October 4, 2017

A Sense of Where We Are: Escaping the Doldrums With John McPhee

By Stuart Mitchner 

On one of last week’s unseasonably hot heavy days, deep in the late-afternoon do-nothing know-nothing blahs, I tried to pull out by reading the latest New Yorker and only felt worse. Next I tried King Lear, usually a reliable energy source, but this is the play that begins when Lear tells Cordelia “Nothing will come of nothing,” which dooms them both and is the word at the dead center of my ennui.

After several other futile options, I pick up Draft No. 4: John McPhee On the Writing Process (Farrar, Straus and Giroux $25), the book I’ve been reading for the past six weeks. At 192 pages, it’s not a tome, nor is it a page-turner, but only because you want to make it last. During my hike through the last stretch of summer McPhee’s book has been like a canteen full of cold water, to be sipped as needed.

At this most needful moment, I find a sentence that startles, delights, refreshes, and energizes me. Concerning the use in his work of the “irregular restrictive ‘which,’” McPhee writes: “Confronting this memory, I cannot say that it kicks old Buddha’s gong.”

Is Hoagy Carmichael’s “Hong Kong Blues” being quoted in a sentence about syntax? Probably not, but never mind. The blahs are gone, I’m alive again. Out the door and into the car I go, on my way to Indiana by way of McCaffrey’s. In the long check-out line I’m standing behind a man in a St. Louis Cardinals t-shirt. In all the years I’ve lived in New Jersey, this is the first time I’ve found myself in close proximity to another Cardinal fan. Normally I would never start a conversation with a stranger. But this is no stranger; this is someone who has lived through the same manic-depressive season, hopes roused only to be dashed, again and again.  When I ask if he thinks the Cards still have a chance to make the playoffs, he’s not hopeful, and with good reason, as it turns out.

Kicking the Gong

Driving home, I notice that the car in front of me has an Indiana University placard attached to the top of its New Jersey license plate. One sentence by McPhee has delivered me from the doldrums into chance encounters with my favorite team and my alma mater. More to the point, it was IU’s own Hoagy Carmichael who wrote the line, “He got twenty-years privileges taken away from him when he kicked old Buddah’s gong.”

I grew up listening to that song in Bloomington, Indiana, the college town where Hoagy was born and went to school and jammed with Bix and wrote “Stardust” on a piano that I used to see on display at a student hang-out called Book Nook. The most played record in our household was not “Stardust,” but the other side, “Hong Kong Blues.”

Checking for clues online that would explain the use of “kicked old Buddah’s gong” in a sentence about the irregular restrictive “which,” all I can find in addition to Hoagy’s song is Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher,” where to “kick the gong” means to smoke opium, which is why the man in “Hong Kong Blues” received a 20-year sentence and can’t “fly away” every time he dreams of seeing San Francisco again. Since none of this relates to McPhee’s conversation about usage with New Yorker editor William Shawn, the question is how a writer who refers earlier in the same chapter to his eighth grade teacher’s account of Flaubert’s search for for le mot juste ended up with Buddah’s gong. Born in 1931, McPhee would have been around 13 at the time he took Miss Bartholomew’s class, i.e. 1944, the same year Hoagy sang “Hong Kong Blues” in the smoky dive where Bogart and Bacall meet up in To Have and Have Not. So why not imagine the future author of Draft No. 4 walking out of the Garden Theatre with the words of Hoagy’s song cohabiting in his consciousness with Flaubert’s le mot juste? As McPhee says, “Who could forget that? Flaubert seemed heroic. Certain kids considered him weird.”

A Slice of Princeton Life

However many angles you view the question from, McPhee and Carmichael have something essential in common: both are townies, one Bloomington-to-the-core no matter how far east or west he traveled on his way to fame and fortune, the other a Princeton native whose travels have been a key part of the process that produced 30 books, all of which were written in his home town.

It’s only to be expected, then, that Draft No. 4 opens on Nassau Street with McPhee looking down from his window “on the passing scene.” He is working in rented space above an optometrist
opposite Firestone Library. Across the hall from him is the “Swedish Massage,” a legitimate business (“they didn’t give sex”) operated by an Austrian couple who were nearing retirement. This being “the era when massage became a sexual synonym,” McPhee would see men in business suits stop, hesitate, look around, and then move toward the stairs. In time, the couple had to scrape the words “Swedish Massage” off the door. “Meanwhile,” McPhee writes, “the men kept arriving at the top of the stairs, where neither door was marked. When they knocked on mine and I opened it, their faces fell dramatically as the busty Swede they expected turned into a short and bearded man.”

Playing on his size is characteristic McPhee, leaving you smiling, on his side, ready to go where he takes you. In the “Omission” chapter, he describes his boss at The New Yorker: “Shawn is even smaller than I am, which is getting down there.” Size gives him another punchline in the account of his adventures while writing a Time cover story about Jackie Gleason. One day a man walks into the Gleason’s New York offices, identifies himself as “John McPhee,” and asks for a cash loan. Phoned about this while golfing in Florida, Gleason says “Describe him” and is told “Well, for one thing, he’s very tall.” Says Gleason, “Call the police.”

In a book teeming with quotable lines, there’s this zinger: “Editors’ habit of replacing an author’s title with one of their own is like a photo of a tourist’s head on the cardboard body of Mao Zedong.” On the plus side, regarding the New Yorker profile of Bill Bradley that McPhee says “changed my existence,” William Shawn searched the text and found a perfect six-word title, “A Sense of Where You Are,” one that to this day describes the quality that explains McPhee’s mastery of his craft. On the down side, Shawn wanted to replace McPhee’s title “Oranges” with “Golden Lamps in a Green Night.” McPhee’s response to this imagist Haiku by way of Andrew Marvell: “After I went to pieces, Mr. Shawn mercifully picked them up as ‘Oranges.’ “

Being McPhee

In Draft No. 4 the reader becomes a glorified auditor of McPhee’s class in Creative Nonfiction. According to his former student, Joel Achenbach, “Perhaps there are writers who make it look easy, but that is not the example set by McPhee. He is of the school of thought that says a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than for other people.”

The main lesson McPhee can’t teach, however, is how to be McPhee: an individual everyone can feel comfortable with, relate to, companionably accommodate, hang out with, and above all take seriously. People and their professions and preoccupations genuinely interest McPhee. In that sense, he’s more a student than a teacher — a dream student, the sort who will come away from any class brimming with knowledge, as happens in the “Omissions” chapter, which describes how the original draft of “Oranges” sprawled beyond measure because “the library at the Citrus Experiment Station had beguiled me so much — not to mention the citrus scientists, the growers, the rich kings of juice concentration.”

The Ultimate Anecdote

Although McPhee advises against “prancing around between subject and reader,” the touches of personal history are what make the book as entertaining as it is instructive. For example, the long anecdote that concludes Draft No. 4, which resists paraphrasing: you need to “be there.” But then that’s true of the whole book, even if the thought of being a writer has never crossed your mind.

John McPhee will be talking about Draft No. 4 with former students Joel Achenbach and Robert Wright at Labyrinth Books on Tuesday, October 24 at 6 p.m. The event is free but ticketed. Tickets are available at the store and are limited to two per person.