John McPhee can surprise you.
More than 52 years ago I was a high school senior, hoping to gain admission to Princeton University, and someone gave me John McPhee’s book on Bill Bradley, the Princeton basketball star. I was enamored of Bradley, the scholar and athlete who epitomized everything that seemed important to me as a 17-year-old in upstate New York. I was awestruck by the title of this new book: “A Sense of Where You Are.” I didn’t know anything about philosophy, but I immediately assumed that this impressive volume would make Bradley seem even more heroic than I already viewed him, an intellectual soul coping with existential questions far beyond the confines of any gymnasium or college campus.
Then I read the book and got to the point where the title is revealed. It’s a surprisingly prosaic moment: Bradley is explaining to McPhee how he is able to make baskets by flipping the ball over his shoulder while his back is facing the backboard. It’s no big deal, he tells McPhee. You just have a sense of where you are on the court. By the end of the book, however, I found myself thinking again about my original premise.
A few years later I was a student at Princeton, running for chairman — top dog — of the Daily Princetonian. As the staff in the office took various preliminary votes to winnow down the field, the candidates were sequestered in a nearby dormitory. I noticed a copy of the New Yorker in the room, with an article by that McPhee guy about a place I had never heard of — the Pinelands of New Jersey. I started reading, and reading, and reading. As I kept turning the pages, some of the other candidates — eliminated in the voting — were summoned back to the office. Eventually three of us were left. The current chairman and his second-in-command then came to the room and called out my name. I looked up from the New Yorker and figured they were bringing me back to the office — leaving the other two to compete for coveted chairman’s position.
No, they said, you are the chairman. Congratulations. In other words, surprise, Rich, you’re not in the Pinelands anymore.
Now, almost 50 years later, I have picked up a copy of McPhee’s latest book, his 32nd, “Draft No. 4.” It is a memoir of his writing career, a mother lode of insights into McPhee’s craft and how he has developed and refined it through the years. I have read enough interviews of McPhee over the years, as well as several chapters of the new book that appeared originally as articles in the New Yorker, that I felt I knew pretty much where this book was heading. So I settled in for what I thought would be an informative — if somewhat predictable — read.
Then I came to a description of McPhee’s piece, “Looking for a Ship,” being edited by Robert Gottlieb, who had replaced William Shawn as editor of the New Yorker in 1987. McPhee had turned in a 60,000-word piece that included this quotation from a sailor: “A seaman smells like a rose when he has money, but when he has no money they say, ‘Motherfucker, get another ship.’”
Wow, I never would have imagined that McPhee ever used the F word in one of his pieces. And, as it turns out, Gottlieb resisted and McPhee did not use the word in that piece. But in “Draft No. 4” McPhee’s attempt to use the word becomes a wonderful sparring match between writer and editor, in one paragraph employing the F-word or a variation no fewer than 14 times, every one serving its own singular purpose — no swearing like a sailor for McPhee.
Now a little wide-eyed, I read on, and encountered another word I never would have expected from McPhee, certainly not in this context. It was the E-word, erection. And it belonged not to any finely wrought character in McPhee’s narrative, but to McPhee himself. This, from the writer who keeps himself so much in the background that flies on the wall want to charge him rent.
For as long as I have lived in Princeton John McPhee has been the leading literary lion in town. When I returned to Princeton to live, not study, in 1972, the town was crowded with big-time writers — they had their own table at the Annex restaurant, in the basement space at Tulane and Nassau streets. There were people like Fletcher Knebel, co-author of the bestselling book (and later movie) “Seven Days in May”; Jerry Goodman, who wrote the big books on finance under the pseudonym Adam Smith; and Brock Brower, novelist and a prolific writer for Esquire, Life, Harper’s, and the New York Times magazine, among others. There was even a big-time editor in town, Alan Williams of Viking, who had just discovered “The Day of the Jackal” by Frederick Forsyth.
John O’Hara had just died. Peter Benchley was still living in Pennington, trying to write the great American novel — or at least a good summer read at the beach — about a great white shark. (Shortly after “Jaws” become a bestseller in 1974 Benchley moved to Princeton’s western section.) Landon Y. Jones was living in Princeton and editing the Princeton Alumni Weekly — and just about to return to Time Inc., where he would become managing editor of People Magazine as well as author of “Great Expectations,” the bestselling book about the post-war baby boom.
Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, Russell Banks, Gloria Emerson, and a boatload of other writers had yet to land in town. Princeton was — and still is — a writers’ town. If you thought of writers as being a dime a dozen, you wouldn’t be the first to think that.
