ONE WAY to get closer to something is by way of distinctions — by considering what that thing could be but is not. I have in mind the buzzword mansplainer, and I’m hoping to use it to get a bead on the writing of John McPhee.

The mansplainer as we all know him looks to impart what he knows to be the fascinating intricacies of whatever is the matter at hand. He is interested in its history and all fine points of its functioning. He — and we do heed the gender sign — may even be quite gifted as an explainer. McPhee fits the ticket so far. But there is this one all-important difference between the mansplainer and John McPhee. The mansplainer is not offering his auditor invitation to his insights; he is imposing them. He assumes interest rather than creates it. McPhee, by contrast, deploys his wiles of craft to have the reader not looking to escape, but rather to have her be saying, “Really? Tell me more.” The process begins with the first sentence, continues with the next.

I could find innumerable examples of what I’m talking about. Here is just one:

When Henri Vaillancourt goes off to the Maine woods, he does not make extensive plans. Plans annoy him. He just gets out his pack baskets, tosses in some food and gear, takes a canoe, and goes. He makes (in advance) his own beef jerky — slow-baking for many hours the leanest beef he can find. He takes some oatmeal, some honey, some peanut butter. Not being sure how long he will be gone, he makes only a guess at how much food he may need, although he is going into the Penobscot-Allagash wilderness, north of Moosehead Lake. He takes no utensils. He prefers to carve them. He makes his own tumplines, his own carry boards. He makes his own paddles. They have slender blades, no more than five inches across. He roughs them out with his axe and carves them with his crooked knife, a tool well known in the north woods, almost unknown everywhere else. And — his primary function — he makes his own canoes.

This is part of the opening paragraph of McPhee’s 1975 book, The Survival of the Bark Canoe. It is a staged seduction that works by accretion rather than slow divestment. But like the erotic seduction, it asks for complete immersion, for the suspension of time, of hurry, of the reflexes of daily distraction.

In this passage, by way of specific details and simple described actions, we are introduced not just to an individual, but also his singular way of life. Another writer might have given it to us straight, that Henri Vaillancourt is a throwback to an earlier age, that he makes his own canoes and most everything else he needs. That opener would set emphasis in one direction. But McPhee has a more complex agenda. He wants to enlist the reader in the more compelling inquiry: what in our modern day makes a man go back to practice an ancient craft? We don’t need to have any interest in canoeing in order to get hooked on that question. McPhee knows this. He also knows that our asking will be more invested if we are able to enter the story — to use Vivian Gornick’s terms — by way of the situation. Which is to say by way of the concrete terms of Vaillancourt’s world. Thus the pack baskets and lean beef, the slender blades of the paddles (“no more than five inches across”), the crooked knife … We are made to picture the parts and to assemble them. Context creates interest; the right disposition of detail creates context. The McPhee method.

But first, obviously, there has to be the right way in. Any essayist on any subject knows this, and no essayist knows it better than McPhee. Finding a way in means more than having a hook or an angle. Hooks and angles are good, but they won’t take you the whole distance. You need a way of seeing the matter that is expressly your own.

McPhee has, by his own admission, struggled to find the right access and structure for everything he’s written from the start of his career, and no success has made the next assignment any easier — he will fret over it like it was his first. “Your last piece,” he writes, “is never going to write your next one for you.” If he has gained any ground at all, it is through coming to believe that with enough time and persistence, which is to say enough essaying, a way will be found. An opening, and also the structural logic latent in that opening. For a writer reading McPhee’s newest collection, Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process, this is a sobering takeaway. It’s all about work and more work, and where’s the fun in that?

Reflecting on McPhee’s writing process feels so “meta.” How as a reviewer am I to catch hold of this writer for whom each assignment is an ordeal made up of myriad self-imposed challenges? Nothing to do but seek out the common thread, find whatever it is that motivates the writing, the choice of subject. And here, thankfully, the writer gives a clue. He writes:

I once made a list of all the pieces I had written in maybe twenty or thirty years, and then put a check mark beside each one whose subject related to things I had been interested in before I went to college. I checked off more than ninety per cent.

