John McPhee's nonfiction writing turns to art


Once John McPhee was looking for a ship, but now he is looking for a train. It's late afternoon on a Wednesday in December, and he has just come from visiting his mother, who is 97 and in a nursing home in Sykesville. And here he is in the waiting room at Pennsylvania Station, an hour before he is to catch a train to Trenton, N.J., where his wife, Yolanda, will pick him up and take him home to Princeton.

John McPhee is one of the most famous journalists in America, one of the best-known writers the New Yorker has ever published, but you could bet 20 bucks that not a single soul in the busy station can identify him. As he awaits an interviewer and photographer, he blends easily into the commuter bustle. He is all browns: hair (some turning to silver), horn-rim glasses, sweater. Norton Dodge, the subject of Mr. McPhee's 23rd and most recent book, "The Ransom of Russian Art," says when he encountered the writer on a train leaving Washington, his first image was of "this rumpled, grizzled professorial type."

Mr. McPhee is a little reserved. He doesn't like posing for photographs and isn't crazy about interviews, either. Once on the train, he relaxes noticeably, and on the two-hour ride he chats about a variety of topics, from his approach to writing (essentially, no pain, no gain) to how he feels about the new New Yorker (he recognizes he probably can't write the long pieces for it that he once did).

Mr. McPhee, 63, has always felt that a journalist should write and not be written about. This unobtrusiveness has aided him immeasurably. Legendarily shy and self-effacing, he has established a reputation as someone who could write a book on practically anything, from the Merchant Marine ("Looking for a Ship") to the Swiss army ("La Place de la Concorde Suisse") to tennis ("Levels of the Game") to a piece of fruit ("Oranges"). He's written about Alaska ("Coming Into the Country," his biggest seller) and New Jersey ("The Pine Barrens") and a young Princeton basketball player named Bill Bradley ("A Sense of Where You Are," his first book, published in 1965).

All his works have the trademark of exhaustive research and exquisite detail. And if his writing comes only after months of torment and hard work, his books are pure pleasure for his readers.

Mr. McPhee knew little about Russian painting before sitting next to Norton Dodge on the train, but he was so intrigued by Dr. Dodge's stories that he built that chance encounter into "The Ransom of Russian Art," just published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. He documents the story of Dr. Dodge, a retired professor of economics at the University of Maryland who helped bring out of Russia thousands of paintings by dissident artists in the 1950s and 1960s.

Since that book had its beginnings with a chance encounter on a train, perhaps it's appropriate that Mr. McPhee conducts this interview on the rails as well.

In a media-conscious age in which many journalists want to be a part of the action rather than report on it, John McPhee is different. In addition to giving few interviews, he won't allow his picture on the dust jackets of his books, has never appeared on television and doesn't have an agent.

Provincial lifestyle

He once told an interviewer, "I'm the most provincial person you'll ever meet," which explains why he still lives in Princeton, the town in which he was born. He tends to attach himself to institutions. He attended Princeton University and has also taught a celebrated writing course there for the past 20 years. After several years at Time in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he's worked at the New Yorker ever since. He has stayed with Farrar, Straus & Giroux for all 23 of his books.

"I suspect that not having an agent has cost me a big advance or two," Mr. McPhee acknowledges, "but I have the freedom to write about what I want, and that's enough for me."

Then he tells the story about conducting a book negotiation with Roger Straus, his publisher. Mr. McPhee asked if not having an agent was costing him money. He says Mr. Straus answered, "Not as much as you might think." Mr. McPhee says this with a laugh.

"John's attitude is that if what you are doing, you enjoy, and that gives you pleasure, and that's where the happiness comes from, then that's enough," says James Kelly, an assistant managing editor of Time magazine who took Mr. McPhee's "Literature of Fact" course at Princeton. "A lot of people get into the world of magazine journalism because they want to get on television or get a big book advance or go to cocktail parties in the Hamptons, but he's about none of that.

"I don't know how to say this without sounding corny, but studying with John was like hanging around a Buddhist monk," adds Mr. Kelly. "The way he chose to go about his career and life was as important a lesson as how he taught us to write a sentence."