In this crowded field McPhee stood out. I was never a writer substantial enough to earn a place at the writers’ table at the Annex, but McPhee certain was. Even though his office at the time was just a staircase or two away from the Annex, he rarely hung out there. One Sunday morning McPhee joined an informal touch football game on the field at the corner of Mercer Street and Hibben Road. He, at around the age of 40, was in better shape than most of us in our 20s. Someone said that he didn’t just jog, but that he ran wind sprints. Although he tore an Achilles tendon some years ago, he now rides a bicycle 15 or 16 miles every other day. McPhee was and still is driven.
By 1976 he already had enough work in print to merit a “John McPhee Reader,” edited by a scholar(!), English professor William L. Howarth. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999. In that same year a session at the Western Literature Association meeting in Sacramento, California, was devoted to McPhee. The meeting resulted in a collection of academic essays about McPhee’s work, “Coming Into McPhee Country — John McPhee and the Art of Literary Nonfiction.” And he taught an immensely popular and critically acclaimed Princeton University course in the “literature of fact” that paved the way for journalism to be taken seriously at the university — this fall there are seven courses in journalism being offered under the auspices of the Council for the Humanities.
One of McPhee’s students, David Remnick, Class of 1981, a Pulitzer Prize winner and now editor of the New Yorker, helps put McPhee’s work in perspective in an introduction for “The Second John McPhee Reader,” published in 1996:
“The big year for the New Journalism was 1965 . . . In the spring, Tom Wolfe hurled a two-part pie in the face of The New Yorker with his send-up, ‘Tiny Mummies! The True Story of The Ruler of 43rd Street’s Land of the Walking Dead!’ It was Wolfe’s thesis that the magazine had devolved into a humorless, genteel museum piece of middlebrow culture living off the literary capital accumulated in the days of Harold Ross. . . .
“A few months later, [editor William] Shawn made mush of Wolfe . . . , publishing virtually every word of what remains a classic of nonfiction writing, Truman Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood.’ Capote’s work was built on the sheer exertion of painstaking reporting; at the same time it possessed all the texture and narrative energy of the best novels. . . .
“In that same noisy year, 1965, the New Yorker published ‘A Sense of Where You Are,’ a 17,000-word-long profile of the Princeton University basketball star Bill Bradley. It was, in many ways, a traditional piece for the New Yorker: understated, measured, a sustained work of admiration centered on a Caucasian paragon of Ivy League polish and Calvinist habit. And yet the author, John McPhee . . . had, in his quiet way, accomplished something of distinction.
“To begin with, he had found a perfect subject, one who could articulate his distinctive character, verbally and physically. . . . In Bradley, McPhee found an artist in absolute touch with his materials (his teammates, the court, his own body) and willing to describe them.
“McPhee did not let Bradley merely talk about his sense of the game; he let him show it. By staying close to Bradley, day after day, McPhee accumulated the details necessary to describe Bradley’s quest for perfection. With McPhee’s gift for the telling anecdote, Bradley’s game and his acute awareness of its angles came alive even to a reader who would never think, otherwise, to care.”
Recounting his days as a student in McPhee’s class, Remnick continues, “To the degree that he revealed himself in the classroom, McPhee showed himself to be not unlike his first subject, Bill Bradley — conservative about, and immersed in, the fundamentals of his craft. That is, he is conservative, blessedly conservative, where it comes to fact. His principle is that non-fiction can, and should, borrow the varied structures of fiction, but not its license. . .
“McPhee could not be more different from such contemporaries in New Journalism as Wolfe or Joan Didion or Michael Herr. He is not a writer of the Zeitgeist.”
So what is McPhee, if not a New Journalist? In the new book, “Draft No. 4,” the phrase “creative non-fiction” comes to light. As McPhee asks in the book, “What is creative about nonfiction? The creativity lies in what you choose to write about, how you go about doing it, the arrangement through which you present things, the skill and the touch with which you describe people and succeed in developing them as characters, the rhythms of your prose, the integrity of the composition, the anatomy of the piece (does it get up and walk around on its own?), the extent to which you see and tell the story that exists in your material, and so forth.
“Creative nonfiction is not making something up but making the most of what you have.”
To figure out how John McPhee has made the most of what he has had, I could have pestered him for an interview, and tried to become one more admiring journalist to walk this well plowed ground on this occasion of “Draft No. 4,” essentially a memoir of McPhee’s life as a writer, though not his personal life. The New York Times Sunday Magazine on October 1 did a good job.
