McPhee's Sensitivity and Lawrence's Savagery

Nathan Deuel, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

In Etruscan Places and The Crofter and The Laird two men write about two countries. Compare McPhee's interaction with Scotland to Lawrence's with Italy.

First, McPhee:

At home, the McNeills waste nothing. When their old steel teapot develops a leak, Donald plugs up the teapot and looks inside. The points of fourteen screws intruded (32).

Then, Lawrence:

By this time, we and our desire for candles had become a feature in the landscape. I said to Luigi, why didn't we ask the peasants He said they hadn't any. Fortunately at that moment an unwashed woman appeared at an upper window in the black wall. I asked her if she couldn't sell us a candle. She retired to think about I -- then came back to say, surlily, it would be sixty centimes. I threw her a lira, and she dropped a candle. So! (90).

Both men concern themselves with races of men. Both stories document a writer's attempt to make sense of the modern condition of older cultures. Note two different conclusions. McPhee offers a spare conclusion: "One associates with one's ancestors at one's risk. I will never again be able to look a MacMillan in the eye" (159). Lawrence expounds:

Why, oh why, wasn't the tomb left intact as it was found, where it was found? The garden of the Florence museum is vastly instructive, if you want object-lessons about the Etruscans. But who wants object lessons about vanished races? What one wants is a contact. The Etruscans are not a theory or a thesis. If they are anything, they are an experience (114).

Neither travel story -- McPhee's published as a short book and Lawrence's included as part of a longer collection -- seems to require maps to enhance credibility and tangibility. McPhee is the more sensitive reporter and Lawrence is a savage exaggerator. Both writers have problems, but which convinces better and why? Of note: New Yorker staff writer McPhee wrote the story for the magazine in 1967, while sickly Lawrence wrote in 1934.

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April 2002