Annals of an Alternate World: On John McPhee’s “Tabula Rasa”

By Noah RawlingsSeptember 15, 2023

Annals of an Alternate World: On John McPhee’s “Tabula Rasa”

Tabula Rasa by John McPhee

[A]n endless series of episodes, endeavors, projects, a series that has only the feeblest of logical linking, a sequence that really has no logical conclusion because finality, causality, is not part of its nature.
—Lydia Davis, “Fragmentary or Unfinished: Barthes, Joubert, Hölderlin, Mallarmé, Flaubert” (2019)

What is this compared with what I shall tell you tomorrow night if I stay alive!
The Arabian Nights

OH, THE BOOKS we could have written! Richard Wright planned to write a novel about the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. He did not. Joan Didion thought about writing a book on Linda Kasabian, a former member of the Manson Family who was involved with the Tate–LaBianca murders. She did not. Sherwood Anderson, free in New Orleans from family and job, dreamed up a book titled Threads, composed of “satirical comments on American literary life.” It remained a dream. “I will do novel after novel,” Sylvia Plath declared in a letter dated November 19, 1962. She published one.

The library of the unwritten is large and distinguished. Aldous Huxley’s book on Balzac is on a shelf there. So is Karl Marx’s book on Balzac, from which Das Kapital (1867) distracted him. Raymond Chandler’s cookbook has its place, too, with recipes like “HOW TO BROIL A STEAK—DON’T.” (Title: Cookbook for Idiots.)

Writers’ lives are littered with unrealized projects. Some more than others. John McPhee—the New Yorker staff writer who, over his 60-year career at that magazine, redefined what is today known as “creative nonfiction”—does not strike one as the type to leave things undone. He has more published books than most writers have inchoate inklings: books on oranges, tennis, canoes, geology, the Swiss Armed Forces, the US Merchant Marine. We’re talking 31. We are not talking 31 formulaic variations on a theme, not 31 books by Louis L’Amour or Clive Cussler (with all due respect), but 31 books that are, with few exceptions, masterworks of literary journalism. Greatness is not measured by word count, but McPhee’s output doubles that of nonfiction giants like Gay Talese or Joan Didion or Tom Wolfe. To produce so much good work requires rare qualities: staggering energy, expansive interests, exceptional endurance. And a long life.

McPhee is now 92. He lives where he has almost always lived, in Princeton, New Jersey. He goes on bike rides along the Delaware and Raritan Canal. He fishes. He writes. He has just published another book, Tabula Rasa. The tally ticks up to 32.

Tabula Rasa is an anthology of writing projects McPhee couldn’t get around to, subjects he wanted to explore but never did, not at any length. He introduces the book’s inception as follows. Once, when McPhee was a young journalist at Time magazine, he went to lunch with his editor and the writer Thornton Wilder, who was then in his sixties. The editor asked Wilder what he was working on. The latter revealed he was cataloging all 431 of Lope de Vega’s surviving plays. McPhee was incredulous. “Why would anyone want to do that?” he asked. The project seemed so long, so tedious: it “would take him at least a dozen years.” Today, McPhee tells us in Tabula Rasa, he understands Wilder’s motives. This act of compilation was “an old-man project”:

I could use one of my own. And why not? With the same ulterior motive, 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.

I was at first unmoved by the announcement of Tabula Rasa—by the publication of some notes and scraps. Isn’t this what they do when an artist is finished, washed up, done for? Gather up his “never-before-seen” bits of lint, smush them into a misshapen mass, call it a “rich tapestry,” and get you, admiring sucker that you are, to buy it? It’s not a greatest hits album. It’s not even a “B-Sides & Rarities.” It’s a bunch of shoddy demos. It’s a money-making scheme. Right?

Not in this case. Of detritus Tabula Rasa makes diamonds. Its 50 chapters are McPhee books in miniature, with all the wit, panache, and exactitude we find in his long-form work.

The subjects are very McPhee: the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta, a Swiss civil engineer, Outward Bound, the tribulations of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, cherries, North American dams, the copywriters who invent the names of pharmaceuticals. The style is very McPhee, too. On the book’s first page, the writer who once called soil “immiscible,” roads “macadam,” and tumult “orogenic” uses an equally precise, goofy, perfect word to identify part of a car: “flanges.” He’s driving through Spain one brutally hot summer: “Rubber flanges surrounded each of the many windows in the VW bus, and the cement that held the rubber flanges melted in the heat, causing the flanges to hang down from all the windows like fettuccine.”

He also displays—and conveys—his characteristic fascination with mechanics, processes, the systems natural and human that encircle us. Here he is on the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta, which he once planned to treat as he treated the New Jersey Pine Barrens:

Across the California delta, the ships were going southeast, upstream to Stockton, and northeast, upstream to Sacramento. […] Many thousands of bales of Kings County cotton were coming through from Stockton. Norwegian ships were taking newspaper and fertilizer to Stockton and to Sacramento. River crawdads were in ships bound for Scandinavia. Japanese ships, fitted out as sawmills, were picking up logs in Sacramento and delivering them as finished lumber in Japan.

He gives us a sense of awesome motion, of monumental flux, by juxtaposing place names—Sacramento, Japan, Scandinavia—and piling up the past progressives: going, coming, taking, delivering. In so doing, he makes us as weirdly passionate, as intensely awake, as he is. We are suddenly inspired by fluvial shipping.

