The Mind of John McPhee

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When you call John McPhee on the phone, he is instantly John McPhee. McPhee is now 86 years old, and each of those years seems to be filed away inside of him, loaded with information, ready to access. I was calling to arrange a visit to Princeton, N.J., where McPhee lives and teaches writing. He was going to give me driving directions. He asked where I was coming from. I told him the name of my town, about 100 miles away.

“I’ve been there,” McPhee said, with the mild surprise of someone who has just found a $5 bill in a coat pocket. He proceeded to tell me a story of the time he had a picnic at the top of our local mountain, with a small party that included the wife of Alger Hiss, the former United States official who, at the height of McCarthyism, was disgraced by allegations of spying for the Russians. The picnic party rode to the top, McPhee said, on the incline railway, an old-timey conveyance that has been out of operation for nearly 40 years, and which now marks the landscape only as a ruin: abandoned tracks running up a scar on the mountain’s face, giant gears rusting in the old powerhouse at the top. Hikers stop and gawk and wonder what the thing was like.

“It was amazing,” McPhee said. “A railroad created by the Otis Elevator Company. An incline of 60-something percent.”

Then he started giving me directions — 87, 287, Route 1 — until eventually I admitted that I was probably just going to follow the directions on my phone. McPhee kept going for a few seconds, suggesting another road or two, but finally he gave up.

“Well,” he said. “The machine will be telling you what to do.”

As soon as we said goodbye, I checked McPhee’s facts. The incline railway was, indeed, designed by the Otis Elevator Company, with an average incline of 65 percent — in its heyday, it was one of the steepest railways of its kind on earth. These were things I had not known about a structure that is visible from my house, that I look at every day of my life.

McPhee has built a career on such small detonations of knowledge. His mind is pure curiosity: It aspires to flow into every last corner of the world, especially the places most of us overlook. Literature has always sought transcendence in purportedly trivial subjects — “a world in a grain of sand,” as Blake put it — but few have ever pushed the impulse further than McPhee. He once wrote an entire book about oranges, called, simply, “Oranges” — the literary cousin of Duchamp’s urinal mounted in an art museum. In 1999, McPhee won a Pulitzer Prize for his 700-page geology collection, “Annals of the Former World,” which explains for the general reader how all of North America came to exist. (“At any location on earth, as the rock record goes down into time and out into earlier geographies it touches upon tens of hundreds of stories, wherein the face of the earth often changed, changed utterly, and changed again, like the face of a crackling fire.”) He has now published 30 books, all of which are still in print — a series of idiosyncratic tributes to the world that, in aggregate, form a world unto themselves.

McPhee describes himself as “shy to the point of dread.” He is allergic to publicity. Not one of his book jackets has ever carried an author photo. He got word that he won the Pulitzer while he was in the middle of teaching a class, during a break, and he returned and taught the whole second half without mentioning it to his students — they learned about it only afterward, when the hall outside was crowded with photographers, reporters and people waiting to congratulate him. For McPhee’s 80th birthday, friends, family and colleagues arranged a big tribute to his life and work. But McPhee found out about the plan shortly beforehand and squashed it by refusing to go. Bill Bradley, the former basketball star and United States senator who was the subject of McPhee’s first book, “A Sense of Where You Are,” was one of the organizers. “You can’t celebrate somebody who doesn’t want to be celebrated,” he told me.

As I spoke to people about McPhee — editors, students, friends, colleagues — I got the sense that they had all been waiting, respectfully, for decades for the chance to gush about him in public. McPhee has profiled hundreds but never been profiled. Almost everyone expressed surprise that he had agreed to such a thing. His focus has generally been outward; he writes, as he likes to put it, about “real people in the real world.” In recent years, however, his writing has become more personal: He has written essays about his mother and father, his childhood, his grandchildren. McPhee’s new book, “Draft No. 4,” takes us about as deep into his singular mind as we are likely to get. It is about the writing process itself.

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