March 8, 2020

"The people from Hopewell Township who crashed on our road sued Cessna for—as I understood the complaint—not making a cockpit of sufficient structure to withstand the forces that injured them."

"I was subpoenaed to testify. There would be a deposition in my office in East Pyne Hall, on the Prince­ton campus. My office was not a boardroom. It sorely lacked space for me, two lawyers, and a court stenographer. We were crowded in there for upward of an hour, and I learned early on that I was meant to testify but not to tell a story. I was bubbling mad. How could anyone even imagine suing Cessna for Cessna’s role in the crash? As the court stenographer tapped along, I tried to say as much, but was quieted by the lawyers as my words were inserted edgewise. This seemed to be a story to tell, to investigate, to amplify, to enrich with detail about flight rules, liability law, aircraft design, women priests, women rabbis, and varying portraits of one subject by sixteen writers, but beyond this brief outline the disparate parts of 'The Airplane That Crashed in the Woods' seemed as resistant to the weaving and telling as they had been with an audience of two lawyers and a court stenographer."

From "Tabula Rasa/Volume One" by John McPhee (in The New Yorker). This is a collection of "saved-up, bypassed, intended pieces of writing as an old-man project, the purpose of which is never to end" — modeled on Mark Twain's "old-man project," his autobiography.

I chose the snippet above because it says something apt about the difference between how writers and lawyers process the raw material of life. But I'm interested in the overarching concept of the "old-man project" (and I, an old woman, am fine with the way old man McPhee didn't bother to include old women in the concept).

From a 2013 New Yorker article about Twain's book:
Its forbidding size and freewheeling structure have puzzled and infuriated generations of researchers who have descended into the archives, hoping to find a finished memoir and instead discovering ten file feet of musings, interspersed with letters and newspaper clippings. Twain insisted that his sprawling memoir not be published until a century after his death, in 1910, so that he could speak freely about everyone and everything. But he couldn’t resist publishing excerpts in the North American Review before he died. And, in the decades since, more has trickled out as editors have waded through Twain’s papers to uncover pieces that they considered worth publishing.
McPhee's idea of the "old-man project" is that it's a way to stay alive, so it's not just long and sprawling. It's impossible to finish. That's the idea. I get it. It's like blogging.

33 comments:

Kay said...

John McPhee is a phenomenal writer. I really enjoyed his book about oranges.

Fernandistein said...

(and I, an old woman, am fine with the way old man McPhee didn't bother to include old women in the concept).

That's a relief!

I don't think a woman could've, or would've, written the books he wrote.

Bob Boyd said...

I was called on to give a video-taped deposition once, as a witness to serious injury sustained during a séance.
A woman I didn't know, sitting right next to me during the ritual, had her head busted open with a ladder back chair. Blood, screaming, ghosts departed, ambulance and cops arrived. Kind of exciting. The experience exceeded my expectations.

rhhardin said...

That's when airplanes went from $1800 to infinity in cost, when those lawsuits against manufacturers started winning under some new doctrine of strict liability. Lawsuit settlements now included in the price.

Used airplanes took on the same price explosion because an airplane is an airplane.

Narr said...

Good morning, Althousers.

Agree about McPhee--phenomenal, and wide-ranging. Agree about writers (to include some historians other fuzzy humanists) v lawyers.

Twain is the American mother lode, the first and best of our bleak humorists, juggling American good and evil while turning then inside out, and laughing about it. Old Arthur C. Clarke had a character muse on America's "slouch comedians" (IIRC--somebody look it up please) and I would name Twain as their progenitor; Woody Allen (I believe everyone here knows him) mused that he didn't want immortality through his work, he wanted it by not dying. Twain's (or Captain Stormfield's) idea of heaven was that everyone would be fulfilled according to their actual but unrealized capabilities, in whatever arena.

Shelby Foote (ahh-hhmm) was on a book prize committee with a bunch of academic historians and found himself the odd man out-- his preference was voted down because "there are ten 'I's on the first page!"

Narr
Egoists Unite!

rhhardin said...

I flew into Princeton a lot, owing to friends having airplanes there. One day even my boss asked me to fly him down there to pick up his airplane from the shop, so we both left work early in northern NJ.

Mike (MJB Wolf) said...