When in doubt, consult the etymology. At the ancestral core of the noun “interest” — from the Latin inter esse, “being between” — is the idea of differing, and thereby capturing the attention. Nuances of meaning can be tweaked this way and that, but the crucial point here is that to be seen as interesting, a thing, a subject, must stand out from what surrounds it. I note this down approvingly, but then I remember Flaubert’s famous pronouncement: “Anything becomes interesting if you look at it long enough.” It asserts that it is not so much the thing per se that stands out from everything around it, but rather that the act of attention makes it stand out.

The logic gets murky. Sit with Flaubert’s sentence long enough and what begins to trouble the mind is the word “anything.” It’s highly counterintuitive, the notion that anything under the sun can engage our interest — become interesting — so long as we pay it attention and allow it to become the object of focus. The burden rests entirely with the perceiver and not the perceived — the eye of the beholder.

All this parsing of distinctions is just my way of circling McPhee, looking for access. I’m not sure how else to proceed. I can’t possibly get at his essence by way of his subject matter, since he has directed his beam of focus at such an enormous range of people, things, and places. He has taken on: oranges, Bill Bradley, the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, Alaska, Russian art, canoes, weight lifting, nuclear engineering, the geological history of our continent — have I missed anything? Of course I have. I didn’t mention tennis, food markets, museum director Thomas Hoving, the Merchant Marine, aircraft … And each subject receives his best attention. It has been given deep establishing context, and then strategically staged for us, often as not eliciting as response: “I had no idea that _____ was so interesting!”

The author’s modus operandi for a good five decades now has been to work up his subjects as essays and then eventually build them into books, mostly as one-offs, but on one occasion, with his study of North American geology, in a sprawl of successive volumes.

His latest, Draft No. 4, his 32nd book, comprises eight essays, all of them originally published in The New Yorker. (He has been a staff contributor since 1965.) It differs from the others in his oeuvre by billing itself as a look into the process and craft behind that other work. A good deal of the material is, as McPhee makes clear, drawn from his years of teaching at Princeton. Where always before the writer has, like Jay Gatsby, stayed absent from his own parties, here he is seen mingling with the crowd. Recounting anecdotes, offering practical and anecdotal instruction. Significantly — interestingly — it may be the least interesting of his books. Something is missing. This is not to say it does not repay the reader’s time — of course it does — but possibly because it is self-reflexive, as opposed to outwardly directed, it lacks the slow and purposeful accretion of context which has always been McPhee’s greatest strength.

These essays take up various aspects of the writing life, ranging from the collection and ordering of materials — the man is, not surprisingly, obsessive about every least detail of process — to more wide-angle topics like working with editors and the incursion of profanity into journalism.

He can be garrulous on these latter subjects, and often droll. Here, making a point about verbal precision, but also about writer/editor relations at The New Yorker, he writes:

Robert Bingham, my editor at The New Yorker for sixteen years, had a fluorescent, not to mention distinguished, mustache. In some piece or other, early on, I said of a person I was writing about that he had a “sincere” mustache. This brought Bingham, manuscript in hand, out of his office and down the hall to mine, as I had hoped it would. A sincere mustache, Mr. McPhee, a sincere mustache? What does that mean? Was I implying that it is possible to have an insincere mustache.

(Another world, thinks the reader.)

Reflecting on profanity, McPhee recounts his dilemma when the aforementioned Vaillancourt, whom he was profiling, had, at a moment of danger, shouted to the bowman in his canoe: “You fucking lunatic, head for the shore!” This gets McPhee going:

Fuck, fucker, fuckest: fuckest, fucker, fuck. In all my days, I had found that four-letter word — with its silent “c” and its quartzite “k” — more shocking than a thunderclap. My parents thought it was a rhetorical crime. Mr. Shawn actually seemed philosophical about its presence in the language, but not in his periodical.

