The Care for Precision
Draft No. 4
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017)
There’s gotta be a German word for the feeling. It’s somehow total joy and a huge swell of sorrow simultaneously—the joy bigger than the sorrow but still deeply tempered. The feeling’s what you get while watching a really great film whose uplift costs significantly (the not-coincidentally German Lives of Others, for instance), and it’s the feeling I felt on finishing John McPhee’s latest, Draft No. 4.
Certainly there’s little left to say about McPhee. He’s a literary institution: he’s been a staff writer at the New Yorker for fifty-two years, has taught two generations of writers and editors through his classes at Princeton, and has, in the last half-century, built what has to be among the most fascinating and readable bodies of work in American writing ever—maybe even restorative, if that isn’t too precious. This is a man who has written impossible-to-categorize books on Bill Bradley as a Princeton basketball player, on birch bark canoes and one man who makes them, on a tennis match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner, on oranges, on the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, on the Merchant Marines, Shad, chalk, the Swiss army, nuclear power, Alaska, the geology of the continental United States, pinball games. This is a laughably incomplete list, and as anyone who has read any of the books on the subjects listed could tell you, noting what McPhee’s books are about is a mug’s game.
And this realm is where McPhee’s Draft No. 4 is fascinating—it is, in the most direct way, about his writing process, but just as largely, it’s about the writing world he’s been able to write within for the last half century. I couldn’t tell you if you need to know the books he’s referring to when reading Draft No. 4. I’ve read them and find tremendous sustenance in almost all of them, and so I was grinning like a teen in ‘64 about to meet the Beatles while reading this (or, anyway, the earliest chapters, in which he explicitly discusses organization and structure and how he’s discerned/utilized both in some of his works). Will my appreciation of Encounters with the Archdruid deepen or change after having read how McPhee wrestled the book into its structure? Hard to say. How much do you need to know about Roger Straus (of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), about legendary editor of the New Yorker Wallace Shawn, about grammar stylist and gatekeeper Eleanor Gould Packard to enjoy the chapter “Editors & Publisher?” Equally hard to say. It could, I’m guessing, come off as insider baseball, though clearly McPhee doesn’t mean it at all as such.
So let’s say you know a bit about McPhee, and you know you should read this book (McPhee is elemental to American writing; if there’s any periodic table of building-block writers, he’s in the noble gasses, and central—let’s say Argon). As with almost all his work, he throws you deeper than you think you can handle, earlier than you think you should be tossed. McPhee often starts in something, interesting you (and, in a neat trick, nearly always making self-evident why you should be interested; you can hold his book on oranges before you, certain you have no interest in a book-length treatment of citrus, and then finish it equally certain not just that oranges are fascinating but crucial. McPhee, at least of me, makes readers evangelical) before clarifying. So you read his first couple chapters, which are about McPhee’s processes, his editors, and his books, but then, 115 pages in, in the book’s fifth chapter of eight, you come across “Frame of Reference,” a chapter that explicitly addresses how the writer should approach unobvious info. “A tetragrammatonic anything and a term that seems to have stalled in the Italian Renaissance are points of reference that might just irritate rather than illuminate some readers. Make that most readers. The perpetrator is the writer. Mea culpa.” That’s JMc (can we culturalize his name now? Can he be Jay Mac?), page 118, attempting to contextualize his decisions about what he’s explained in his writing and what he’s asked readers to know. If this sounds impossibly dull, think of the last time you nodded with an absent smile as someone referenced something, pretending to know what the hell was going on. If you’re like me, you don’t think much about why you smiled along, why you faked. It was a social decision you made, not an info-based one.
But info is what McPhee is obsessed with, and the first chapters make abundantly clear (as does his body of work) that he views his job as being a steward of how that info—how those facts—get transmitted. Think about that for a second. Think how rare that is. This is the most important aspect of McPhee, I’d argue. Here’s a guy who, early on, wrote celebrity profiles (Jackie Gleason, Richard Burton), and then spent several years at the New Yorker writing non-celebrity profiles as well, so it’s not as if the guy’s got an allergy to writing contemporarily exciting stuff—pieces that are timely and water-cooler-chatter inducing. If you were to imagine the opposite of celebrities, as far as subjects, rocks would be pretty close to 180 degrees away. Maybe oranges. Maybe a book-length piece on the headmaster of Deerfield Academy.
Yet that’s just what McPhee wrote about, though, to be clear, he’s not some precious eschewer. There’s no evidence that he chose to write about what he did because he hated writing about celebrities, or thought them vapid or pointless or awful for the culture to fixate on. He’s almost religiously curious, which isn’t that uncommon, but he pairs that curiosity with a heroic level of awareness, attention, and precision. For instance, he mentions in Draft No. 4 that he ended up using a dictionary to find the precise phrase he needed in a story. As an anecdote, it’s exceedingly minor—great, now you know how McPhee works, how one sentence in one of his thirty books took its shape. As a glimpse into the larger world-view informed by an almost fanatical level of care for precision and specificity, it’s a wonder—like learning about monks who pray eight times a day, including in the middle of the night. As a bit of info, it’s pretty dismissible; being present for even a night or two of such acts reroutes your notions of devotion, of worship, of praise.
Because that’s what McPhee’s doing almost all the time, full stop. He’s praising. Not just the beautiful, strange, fantastic stuff, from eighteen-wheel truckers to atomic weapons, but the stuff that, despite our best efforts, evades. The last chapter of Draft No. 4, “Omission,” is one of his all-time best essays. It was originally published in the New Yorker (as were all the pieces here, as was nearly every word of each of his earlier books) a year or two back, and the closing scene—or story—is like a long, narrative transmutation of a Wallace Stevens poem. The scene features a college-age McPhee and General Eisenhower, and paintings—and to say much more here would be cruel to the reader—but the scene feels intended to make clear just how hard this is—the work McPhee’s done, the work any of us are doing when we’re trying to be as generously precise and clear as we can be to readers. It’s a ha-ha end, and it’s enjoyable enough for its comedy, but larger, and more broadly, the scene and the book itself seems to end with a hint as well. Grapes are hard to paint. Writing about anything is incredibly hard. Paying attention and seeing things clearly is sometimes too difficult to even undertake. McPhee, without drawing attention, makes clear how he’s done it—the writing, the paying attention—and it’s hard not to be moved to try harder because of his example. The sorrow, by the way, of my intro came out of a fear that this could be McPhee’s last book, or among his last. He’s eighty-six and mortal. That said, he’s already got another book coming—Patches—and so the sorrow is, for now, not taking hold. Please, Mr. McPhee, don’t ever stop.