An even better job was done by Heller McAlpin, a New York-based critic who reviews books for National Public Radio, the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and other publications. She spent most of a day with McPhee in Princeton in August, and came away with an interview that asked most every question I would have asked. Her interview, for the online literary review at www.barnesandnoble.com, says a lot about McPhee. So does the career of the interviewer herself: In 1975 Nanci Heller, as she was then known, was in the very first class of students McPhee taught. That good start has served her well.
The fact is that McPhee has been generous with his time on the occasion of this new book but in most of the interviews I have seen he has kept his responses within a limited range. If you read McPhee’s work carefully, however, you learn a lot about the writer. McPhee parses out personal details sparingly and only when they serve his purpose. Sort of like his use of the F word. As Remnick pointed out, McPhee is not part of the New Journalism zeitgeist.
But now more than ever, McPhee has been allowing that first-person pronoun to slip into his work. As he explained to Heller McAlpin:
“Time. I mean, it’s a function of time. The pieces in this book were written as a result of teaching for 40-some years. So I’m just older, and as I get older and write pieces based on my experience teaching and so forth, the first-person pronoun comes in more. My attitude about the first-person pronoun in pieces of writing was always that it was perfectly fine to use it. You didn’t have to say, ‘A reporter got into the car.’ But it would be employed only where really necessary. . .
“But that was an attitude that was born out of an idea that I think the writer ought to keep himself off the scene. It’s not about the writer. It’s about the subject. And so, writers that interpose themselves between the reader and the subject were not models that I wish to follow. So, consequently, in all the early decades of my writing for the New Yorker, I didn’t say ‘I.’ But when I get to a point in life where I am about 100 years old and I am summarizing stuff that I talked about to people, then there’s no alternative. That’s why there’s so many more.”
McPhee was born in Princeton in 1931 — the youngest of three children. (His older brother, H. Roemer McPhee, became an assistant special counsel in the Eisenhower White House and then a Washington lawyer. His sister, Laura, taught kindergarten and was an educational consultant.) McPhee’s father was the physician for the university’s sports team. As McPhee has told countless journalists, he developed his interest in athletics through his father’s work, accompanying the football team onto the field, and retrieving balls after field goals and points after touchdown attempts. On one cold, rainy Saturday, the young McPhee looked up at the Palmer Stadium press box and realized that the reporters were out of the rain and warmed by space heaters. “That’s when I decided to be a writer,” he says.
His father had another influence. The medical doctor also loved words. As McPhee told Peter Hessler (the recipient in 2011 of a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” and, yes, an alumnus of McPhee’s Princeton course) in an interview for the Paris Review in 2010, his father “had no interest in being a writer. But from the earliest time I can remember, I would hear him, especially when he was driving, kind of speaking to himself and mumbling words that he obviously thought were appealing. He liked the rhythm. He said words over and over to himself, half aloud. And I heard him doing this and completely understood what he was doing: my dad was full of affection for words, and it showed in these little quiet ways.
“I picked up the same tendency. If some word appealed to me, I’d say it over and over again. It would go around in my head the way the snatches of a song would.”
Dr. McPhee’s affinity for words came to my mind when I read his son’s story, “The Patch” (which will be the title of McPhee’s next collection of stories). The story begins as a fishing story but evolves into much more than that when the author is summoned to a hospital, where his 89-year-old father lies, crippled by a stroke. As recounted in the story, McPhee and his then 87-year-old mother, his brother, and his sister are at his father’s bedside when a physician comes in to deliver the bad news:
“I was startled by the candor of the doctor. He said the patient did not have many days to live, and he described cerebral events in language only the patient, among those present, was equipped to understand. But the patient did not understand: ‘He can’t comprehend anything, his eyes follow nothing, he is finished,’ the doctor said, and we should prepare ourselves.
“Wordlessly, I said to him, ‘You fucking bastard.’ My father may not have been comprehending, but my mother was right there before him, and his words, like everything else in those hours, were falling upon her and dripping away like rain. Nor did he stop. There was more of the same, until he finally excused himself to continue on his rounds.”
Another use of the f-word, dropped in at exactly the right moment. As the story continues McPhee begins talking to his father, reciting details of a recent fishing trip, reminding him of times when they had fished together. McPhee baths his father in a flood of words. “Spontaneously, I began to talk. In my unplanned, unprepared way, I wanted to fill the air around us with words, and keep on filling it, to no apparent purpose but, I suppose, a form of self-protection.”
Or maybe the son is remembering his father’s appreciation for words.