When you compare McPhee to the other nonfiction greats of his generation—the New Journalists—a crowd assembles and cries foul. It’s a received idea: he is different. He is not bombastic like Wolfe, not grave and condescending like Didion. He does not raise his eyebrows or smirk; he does not emote effusively. He keeps himself out of the frame, letting the facts speak for themselves. This notion is basically true. Consider a passage from chapter six of Tabula, in which McPhee describes the time when a light aircraft crashed near his house on its route from Myrtle Beach via Trenton to Princeton. McPhee notes the causes of the incident. The weather was bad, visibility low. But the decisive factor was topographic. Three simple sentences—two of which are identical save for toponyms and numbers—drive the point home: “The elevation of Trenton is forty-nine feet. The elevation of Princeton Airport is a hundred and twenty-five feet. The wooded ridge I live on is four hundred feet high.” The passage is representative of how McPhee can use data, rather than flashy prose or authorial hand-waving, to deliver a climactic punch.

Still, McPhee can be flashy, after his fashion. In Tabula Rasa, where there are few of the detailed scientific explanations or lengthy dialogues that elsewhere obscure the author’s voice, this fact is particularly evident. His predilection for hyperbole, for one, stands out. Here he is in “Outcrops of Washington Road,” on shooting a .45 pistol with a Presbyterian minister: “After the two-hundred-mulepower kick, I ended up two townships west.” Here he is on George Recker, professional fishing guide, trying to warn a fellow fisherman of upcoming rapids as their boats drift down the McKenzie River: “He lifted [a] miniature trumpet to his lips and produced a long clear note that may have reached the moon.” McPhee’s reputation for reliability makes his hyperboles doubly effective. Across his career, he’s rendered geology, botany, environmental engineering, and nuclear physics accessible to the lay reader. We trust him. At points in Tabula Rasa, he delightfully abuses our trust. Here McPhee recalls working in the biology lab of Professor Gerhard Fankhauser, a Princeton embryologist, when he was a teenager: “After beef blood has been centrifugally subdivided and left in metal test tubes awhile, its smell could level a city.” He uses those technical terms—“centrifugally subdivided”—with a twinkling eye, leading us to believe that a scientific explanation awaits us; we encounter instead an exaggerated, comical turn.

Structurally, Tabula Rasa takes its inspiration from the autobiography of Mark Twain. As McPhee states, it shares with Twain’s book a “total disregard of consistent theme or chronology.” It “jump[s] in anywhere, tell[s] whatever comes to mind from any era.”

It is indeed a nonlinear potpourri. Yet certain subjects repeat, coming into focus as “consistent theme[s]” while you make your way through. One such subject is McPhee’s birthplace and long-standing home: Princeton. Almost half of the chapters mention it. This generates mixed feelings in your reviewer. As it happens, I spent a couple of years in Princeton, years that require of me great reserve not to label as “a grave mistake.” The town is quaint, suburban, filled with pretty old homes and well-tended lawns and unaffordable bars and graduates of expensive prep schools. Unlike McPhee, I did not enjoy living there. It drove me crazy. Or maybe it was my studies that drove me crazy, not the town itself. Anyway, part of McPhee’s writerly power consists in getting you to appreciate people, objects, and, yes, locales that would ordinarily lie below the threshold of your appreciation. One year at Princeton, I lived in a house owned by a friend of McPhee’s, on Olden Lane, along which lane, according to Tabula Rasa, an adolescent John once apprehended thieves who were attempting to steal from the Institute for Advanced Study. (“I growled a noise as guttural and menacing as my voice could produce,” he recalls, “intending a message to the thief that a six-six thug with a blinding light was about to kill him.”) I nearly feel nostalgic for the place now.

Tabula Rasa’s most profound theme is not place, however, but death—the ultimate blank slate. Early on, McPhee cheekily presents his book as a means of keeping death at bay. He is a nonagenarian Scheherazade, staying alive each night by telling a new story: “Old-people projects keep old people old. You’re no longer old when you’re dead.” More extensively treated than McPhee’s own future fading, however, are the deaths of his friends and colleagues. Remember, he is 92. At such an age, one’s firsthand acquaintance with death is ample.

Death occurs in Tabula Rasa as an unavoidable preoccupation, a bell tolling at regular intervals. It is omnipresent. We encounter the death of a cousin, and with her a memory of Spain: “Jane is no longer here to tell me.” The death of a friend, with whom McPhee went on long walks near his home: “We planned a return to Clover Hill […] but Hal developed cancer and died.” Of a tennis partner and Princeton coach: “When he was fifty-six, and standing over a birdie putt on the fourth green of Princeton’s golf course, he died of a heart attack.” Of his father: “My father’s principal office on the campus was in the building next door. Looking down from my arrow-slit windows, I can see it.” Death is there in the verb “was.”

The most moving, tragic death narrated is that of a childhood friend, appearing in chapter 20, “December 19, 1943.” That winter day, when McPhee was 12, his friend Julian invited him to go ice-skating. Another boy, Charlie, was going too. The trouble for McPhee was that it was a Sunday. He had church. “You are not going skating with Julian,” McPhee’s mother told him. “You are ushering at the Christmas pageant.” Inadvertently, she saved his life. “Julian and Charlie died at an isolated place called the Sheep Wash, where the current of the Millstone [river] sped up and the ice as a result was thin.” From that day onward, McPhee tells us, Julian’s unfulfilled future “has remained beside me through all my extending past.” The writer must continually restrain himself from imagining “the life [Julian] would have lived, might have lived.”

In every story of death, particularly of those who died young, we feel the awful weight of fate, of arbitrary circumstances, of decisions whose irrevocability could not be foreknown. To consider a person’s death is to consider an alternate world in which he or she had lived—a narrative somehow more complete, one not terminated prematurely. It is death, after all, that puts an irreversible limit on life as on literary production, death that decides whether a project will just be delayed or remain forever undone. There will be time, until there is not. In preserving a record of his unfinished stories, McPhee does honor to those of the dead.


Noah Rawlings is a writer and translator from North Carolina. He lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

LARB Contributor

Noah Rawlings is a writer and translator from North Carolina. He lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.


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