Illustrious alumni

Mr. Kelly is one of many illustrious alumni of Mr. McPhee's writing class, a group that includes David Remnick, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Lenin's Tomb," and Richard Preston, author of the current best seller "The Hot Zone." Mr. Preston recalls how in class students were introduced to "greening" -- a Time editing term for highlighting extraneous words with a green felt pen.

"He would hand out a number of photocopied pages and we would green them by so many lines," says Mr. Preston. "He asked us to green by two lines the Gettysburg Address, which is considered one of the most precise speeches ever. But we found out Lincoln repeated himself in two places. We even greened a page from [Joseph Conrad's] 'Heart of Darkness.' "

The point, of course, was that no writer's words are sacred, especially one's own -- and that a writer must be as precise as possible. The McPhee approach is that no piece can be underreported, and that each story must be rigorously plotted before the writing begins.

"I admire his skill and capacity to take hold of a mass of data and winnow out things that are a little more dramatic and interesting," Dr. Dodge says in a telephone interview from his home in Southern Maryland. "He works very hard. John spent a lot of time and energy. Many of the fields he writes about are alien to him, so he does a lot of digging."

Mr. McPhee says of writing, "My criterion is that if it's interesting, it goes in." He illustrates his point by describing the origins of "Oranges," his third book. He had noticed when he bought orange juice at New York's Pennsylvania Station that the color of the drink would change throughout the year, depending on which oranges were used. He thought he would do a short piece for the New Yorker about oranges and ended up writing a book.

Not surprisingly, he finds writing a pretty intense process. Mr. Kelly observes, "As writers go, he's a sufferer. To see John is to know that writing is very hard work."

Mr. McPhee agrees, but notes earnestly, "When they call writers prolific, they don't see the stretches of silence -- the time that you spent trying to write and not succeeding. From the outside, they look up and see I have another book and they say, 'Gee, he writes a lot.' I guess I do write a lot, but day-to-day it's just a slow drip in the bucket.

"A writer has some kind of compulsive drive to do this work," he says. "My own feeling is, if you don't have it, you'd better find another kind of work, because it's only that compulsion that will drive you through the psychological nightmares of writing."

When he was writing "Coming Into the Country," at 438 pages his longest book, "I used to say to myself all the time, 'I swear to God, if I ever finish this piece, I am never doing any writing again.' I'd say that over and over again."

Mr. McPhee smiles wryly. It's unsaid that he wrote 10 books after that.

More to come

Suffering aside, his plate is still full. He's working on a compilation of the four geology books he's written ("it will be heavy enough that if you drop it, it will break a toe") and two new books, whose topics he politely refuses to discuss ("I just never talk about a work in advance").

It's ironic that as Mr. McPhee's influence on nonfiction has grown, the market for long nonfiction pieces is shrinking in American magazines -- even in his beloved New Yorker. Whereas the magazine used to excerpt his books practically verbatim, it ran only half of "The Ransom of Russian Art," at 181 pages one of his shortest books.

"The New Yorker has changed a great deal," he says somberly, perhaps the only time in a two-hour interview in which his speech halts when he answers a question. "I don't think the long pieces of the type that I've done a lot of are appearing that much there, so it doesn't look like an encouraging milieu for somebody to stay with one project for a very long time.

"It saddens me somewhat, but I hope I'm realistic about it. Things change, you know. The New Yorker has changed. But I've got to make my decisions in terms of my writing. If somebody's interested in the piece, fine. But I can't molt and change because other things change."


"[Norton] Dodge had a great deal more hair on his upper lip than elsewhere on his head. With his grand odobene mustache, he had everything but the tusks. He dressed professor, in tie, jacket -- used clothing. Various friends have likened him to an unmade bed. He is absent-minded to a level that no competing professor may yet have reached. He has called a locksmith to come and get him out of a situation that could have been alleviated by a key he later found in his pocket. But he got around Leningrad. He got around Kharkov. He got around Kiev, Odessa, Thilisi, Baku, Yerevan. By the late nineteen-seventies, he had become too anxious to continue these travels. By then, he possessed a thousand works of Soviet unofficial art. Through his network of contacts, in following years, he multiplied that number by nine. All within the chronological window 1956 to 1986, his collection of nonconformist art from the Soviet Union became by far the largest and (in the scholarly sense) most exhaustive in the world. This way and that, he brought it to his farm, in southern Maryland."

, "The Ransom of Russian Art,"

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