McPhee’s mother was the daughter of a Philadelphia publisher and taught French before her marriage. Her brother was in the family business, which included a series of books about an arctic sled dog, a beloved fictional character for the young McPhee. He was saddened to read in the newspaper one day that the author of those books, Jack O’Brien, had died. A few years later McPhee visited his uncle’s office and was introduced to “Jack O’Brien,” the author of the books about the dog. But hadn’t O’Brien died? McPhee asked later.
“He did die,” his uncle told him. “Actually we have had three or four Jack O’Briens. Let me tell you something, John. Authors are a dime a dozen. The dog is immortal.”
His mother realized that John needed another year of seasoning and some broadening of his geographical horizons after he completed Princeton High School and before he enrolled at Princeton University, the only school to which he had applied. So he spent a formative year at Deerfield Academy. McPhee wrote a short profile of his mother at age 99 that appeared in the New Yorker in 1997 and that became the title chapter of his 2010 anthology, “Silk Parachute.”
She also had another subtle influence on her youngest child. She proofread every galley of McPhee’s work until she died at the age of 100. As he told Heller McAlpin, “my mother used to say to me, ‘You’ve been doing that for months. When are you going to finish?’”
McPhee’s interest in writing was fueled by Olive McKee, an English teacher he had for three out of four years at Princeton High School. She made the class write on average three compositions each week on a wide range of subjects. And each composition had to be accompanied by a description of the essay’s structure, the foundation for McPhee’s lifelong obsession with a piece’s structure.
At Deerfield McPhee met some more teachers who had a lifelong impact, including the geology teacher. Also at Deerfield he became the shortest player on the basketball team. He continued to play basketball at Princeton University, though he would quickly add that this was a different era in Ivy League sports and that the team he was on was the freshman team. But he was enough of a jock to befriend and become the roommate of classmate Dick Kazmaier, who in his senior year would win the Heisman Trophy.
But McPhee’s interest in sports did not keep him from pursuing his real dream, writing — especially for the New Yorker. During college he won a competition to be the “On the Campus” columnist for the alumni magazine, spent three years traveling to New York to compete on the radio and television versions of the show “Twenty Questions,” was managing editor of Tiger Magazine, had an article published in the New York Times Magazine on the decline of college humor magazines, and persuaded the English department to allow him to write a “creative” senior thesis, a novel.
After Princeton he spent a post-graduate year studying at Cambridge in England. Even while idea after idea was being rejected by the New Yorker, McPhee toiled on as a writer, working on scripts for live television dramas (several made it to NBC) and eventually becoming a staff writer for Time magazine, a job that provided some entertaining grist for “Draft No. 4.”
Essentially McPhee followed the same advice he gave to other aspiring writers (including me in the early 1970s). “Young writers generally need a long while to assess their own variety, to learn what kinds of writers they most suitably and effectively are,” McPhee writes in “Draft No. 4.” He adds, “I have long thought that Ben Johnson summarized the process when he said, ‘Though a man be more prone and able for one kind of writing than another, yet he must exercise all.’ Gender aside, I take that to be a message for young writers.”
Working out in so many different literary arenas, McPhee learned another thing: As he told Michele Alperin in a 2010 interview for U.S. 1, “What I learned was that it wasn’t really my cup of tea — to be involved in something in which so many other people were involved. Even though you are the writer, you were one small wedge in a large pie. I wanted to make the whole shoe — to throw metaphors.”
Finally in 1963 McPhee placed a story with the New Yorker. It was an account of time he spent on a basketball team during that post-graduate year at Cambridge, England. After that success he pitched the idea of a longer profile on the improbable Princeton basketball superstar, Bill Bradley.
McPhee became a player in a field of celebrity journalists. Unlike most of the other New Journalists McPhee rarely became a participant in a story he was reporting. Other journalists, in contrast, sometimes became a spectacle. An example: A 1973 article in New York Magazine by Aaron Latham, titled “An Evening in the Nude With Gay Talese.” It was an account of Talese’s research for his big book on the sexual revolution in America. The headline (which in my mind morphed into the punchier “A Night in the Nude with Gay Talese”) was meant literally, not figuratively.
McPhee would have none of that. But no one of McPhee’s stature could completely escape the glare of publicity. In the late 1960s McPhee and his first wife, a noted portrait photographer and feminist advocate, Pryde Brown, were divorced. It would have been an unremarkable event except for three things:
First Brown remarried a new age psychotherapist but mostly stay-at-home dad named Dan Sullivan. He had the distinction of being one of the first men ever to be awarded child support payments from his ex-wife. The Brown-Sullivan role-reversed marriage came to the attention of People Magazine. As a freelance contributor to People at the time, I was assigned to do the reporting. (And, full disclosure, it turns out that Pryde Brown and I have numerous friends in common.) In Princeton, at least, the People story was the talk of the town for a few days.
