wishes to defer, he decided, as he launched this new book four years ago, that what was called for was an “old-people project,” defined as “a project meant not to end.” Why? “Old-people projects keep old people old. You’re no longer old when you’re dead.”

In search of a suitably endless and death-defying subject, then, McPhee turned to the notes he had made over the years on promising topics, and soon realized that the notes themselves were the answer: “I could undertake to describe in capsule form the many writing projects that I have conceived and seriously planned across the years but have never written.” An uncharitable reviewer considering the work of a lesser writer than McPhee might describe this prospect as a notebook dump. But if like me you’ve grown up, and old, on McPhee’s writing, following him to the ends of the earth if not beneath its surface (even though he won a Pulitzer for Annals of the Former World, which collects four of his patience-trying books on geology), then these 50 miscellaneous scraps, some consisting of only a few paragraphs and some as long as a few pages, will appeal. The randomness with which they are presented is a strategy, one counseled by no less a writer than Mark Twain, whose old-people project was his autobiography. The “right way to do an Autobiography,” Twain explained, is to “start it at no particular time of your life; wander at your free will all over your life; talk only about the thing which interests you for the moment; [and] drop it the moment its interest threatens to pale.”

Tabula Rasa is not an autobiography, even by Twain’s definition, but McPhee does refer to it at one point as a “reminiscent montage.” Teaching via Zoom, after the Covid lockdown began, is among the most contemporary items he includes, but McPhee ranges way back to 1943, when he was 12 and his mother saved his life by preventing him from skipping church to skate up the Millstone River with a couple of boys who fell through the ice and froze. A less tragic riverine tale is of a Fourth of July ride decades later, on the Hudson and the East rivers, aboard Malcolm Forbes’s 150-foot yacht. Among the guests: “Mick Jagger. People like that. People from all over the news, the media, the world, the city. Lobsters. Smoked salmon. Caviar by the kilo.”

McPhee has always been the perfect New Yorker writer, and not only because of his sterling prose style and his ability to dig a story out of terrain that others might overlook—firewood, for instance, or oranges. As a Princeton townie who is both enamored of and slightly superior to New York and its excesses, he falls within the magazine’s long tradition of starry-eyed outsiders, starting with its first editor, Harold Ross.

Several of McPhee’s entries here are about pitching stories to Ross’s successor, William Shawn, including this:

I uttered the single word “oranges?”

He answered right back. He always answered quickly. It seemed impossible to propose any subject to him that he had not thought about before you had. When he turned down an idea, he was usually protecting the interests of some writer whose name would never be mentioned. “No. I’m very sorry. No,” he would say typically, his voice so light it fell like mist. To my question about oranges, though, he said, “Yes. Oh, my, yes.”

Early in his New Yorker career, McPhee pitched Shawn a story about Outward Bound, the program teaching “self-reliance and survival in extreme predicaments.” His focus would be its school on Hurricane Island in Maine. It would have been a McPhee story through and through, given his interest in somewhat preppy activities in the great outdoors. But “Shawn was having nothing of Outward Bound. He compared it to the Hitler Youth.” A flaky response, given that the program’s founder, Kurt Hahn, was a Jew forced out of Germany in 1933 because of his public opposition to Hitler.

McPhee jokes that if only Twain had stuck with his old-person project (which the University of California Press eventually published in three volumes totaling more than 2,300 pages), “he would be alive today,” 113 years after his actual death. McPhee’s calling his own book “Volume 1” is, if not another joke, then perhaps merely a whimsical expression of optimism. Since Tabula Rasa begins and ends in the middle of things, future volumes seem more than possible. May we all live to read them.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Comments powered by Disqus