Tabula Rasa: Volume 1

  • By John McPhee
  • Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • 192 pp.

The master wordsmith reflects on his stumbles and false starts.

Tabula Rasa: Volume 1

As I contemplate my assignment to write a review of John McPhee’s newest book, I am faced with a tabula rasa, a blank slate. How am I supposed to look critically at the work of this legend, author of dozens of books and hundreds of articles, winner of top awards, teacher and mentor to countless students? I freeze. The cursor and empty computer screen taunt. 

Deep breath. McPhee often faces a tabula rasa, too. In fact, he gave this, his 33rd book, that very title. I’m in great company! Then I worry that I’ve fallen into a cliché, that every reviewer of the book will start off with a riff on its title.

But I forge ahead.

Tabula Rasa compiles 50 bits of prose, from a single paragraph to 10 or more pages, that McPhee never published or, in many cases, even completed. Two pieces in the collection explain its inspiration. “Thornton Wilder at the Century” recalls a lunch at Manhattan’s Century Association — a legendary literary hang-out, albeit one that did not admit women until the 1980s. An editor at TIME Magazine, where McPhee was a junior reporter, invited him to tag along to meet the playwright. In the course of the meal, when asked about his current project, Wilder responded that he was cataloguing the plays of the Baroque-era Spanish playwright Felix Lope de Vega. McPhee couldn’t mask his shock:

“Wilder was sixty-six, but to me he appeared and sounded geriatric. He was an old man with a cataloguing project that would take him at least a dozen years. Callowly, I asked him, ‘Why would anyone want to do that?’”

Wilder’s face “turned furious,” and McPhee remained silent for the rest of the lunch. “To the end, Wilder remained cold. My blunder was as naïve as it was irreparable.”

But at age 88 (more than two decades older than Wilder was at the time of the Century lunch), McPhee realized the benefit of beginning a massive project for staving off fate. In “The Moons of Methuselah,” he writes that “old-people projects keep people old. You’re no longer old when you’re dead.” And so he decides in Tabula Rasa to revisit his apparently bottomless supply of “saved-up, bypassed, intended pieces of writing as an old-man project of my own.”

The pieces are laid out organically, like a conversation in which one topic leads to the next, sometimes in a perfectly logical manner and sometimes as a total tangent. They leap from the 1940s to the 2020s and back; from New Jersey to Gibraltar to wherever and, inevitably, back to New Jersey. The book is not an autobiography, a writing guide, or a social commentary, but it illuminates McPhee’s perspectives on all three and more. We learn a lot about Princeton, New Jersey, where he grew up as the son of a doctor and, through the years, has had the run of the Princeton University campus as a child, undergraduate, neighbor, and professor.

In many pieces in the book, he pulls out an old memory, then overlays it with later insight. As a high school sophomore working during the summer of 1947 as a golf caddy in Wisconsin, for instance, he was aghast when the locals confused his esteemed hometown with a more down-in-the-heels burg, also called Princeton, nearby. Recalling the encounter in “Beantown,” McPhee reckoned, “I was as awestruck by their provincialism as I was unaware of my own.”

We also learn about the years needed to go from aspiring student to reporter at TIME to his dream job at the New Yorker. Tucked into “The Dutch Ship Tyger,” he offers what he calls an “anti-cautionary tale.” He received his first New Yorker rejection when he was in college; then came the second, the third, etc., until “that collection of rejection slips could have papered a wall.” Chin up, colleagues. He characterizes his “chronicle of rejection as a curable disease and as a reminder that most writers grow slowly over time.”

Another piece of wisdom appears in the more explicitly entitled “Writer.” In 1977, he climbed into the car of Jaws author and his then-tennis partner, Peter Benchley with the statement, “Writing sucks. It sucks, stinks, and pukes. Writing sucks!” Almost 50 years later, an elaboration: “Nothing goes well in a piece of writing until it is in its final stages or done.” (Read McPhee’s 2017 book, Draft #4: On the Writing Process, for more lessons on research, structure, and revision, with many under-the-hood examples from his own work.)

Tabula Rasa is short enough to read in a sitting or two, but I appreciated dipping in and out of it over the course of a few weeks. The spare, clean cover and layout are inviting. Some pieces held my attention more than others; as you probably glean from the excerpts I have included, they are among his more personal.

At the time of the book’s publication, McPhee is 92 years old. He — as do we — hopes his “old-man” project continues. In “The Moons for Methuselah,” he shares that that’s why he took a colleague’s advice to subtitle this edition Volume 1.

Paula Tarnapol Whitacre is a writer and editor in Alexandria, Virginia, who is working on a book about Alexandria during the Civil War and Reconstruction. She publishes a blog and newsletter entitled “Discovering Lives” at

Believe in what we do? Support the nonprofit Independent!
comments powered by Disqus