The second remarkable thing about the McPhee-Brown split was the 1982 movie, “Shoot the Moon,” starring Albert Finney and Diane Keaton as a couple involved in a bitter divorce. The similarities to the McPhees were notable — the husband in the movie was a writer, the wife was named Faith, and they had four daughters. In addition the screenwriter was Bo Goldman, a college classmate of McPhee at Princeton. Goldman had spent time at the McPhee homestead during the period of their marital breakup.
The third thing about the McPhee break-up: Not surprisingly, John and Pryde had four creative and articulate daughters. Two are novelists and one, Martha, appeared to loosely base her first two novels on the breakup of the marriage and the resulting merged family of Pryde Brown and Dan Sullivan that took up residence at a rustic site north of Hopewell.
From her “Gorgeous Lies,” published in 2002:
“It was the mid 1970s and this interest in blended families was a trend that had begun with the divorce boom, and then the ‘Brady Bunch,’ and now everyone, everywhere wanted to know how it was really working out . . .
“They were famous for many reasons. They were famous because they lived on a vast piece of property that was supposed to be a farm but was not a farm at all . . . They were famous because Anton [Dan] was a Gestalt therapist and in town he had a reputation for holding therapy sessions on his front lawn . . . They were famous because Anton did not have a traditional job and Eve [Pryde] did, and it was Eve who brought home the money. ‘Anton is a good feminist and a wonderful mother,’ Eve would say.”
The People magazine assignment even gets into the novel:
“There was Anton big as day on the cover of People Magazine (actually it was Marlon Brando, but it looked so much like Anton that even the kids, even Eve, at first thought Brandon was Anton). Inside that issue was a five-page spread on the family with pictures, covered by a famous reporter. Anton, for real, on page 65 with his bright, electrifying smile, a dustpan and brush in hand sweeping up the kitchen floor . . . All of the kids laughed when they saw that picture; they’d never seen Anton before with a dustpan in his hand.”
The fact that I, a struggling freelance writer, am portrayed in the novel as a “famous writer” suggests that the truth is being stretched left and right for creative purposes. But still, “Gorgeous Lies” has some reality at its base.
The former student and critic Heller McAlpin points out in her Barnes and Noble interview with McPhee that some of his daughters’ fiction “has cut close to home. Isn’t it tough to not say anything?”
McPhee’s response: “It’s not tough. It’s not difficult. It’s their book. It’s her book, whoever it is.”
McPhee found himself in the news pages on one other occasion. It was in response to a 1979 profile he had written of “Otto,” the pseudonym for a chef who was so talented, McPhee believed, that the restaurant would be overwhelmed and ruined by hordes of gourmands if its real name were revealed.
McPhee’s piece, “Brigade de Cuisine,” was published on February 19 in the New Yorker, and it caused a furor among the established dining critics in New York. First they wanted to know who Otto really was, and then they wanted to address his allegations that Lutece, the famous Manhattan restaurant, had cut corners by serving previously frozen turbot and sole and using canned mushrooms.
Four days later the New York Times restaurant critic Mimi Sheraton and wine writer Frank J. Prial published a piece identifying the chef and his restaurant, repudiating the frozen turbot charge, and — in what must have been a gleeful moment for the Times — quoting New Yorker editor William Shawn as saying that the Otto profile was the first piece in the magazine’s history not verified in detail by fact checkers and that McPhee was allowed to “do his own checking.”
To add insult to injury in Princeton, at the time of McPhee’s Otto contretemps, I was occasionally dining at a private home in town, where once a week a paralegal and amateur chef would collect $10 apiece from participants and create a four-course meal complete with wine. You never knew who would show up on any given week and you never knew what would be on the menu. As a freelance writer then occasionally writing for the Town Topics, I wrote up “Robert’s Table,” in the style of McPhee’s “Otto,” with similar rhetorical devices to tease the location but not specifically identify it.
I figured the literary set in Princeton would get the McPhee send-up and that others would play the game of trying to identify the location of this weekly feast. Town Topics came out on a Wednesday. The next morning I got a call from “chef” Robert. The health department had already contacted him and ordered him to shut down the weekly event. McPhee’s secret had lasted four days. Mine lasted less than 24 hours.
