Point/Counter Point With Mr. McPhee

Blake Cooper '03, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

John McPhee infrequently lets the hand he's holding slip into public view. There are hints, to be sure, but we the readers never overtly see the author tip his hand by exaggerating certain characteristics while glossing over others. There seems always to be an apparent balance in McPhee's presentation of ideas and facts. This is certainly true in his ordering of chapters. For example, chapter three of The Crofter and the Laird opens with a warm story about Donald Gibbie's wedding, while the next chapter announces itself by declaring Mr. Gibbie's words as "whips that pack the cattle together and keep them going" all while Mr. Gibbie "shout[s] angrily" (43). Simply by examining each chapter in this book, it becomes apparent that McPhee is bouncing back and forth between different interpretations of the inhabitants of Colonsay, all the while keeping each chapterčand the subjective feel of said chapter--independent of the possibly opposing view that will be presented in the next chapter.

And McPhee does not limit this practice merely to his chapters, but also includes it in his dialogue. For example, when McPhee hits Calum McAllister's chicken with his car, the following conversation is reported:

I knocked on McAllister's door. He opened it--a tall, gaunt, unshaven man, a widower. I said that I had killed his chicken, and he said, "I know. I know that."

I said I was very sorry, and he said, "It's not your fault. It's the chicken's fault. The chicken should not have been in the road."

"I'd like to give you twelve shillings for the chicken."

"That is unnecessary."

"But I think I should pay for it, and I will feel better if you let me do that."

"You can pay if you like, but the chicken should not have been in the road" (94).

Again, we see this back and forth dialogue where neither side seems to agree with the opposing viewpoint while we, the readers, are not sure who to take as the voice of reason--the voice of the sage. Why does McPhee do this? What do we gain by examining each side in an equally subjective manner? What do we loose by not having an openly opinionated guide?


Victorian Web Overview John McPhee Victorian courses

April 2002