Like Water From a Stone

The secret of this fervently worshiped nonfiction stylist: neurotically withhold.

Annals of the Former World
By John McPhee
Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 660 pages; $35

It may sound odd to hear the name John McPhee in the same sentence as the phrase “cult writer.” McPhee’s career developed smack in middle of the literary mainstream, in The New Yorker of the ‘60s and ‘70s. In many ways he, along with Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, and Tom Wolfe, helped define contemporary American writing, elevating journalism from journeyman’s status to something like literature. What’s more, McPhee’s work is uncultishly genteel. Unlike his fellow New Journalists, he rarely stoops to the first person. Where his peers wrote frenzied accounts of Vietnam and racial strife, he gravitated toward tamer subjects–the young Bill Bradley, for example, and canoes.

In this era of Monica overkill, it’s not surprising to find a cult of a writer as restrained as McPhee. Didion, Mailer, Wolfe, et al., have become somewhat overexposed. McPhee’s influence may have narrowed since his heyday, but he remains the ultimate writer’s writer. In creative writing programs, his focused prose and reverence for facts are touted as the great model for literary journalism. Among my acquaintances in New York publishing, McPhee has better word of mouth than any author I know.

T his month his fans should be moved to even greater awe by a giant new opus. Annals of the Former World is vintage McPhee–it represents 20 years of New Yorker pieces and books, reworked for the first time into a unified whole. All the craftsman’s flourishes are on view. Sentence by sentence, this book has more finely tuned prose than anything I’ve read in ages. (Click for an excerpt.) Which is, as it turns out, its main shortcoming. Things written sentence by sentence often lack a larger energy. One could even call McPhee boring–except that the real problem is weirder than that.

Here is a key fact about McPhee: He was born in Princeton, went to Princeton and, with a few exceptions, has lived in Princeton all his life. The obsessive travels he’s recorded in prose are balanced by a level of stability almost unheard of for a contemporary writer. His working life is just as consistent. He knew at 18 that he wanted to write for The New Yorker. By the age of 34 he was on staff, enjoying wonderful privileges–salary and benefits, huge word counts, permission from his editor to do whatever he wanted. This is freedom the likes of which American writers may never see again.

Early on, he specialized in admiring portraits of successful young men: Bradley as a star college basketball player, Thomas Hoving at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s hard to appreciate how influential these pieces were, since their meandering narrative–a leisurely stream of details set off by sharp, dramatic scenes–helped define the modern magazine profile. What stands out about them today is how positive they are about their subjects. Bradley has a great work ethic and uncommonly good manners. Hoving is a shining star among art bureaucrats, so talented that every major New York institution would swap favors with Satan to hire him. It’s refreshing to read a journalist who doesn’t snoop around for hints that his subject ever did anything sordid. Yet the pieces are also suffused with a strange self-satisfaction. McPhee lays out a picture of young men who happened to go to Princeton and to possess gifts (a good eye, discipline) not unlike his own. Then, moving in to eat his cake, he asks us to applaud their modesty.

As time went on, McPhee began to focus more and more on the structure of a piece. Each article, he believes, has an organic shape. He finds it by sorting his ample research into subtopics, writing the name of each subtopic on an index card, and playing around with the cards till he finds the right order. To an outsider, the results of this search can seem specific to the point of absurdity. An introduction to the collection The Literary Journalists (1984) reports that the Hoving profile was shaped like a capital Y, in which “the descending branches finally joined at a moment of an epiphany during Hoving’s college career at Princeton, and then proceeded along the bottom stem in a single line.” In some sense that I struggled to understand but eventually gave up on, another famous piece, “Travels in Georgia,” was apparently shaped like a lower case e.

H is sense of shape may explain why he was drawn to geology, a science that interprets rocks and gashes in the earth and weaves these interpretations into a story of how the world grew. Annals of the Former World began in the ‘70s with a piece for The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” on road cuts around New York City, but McPhee knew he was onto something bigger. Again, the form preceded the content: He imagined a book that would journey in a straight line across Interstate 80. He began traveling around the world interviewing geologists, journeying with them to outcrops, looking and learning. The result is a majestic book, filled with fascinating facts, memorable profiles of scientists, and a profound grasp of the fact that we human beings are nothing but the merest specks.

And yet, Annals of the Former World numbs the brain. It makes you feel as if you’d been plucked out of your own life and plopped down into someone else’s repressed family. This family’s weird habits include, for example, assuming that when you see something–a woman, a mountain, an empty soda can–the appropriate response is not to decide how you feel about what you see but to think of tautly composed phrases in which to describe it. The family belongs to the passive-aggressive school of communication. Its members hint at what they’re thinking and expect you to read their minds.

To be fair, this last neurosis extends beyond McPhee. This book may be the grandest embodiment of the principle that guided The New Yorker through its glory days under William Shawn: that it is the role of good writing to arrange facts artfully and discreetly, and not much else. Out of self-interest, I’m as nostalgic as anyone for the era of big word counts and editorial carte blanche. But Annals is a good antidote. For all McPhee’s expertise at crafting a narrative, it feels unnecessarily bloated; for all his famous humility, there’s a mild vanity in its fussy perfectionism. Above all, there’s a sense of strain–of McPhee working hard to make all these facts sing. And for what? A well-curated museum exhibit backed by a few smart CD-ROMs could, in a day, drill you in most of the geology McPhee has to teach. We could get upset about this, and worry that technology is about to replace fine writing. I say bring on the CD-ROMs–and free the writers to do something else.