Through all these media storms McPhee never showed any evidence of being ruffled. He has always been the unflappable professional and the current outpouring of appreciation for his mastery of the craft is totally understandable. But over the years I have come to marvel even more at his proficiency as a teacher and his doggedness as a reporter. Let me address each skill in turn.
McPhee the writer. McPhee has earned the right to be one of the fortunate few who can write an article, and then rewrite and improve it in subsequent drafts. The first draft, he says in an interview with Jared Haynes, a writing teacher at the University of California, Davis, in the scholarly review, “Coming Into McPhee Country,” is a miserable time, filled with apprehension. “The largest fear is that I will go home without having done anything. If I do, I go home depressed, with a sense that things are really falling apart.”
But, McPhee continues in his interview with Haynes, “when you get into the second draft. . . a different person is working on that manuscript.”
As he explains in “Draft No. 4,” the third draft involves reading the second draft aloud and enclosing words and phrases in penciled boxes for further scrutiny. “If I enjoy anything in this process, it is Draft No. 4,” McPhee writes in the book by that title. “I go searching for the replacements for the words in the boxes. The final adjustments may be small-scale, but they are large to me, and I love addressing them.”
McPhee’s new book is a memoir, not a manual on nonfiction writing. But there’s plenty of practical advice that rises through the narrative:
On interviewing techniques. “Whatever you do, don’t rely on memory. Don’t even imagine that you will be able to remember verbatim in the evening what people said during the day. And don’t squirrel notes in a bathroom — that is, run off to the john and write surreptitiously what someone said back there with the cocktails. From the start, make clear what you are doing and who will publish what you will write. Display your notebook as if it were a fishing license.”
On dealing with recorded speech. “Once captured, words have to be dealt with. You have to trim them and straighten them to make them transliterate from the fuzziness of speech to the clarity of print. Speech and print are not the same, and a slavish presentation of recorded speech may not be as representative of a speaker as dialogue that has been trimmed and straightened. Please understand: You trim and straighten — take the ‘um’s, ‘uh’s, and ‘uh but um’s out, the false starts — but you do not make it up.”
On working with editors: “Editors are counselors and can do a good deal more for writers in the first-draft stage than at the end of the publishing process. Writers come in two principal categories — those who are overtly insecure and those who are covertly insecure — and they can all use help. The help is spoken and informal, and includes insight, encouragement, and reassurance with regard to a current project. If you have an editor like that, you are, among other things, lucky; and, through time, the longer the two of you are talking, the more helpful the conversation will be.”
No one would call a piece of McPhee writing anything but thorough. So his final chapter, titled “Omission,” comes as another surprising twist for the “Draft No. 4” audience. “Omission” is all about what gets deleted in the editing process. It’s the icing on the cake. The final scene seems to have absolutely nothing to do with writers or writing. It involves an incident in McPhee’s sophomore year in college, when a roommate’s father invited McPhee to join him on a visit to the then-president of Columbia University, Dwight Eisenhower.
At a certain moment the 19-year-old McPhee finds himself alone with the great general, who is pursuing his hobby of painting. At this moment Ike is attempting a still life of a square table covered with a red-checkered table cloth and a bowl of fruit, including apples, plums, and pears, with a bunch of grapes on top.
McPhee looks at the bowl of fruit that is Eisenhower’s study, and then the still life that appears on the canvas, and has a question: “Why have you left out the grapes?”
I won’t ruin the surprise by printing Eisenhower’s answer here. But trust me that it is a telling way to instruct writers on what to include and what to exclude. “Draft No. 4” overflows with wisdom that any writer should find valuable.
McPhee the teacher. As a teacher McPhee gained the accolades of scores of students. More importantly, he gained the respect of the academicians who ruled the roost at Princeton University at the time.
It’s remarkable that John McPhee, in his mid-80s, offers one of the most popular courses for highly motivated students who are, for the most part, not yet 20 years old. In recent years McPhee’s course at Princeton has been limited to sophomores. Typically 70 to 80 students apply for the 16 openings.
It’s also remarkable that this demand has continued over not just years but decades. Remarkable but perhaps not so surprising. In the very beginning of what has evolved into Princeton’s program in journalism, I took the course then known as “expository writing” and administered by the Council on the Humanities, not the English department. I probably saw the course as a potentially easy grade in my senior year. A few years later, when I was about to start freelance writing, I was invited to serve as an assistant to the teacher of that course, Irving Dilliard, who held what is known as the Ferris Professorship. I was a second set of eyes, adding my comments to the ones made by Dilliard to the students’ papers.