One can speculate that, given the opportunity, both Mark Twain and Will Rogers would be well suited to the Blog format. On the other hand, of all the blogs I’ve frequented, so many changed or were subsumed into other projects that Althouse is now in a select group that are still interesting and independent. I don’t spend the time with Lileks or Hewitt, Morrissey turned into a journalist, Sully went insane and was literally hard to follow from site to site if one even cared to try. Insty, the PowerLine guys and Ace are the only go-to blogs left in my rarefied reading list that includes Althouse.

mccullough said...

Lawyers and writers twist truth in different ways. Most lawyers make more than most writers.

tim in vermont said...

I enjoyed the first one that was published, but I remember that it fell apart, and I took it back to the book store, and they gave me another one that fell apart too. The second one I bought, but I never got into it.

But I have started on an “old man project” and it’s fun. It keeps me focused, absorbs my energy, and draws me further and further from politics. It was a shame to see Philip Roth, who was an expert at getting to the truth of things, become a doddering old fool though.

tim in vermont said...

"The experience exceeded my expectations.”

“It’s not a party until somebody gets hurt.” - F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Otto said...

" I am an old woman" . In The Bronx we use to call old women who use to sit in front of their abode a gossip together yentas. You remind me of them. All you do is talk (blog posts) in front of your computer but without having other yentas around. I say gossip because most of your posts are style over substance. Keep on yentering.

rcocean said...

Our local library brought new numerous copies of the Twain Autobiography. I think there were three volumes. All three are big thick books. Looked at that shelf last week and two of them are left. Per the librarian, nobody was checking them out, so they got discarded. I read Volume I, and wasn't impressed. Lots on comments on people, places, events of the 1880-1905 era that I didn't know or care about. Plus, Twain's politics and views on religion, neither of which are particularly interesting.

Just because you're funny doesn't mean you're interesting when you get serious.

rcocean said...

John McPhee is a good writer. IRC, he wrote a book on Oranges and even made that interesting.

rcocean said...

Althouse blog is a historical treasure trove. Its really cool back to her posts of say 2008 and see how everyone was reacting real time to the OBama-McCain election. Or what people were saying about Norman Mailer when he died. I've started downloading certain posts, just so i re-read them when the blog goes away. Which it will at some point. Of course, I might die first.

Ken B said...

“When the blog goes away”
She keeps saying men don’t get pregnant google will smite her.

Sebastian said...

"it's a way to stay alive . . . It's impossible to finish."

Succumbing to illogic is such a sad sign of cognitive decline.

Kidding, a little bit.

Sebastian said...

"Althouse blog is a historical treasure trove."

Yes. Since Google may erase it all, is anyone downloading all posts and threads? Does the wayback machine or a similar function automatically preserve blog cotnent?

Bill Peschel said...

I'm a big Twain fan. When I published Sherlock Holmes fanfiction from Conan Doyle's lifetime, I inserted in the back of most of the book a story I wrote with Twain meeting Holmes, Irene Adler, Watson and Mycroft.

This gave me the chance to read a lot of Twain, including the Autobiographies, because I wanted to capture his voice, but also integrate the two worlds in a sort of realistic fashion. Since Twain was younger than Holmes, it was quite a challenge.

I learned that:

* The autobiography was an unwitting proto-blog. There is no shape or form to it. Each day, he'd start talking. Sometime, it was triggered by a memory, or newspaper item. Some of it was interesting to others, but all of it was interesting to him.

* As a writer, Twain was wholly original. Original in thought and words. He never used cliches, never used common phrases. I wouldn't necessarily say he used punchlines, which would be manufactured or tailored. He simply told the truth (at least, his version of it).

* At heart, Twain was a talker. He loved nothing more than the sound of his voice.

* I have a Google alert on his name, so I see his name show up frequently. Usually, it's in stories, editorials, and letters to the editor that quote him (or, more likely, fake quotes attributed to him) to back up whatever loony position the writer is advocating for. This is different from Sherlock Holmes, which shows up most when something involving him is in production (plus the click-bait articles about when the next Downey or Cumberbatch show will appear).

* He was a funny man, and he could be observant, but he had no ability for self-reflection and he was horrible at business. His family had a history of bad investments, and he followed along. At the height of his wealth, when he had his family, his beautiful house, his secure reputation, his investment in a typesetting machine destroyed it all (even how, no one knows how much he invested in it, but it was at least $250,000 at a time when a dollar was sound and there was no income tax).