That was William Shawn, the legendary editor of The New Yorker for nearly three decades. McPhee continues: “Seven years later, in the last months of Shawn’s editorship, the soap sank at Procter & Gamble.” Writer Calvin Trillin had turned in a piece in which the F-word was deemed vital to the portrayal.

(So much lore in this book, notes the reader, from that other, mostly gone world.)

But if McPhee has a core obsession in Draft No. 4, it is, as I’ve suggested, structure. “Structure” is the title of the second and longest of the essays in the book. The possible approaches to any subject are, of course, technically infinite. What the writer must look for is the one that creates a path of inevitability. This means putting the self into deep accord with the subject, to understand why he is writing. McPhee wrestles the question every which way. His common sense and experience lead him to some smart and well-turned observations. “The narrative wants to move from point to point through time,” he writes, “while topics that have arisen now and again across someone’s life cry out to be collected. They want to draw themselves together in a single body, the way that salt does underground.” The book contains more than a few of these wisdoms.

Still, if McPhee is instructive on the more generalized aspects of structure, he gets tedious, when he starts to offer up examples from his own work. His impulse to elaborate detail is as strong as ever, but for some reason the vital accompanying context has lost its vitality. McPhee assumes our interest in the particular logistics he is describing. He then anatomizes several of his pieces. Explaining how he found the form he finally used for sections of Coming into the Country, he goes on at some length about specific dilemmas and draws circular maps — eight of them — to illustrate his various structural options. I will testify that for a writer in the midst of a project, there is nothing more compelling than solving the structural puzzle. But this struggle — or adventure — is not easily conveyed to others. You would, as the saying goes, have to have been there. I’m surprised that McPhee of all people did not get this.


Whatever his successes and rare lapses, McPhee is a writer from a roomier and more discursive age, never mind that it is so close in time to our own. This feeling was recently expressed by New York Times critic Parul Sehgal, who rounds out her essentially admiring review of the new collection with this observation: “It’s a bittersweet feeling to spend so much time with McPhee at a moment when journalistic outlets are slashing staffs and ‘pivoting to video.’ Will this fastidious attention to language and to the natural world soon seem quaint?”

This, it seems to me, is a key question, not just about McPhee, of course, but relevant to our whole writing enterprise. This is not to say that there will not always be books and readers of every description, private contracts between mind and mind. Of course there will. But if we think in other, more public terms, and consider the realities that shape genres and tendencies within genres — realities like available time, access, and changing capacities of attention — then we do have to at least ask how McPhee’s reflections on the essayist’s craft or the editorial process bear on the writing life today.

The loss of venue that Sehgal laments is obviously multi-determined, involving more than just changes within the culture of journalism or the preferences of readers. We need to allow the larger possibility, which is that the triumph of the digital has brought massive changes in how we understand and order information. The former paradigm, which extends easily back to Diderot and the early 18th-century Enlightenment, has been displaced, and quite swiftly. The search engine does it all now — with various larger effects. It has made possible an explosion of research in every field, but it has also completely overwhelmed all of us with the data-dense complexity of all things. Privately and publicly we are suffering the widely acknowledged fracturing of the attention span. Even the most gifted maker of contexts and supplier of explanations, the most cunning of raconteurs, must push hard against the universal distraction. This applies to McPhee and to all who follow in his essayist tracks.

We come back to interest and attention, to the idea that the interesting is what stands out, and that the art is to make the subject stand out — to create the context that will allow the particulars to connect in a provocative way. Digital surplus has raised the stakes for every writer, but that core principle remains. While so many essayists have tried to win the reader with main force of personality (e.g., Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Camille Paglia), others, McPhee right at the fore, have heeded James Joyce’s precept that the artist ought to remain “within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible […] paring his fingernails.” There is faith that the subject — whatever the subject — is still important and that its importance can be revealed. McPhee’s long and exemplary career has been carried out mostly behind his handiwork, and it might just be that we’ve needed to see the other side of the writer to be reminded of the fact. Reticence has its uses. Gatsby himself may have been hard to spot at his fetes, but what a fine time he orchestrated for his many guests.


Sven Birkerts most recently authored Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age.