The students loved the course and loved Dilliard, an avuncular former editorial page editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. One young man in the course, engaged to be married, asked Dilliard to be his best man. Dilliard declined. But the fact remains that most beginning writers, of whatever age, deeply appreciate the comments and criticisms of those who have more experience.
Washington Post journalist Joel Achenbach, Princeton Class of 1982, will join McPhee at the now totally subscribed discussion at Labyrinth Books on Tuesday, October 24. Achenbach, an alumnus of the McPhee course, wrote about McPhee in the Princeton Alumni Weekly in 2014. The assignment was made somewhat easier, Achenbach noted, “because most of McPhee’s former students have saved their class notes and marked-up papers (Marc Fisher ’80: ‘I’ve never lived anywhere without knowing where my notes from his class are’).”
Jim Kelly, then managing editor of Time Inc., told a reporter for the Princeton Weekly Bulletin in 2007 that he still had all the papers he wrote for the class, marked up with McPhee’s handwritten comments. McPhee’s class “changed my life,” Kelly said.
What is surprising is how much McPhee has taken away from the teaching process. He dedicates “Draft No. 4” to his friend Gordon Gund, the Princeton-based industrialist and philanthropist who listens patiently as McPhee proofreads his pieces aloud; his wife, Yolanda Whitman; and “to half a thousand Princeton students, who have heard it all before.”
McPhee has found real value in teaching. As he explains in “Draft No. 4,” the classroom can also be a laboratory. Regarding frames of reference, McPhee writes, “I am forever testing my students to see what works and does not work in pieces of varying vintage.” His students today have a vague recollection of what Y2K stands for. How long will that last, McPhee wonders.
The teaching also becomes an important part of the Heller McAlpin interview:
“I’ve never written a line of anything of mine during the semester that I’m teaching, but I think I have written more over the decades in the New Yorker and so on, than I would have had I not been teaching. Because I think that looking over the shoulder of writing students and dealing with them is both very germane to the writing world, but it doesn’t have the same kind of pressure as my own writing. So I’m getting a little vacation from my own writing. It’s sort of like crop rotation in agronomy.”
McPhee adds that talking to students “individually must sharpen my sense of the craft. Figuring out what to say to a student is in part figuring out what to say to myself about this thing. And [‘Draft No. 4’] is the result of that. It wouldn’t exist without that course.”
For some time McPhee taught the course every third semester. Recently he has committed to presenting it every other semester, once a year.
“I think I’ve got to keep the rhythm going,” he tells Heller McAlpin. “If I took off for a year and a half or whatever it would be, I might find it hard to get back to it. So I feel all prepped up for the next class by the last one. The 2017 classes are kicking me forward into the 2018 class. But I think the students do a lot for me that maybe medicine can’t! I really think that.”
McPhee made a similar point in a radio podcast he did with head basketball coach Mitch Henderson. “Getting a class together is . . . like a tubful of Geritol. I don’t want to give it up. I get so much back.”
So how long will the Geritol last? The former student, Heller McAlpin, asks: “Are there any writing projects you regret not having gotten to yet, or that you’re really itching to get to?”
McPhee’s response: “Ideas for nonfiction writing pieces are voluminous. They go by all the time. But I get to a lot of things now where I think, ‘I probably don’t have time to do that,’ and won’t, and I think that would make a good subject for somebody else. That happens with increasing frequency at the age of 86.”
McPhee the reporter. McPhee sets a standard that few of us will ever approach. Flash back to McPhee’s childhood and the moment he was the kid on the cold football field, looking up to the warm and sheltered press box where the sportswriters were assembled. Of course he wanted to be one of them.
For most of us in the reporting business, the comfort zone beckons eternally. Go to that township committee meeting that may last until midnight? OK, but maybe we can watch it on video the next day. The environmental group is promoting a story about an endangered wetland — would reporters like to join a kayak trip through the area? OK, but maybe we could just meet at the nature center afterward for a press briefing.
If someone back in 1966 asked me to do a story on the famed naturalist Euell Gibbons, the first thing I would have done was to find the nearest hotel to Gibbons’ home base, and then a rental car to get me back and forth to the great man himself.
McPhee had that exact opportunity. His approach was different. He asked Gibbons to join him on a five-day canoe trip on the Susquehanna River, sleeping in a tent and foraging for all the food they would eat. By the way, it was in November, late in the season even for Gibbons.