He was fortunate that he befriended H.H. Rogers, a Standard Oil exec and a shark in business dealings, to get him out of the investment, but at 60 he had to go on a world lecture tour with his family because his wife insisted on paying off their debts 100 percent. Not only was it enormously stressful (and he had to produce one of his travel books at the end, too), but the favored daughter he left home in Hartford died while they were on the last leg of the journey, in Britain, and that fractured his heart. The subsequent death of his wife and another daughter ruined him (his sole son died in infancy and he blamed himself for that, too).

Twain was a man who felt so much, and thought so little.

Leland said...

I hate the stomp on Althouse "old-man project", but the court case reminds me of a case against GM. In California, a drunk driver exited a freeway at speeds over 60 mph (when the then federal speed limit was 55) and rear ended a GM made family sedan that was stopped at a red light. The drunk driver was killed on impact, and most of the family survived but were burned when their gas tank caught on fire. A California jury awarded the family over a billion dollars because GM had not designed a gas tank to survive an impact from the rear at speeds greater than the federal speed limit.

Kevin said...

"Althouse blog is a historical treasure trove."

Until the Progressives truly gain control.

At that point even cruel neutrality will be seen as collaborating with the enemy.

John henry said...

Amen, amen and amen on McPhee.

He doesn't just mak oranges interesting, he makes rocks interesting

Fantastic writer on any subject. Perhaps the most diverse writer ever with books ranging from oranges to rocks to lighter than air flight to alaska to cross country trucking to birch canoes to shad and much more.

Interesting on. Everything. I've read most of his books multiple times.

John Henry

Michael K said...

I wrote an "old man book," a memoir of 50 years in Medicine.

It's mostly about surgery but also medical school.

It still sells a few copies a month. Just Kindle.

Michael K said...

Insty, the PowerLine guys and Ace are the only go-to blogs left in my rarefied reading list that includes Althouse.

Neo neo is good and I like Chicagoboyz. Ricochet is subscription and was TDS at first, but is muchg better now.

tim in vermont said...

" In The Bronx we use to call old women who use to sit in front of their abode a gossip together yentas”

In some circles the yenta-net makes twitter look slow for spreading news.

tim in vermont said...

"because I wanted to capture his voice,”

Good luck with that.

Oso Negro said...

"I am an old woman named after my mother. My old man is another child who's grown old"

Oso Negro said...

All in all, I prefer Mick Jagger's old man project.

Bill Peschel said...

"Good luck with that."

Should have added "wanted, but didn't quite do that."

Because, you see, he really didn't have a consistent voice to parody. Twain was not like Hemingway or Stein. He didn't have a consistent pattern to follow. He was an original, and you don't copy original.

Narr said...

You mean all this self-indulgent gabble isn't automatically preserved for all time?

I've been viewing my comments as notes for my own autobiography. Regular readers here know as much about me, nay, more, than most of my friends and relatives. (Y'all more interesting, but that's on the down low, know what I'm saying?)

Another reliable writer for me is Mark Kurlansky; not as catholic in his interests as McPhee, nor anything like the wordsmith, but solid.

Narr
The Prof's place is my vacation retreat

Caligula said...

"Used airplanes took on the same price explosion because an airplane is an airplane."

Well yes, they did. But now that many of these used airplanes are getting to be fifty or more years old, the ones that are still airworthy are getting really expensive.

tim in vermont said...

"He was an original, and you don't copy original.”

It’s more than style with Twain, it’s his insight that permeates his writing. That’s the hard part.

tim in vermont said...

You can ape Hemingway, but there is another one where the style is one thing, the insight quite another. Philip Roth at his best too. That’s why people read writers. Letter perfect style with nothing to say will tell pretty quickly.

John Barth is a guy who could write in a lot of styles, larger than life styles, and carry it off because he was communicating the goings on inside his own interesting mind at the same time.

Narr said...

Nice to spot another Barthite. I haven't read anything of his in ages, but the ones I did read stick with me. Thomas Berger was a sly satirist, known almost entirely for the movie Little Big Man, which is not from his most typical work.

Updike-- as much as I understand an aversion to any prolific writer, parts of the Rabbit trilogy are indelible to me--not verbatim, but like the memory of a great painting: he wrote serious art criticism (IMHO, NYRB) too.

Roth never did it for me, though I tried.

Narr
DST wears me out