McPhee's Descriptive Flair

Jamie Effros '03, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

As we discussed in class on Tuesday, McPhee's style is marked by the subtlety and balance of his prose. He does not go into the vivid type of word-painting which Lawrence does, and he certainly doesn't launch into any of Lawrence's over-ripe intellectual musings. Yet McPhee's passion is evident, and his style extremely effective. He has his own brand of word-painting which is not nearly as overt or self-aware as Lawrence's, but still combines sensual and thematic components to create a palpable aura in The Crofter and the Laird.

"The air is calm and the cuckoo sounds form the hills of Balaromin Mor. Below, on The Strand, the tide is low and the hill cows have positioned themselves on the wet, flat sand, their forms indistinct in the mist, and they slowly move their heads from side to side. The hill cows are covered with golden hair that is so long it mats their faces entirely and drips down their sides. They are woolly mammoths, gigantic Saint Bernards, slow moving hair farms. They are truly unbelievable to any eye that has not seen them before. They are also cattle, inside it all, and there is something mildly electrifying about their presence on The Strand, evidence of intellectual stirrings in those effigal heads, for they could have no other reason for being there than curiosity." [95]

In this passage there is a surge of descriptive imagery which is unusual to the prose thus far. The description of the hill cows pushes toward a fantastical dimension which McPhee has hardly touched yet. The description builds to such a point that it seems he has to censor himself by calling the cows' presence "mildly electrifying," a term which could aptly describe the nature of McPhee's own prose. He also, for the first time in the book, imposes his own subjectivity on another being when he speaks of the curiosity of the hill cows being their only reason for being on The Strand. What is at stake in McPhee's sudden descriptive intensity? Is this passage out of place, or has the reader warmed enough to his prose at this point to accept a sudden flare? Perhaps this return to nature and the fantastic is positioned to contrast the human social issues which, for the most part have occupied the last chapter?


Victorian Web Overview John McPhee Victorian courses

April 2002