Here’s an excerpt, from ‘A Forager,’ in 1968:
“When we got up, at 6 a.m., the temperature was 25 degrees and there were panes of ice around pools at the edge of the river. The river surface was absolutely smooth, and twists of vapor were rising from it. Families of coot swam in zigzags in the mist. We had a collapsible bucksaw with us. I set that up, cut logs from a fallen birch, and made a good-sized fire while Gibbons got together the materials for breakfast. The first thing he made was water-mint tea. I had three cups in quick succession. The cups we had were made of aluminum, and the heat coming through the handle of mine burned my fingers, while the rest of my hand was red with cold. . . . [Gibbons] warned me that breakfast is the roughest meal to get through on any survival trip, because that is usually the time when the wild foods are most dissimilar from the foods one is used to at home. He then filled two plates with a medley of steaming watercress, chicory greens, cattail sprouts, and burdock roots. It was, frankly, a pretty unusual breakfast.”
For another story, “A Fleet of One,” McPhee had corresponded for five years with a truck driver who thought McPhee would find his job and way of life worthy of a profile. When McPhee decided to do the piece, he met the truck driver in Georgia and rode with him 3,190 miles to Oregon. If it had been me (or any number of other reporters I know), I might have considered riding along on a 319-mile leg (preferably ending at a spot with a decent hotel).
That F-word that McPhee tried to slip into the New Yorker back in 1987 came up at the end of a reporting process that had McPhee sailing on a merchant ship from Miami to Cartagena, Balboa, Buenaventura, Guayaquil, and Callao. As a writer he had pared the notes down to 60,000 words for publication as the piece eventually called “Looking for a Ship.” One of the those words included that expletive in a quotation from a sailor named John Shephard.
On another occasion, McPhee explains a few pages later in “Draft No. 4,” he is writing up a 150-mile bark canoe trip with canoe maker Henri Vaillancourt, whose overbearing manner was testing the patience of McPhee and the other paddlers. As several canoes were taking on water in high winds, Vaillancourt insisted they should carry on across the lake. Finally one exasperated member of the party bellowed out to the master craftsman, “You fucking lunatic, head for the shore.”
The New Yorker’s editorial style dictated that the quotation be changed to “you God-damned lunatic.” You could hardly fault McPhee for fighting for that direct quotation. He had worked pretty f-ing hard to get it.
Now, about that erection. As I explained before, McPhee does not come from the same School of New Journalism as Gay Talese. I can’t quite imagine a story titled “A Night in the Nude with John McPhee.”
Still there was that reference, catching me totally by surprise in “Draft No. 4,” in the chapter on fact checking. A section of a story called “Tight-Assed River” is about moving an 1,100-foot-long barge down the Illinois River and encountering a small cabin boat floating aimlessly in the river, less than two minutes away from being crushed by the barge.
The episode was important to McPhee in Draft No. 4 because of the fact checking challenge it presented. Here’s what McPhee wrote:
“Two men and two women are in the cabin boat. The nearest woman — seated left rear in the open part of the cockpit — is wearing a black-and-gold two-piece bathing suit. She has the sort of body you go to see in marble. She has golden hair. Quickly, deftly, she reaches with both hands behind her back and unclasps her top.
“Setting it on her lap, she swivels 90 degrees to face the towboat square. Shoulders back, cheeks high, she holds her pose without retreat. In her ample presentation there is defiance of gravity. There is no angle of repose. She is a siren and these are her songs.”
So how does one of the New Yorker’s celebrated fact checkers check that fact? As McPhee explains in Draft No. 4:
“So far so checkable. Something like that can be put — in newyorkerspeak — ‘on author.’ It was my experience, my construction, my erection. No one seemed worried about the color of the bathing suit.”
In the paragraph that followed McPhee compares his siren to the outdoor sculpture called “Oval with Points” on the Princeton University campus. That triggered a vigorous round of fact-checking, which mercifully resulted in virtually no changes to McPhee’s exuberant description:
“She is Henry Moore’s ‘Oval with Points.’ Moore said, ‘Rounded forms convey an idea of fruitfulness, maturity, probably because the earth, women’s breasts, and most fruits are rounded, and these shapes are important because they have this background in our habits of perception. I think the humanist organic element will always be for me of fundamental importance in sculpture.’
“She has not moved — this half-naked maja outnakeding the whole one. Her nipples are a pair of eyes staring the towboat down. For my part, I want to leap off the tow, swim to her, and ask if there is anything I can do to help.”
Yes, John McPhee. Leap, swim, and ask. Surprise us.
John McPhee, Labyrinth Books, 122 Nassau Street, Princeton, 609-497-1600. www.labyrinthbooks.com. “Draft No. 4” author in conversation with authors Robert Wright and Joel Achenbach. All tickets and places in the stand-by line have been distributed. 6 p.m.