At once a captivating travel narrative and a careful examination of Alaska's social and political structure, John McPhee's Coming into the Country explores nearly all 656,400 square miles of the 49th state. McPhee's travels, whether down the Kobuk river or through the congested streets of Anchorage, unfold with an acute sense of detail, conjuring vivid images out of specialized phrases and technical jargon. Phrases like "neon borealis" commandeer salient terms in a playful way, but McPhee's attitude toward the urbanization of Alaska is far from optimistic.

BIG RED'S FLYING SERVICE. BELUGA STEAM & ELECTRIC THAWING. DON'T GO TO JAIL LET FRED GO YOUR BAIL.

There is a street, in Anchorage — a green-lights, red-lights, busy street — that is used by automobiles and airplanes. I remember an airplane in someone's driveway — next door to the house where I was staying. The neighbor started up its engine one night toward eleven o'clock, and for twenty minutes he ran it flat out while his two sons, leaning hard into the stabilizers, strained to hold back the plane. In Alaska, you do what you feel like doing, or so goes an Alaskan creed.

There is, in Anchorage, a somewhat Sutton Place. It is an enclave, actually, with several roads, off the western end of Northern Lights Boulevard, which is a principal Anchorage thoroughfare, a neon borealis. Walter Hickel lives in the enclave, on Loussac Drive, which winds between curbs and lawn, neatly trimmed, laid out, and landscaped, under white birches and balsam poplars. Hickel's is a heavy, substantial home, its style American Dentist. The neighbors' houses are equally expensive and much the same. The whole neighborhood seems to be struggling to remember Scarsdale. But not to find Alaska. (134-5)

Two paragraphs later, McPhee summarizes one argument against building a new capital by poking fun at the dismal planning of Anchorage.

There are those who would say that the only proper place for a new capital of Alaska — if there has to be a new one — is Anchorage, because anyone who has built a city like Anchorage should not be permitted to build one anywhere else.(135)

The first two paragraphs of this passage employ similar structures in their first sentences, "There is, in Anchorage, a. . . " Using the same phrase to introduce contrasting situations, McPhee is able to use a language parallel to draw his readers' attention to the difference between low culture and high culture in urban Alaska. Interestingly, the concluding sentences of each paragraph neatly summarize the essence of the two classes. While families running their planes on the cacophonous street are living up to a (possibly problematic) "Alaskan creed," the people in their "American Dentist" homes are depicted as unsympathetic to Alaska's eccentric charm.

Questions

1. What are the major structural similarities between McPhee's Coming into the Country and Chatwin's In Patagonia? How do they differ? How do Chatwin and McPhee use Ruskinian word-painting?

2. The passage above deals with McPhee's experience in the urban part of Alaska, but most of Coming into the Country is set in the wilderness. Are there noticeable differences in the manner of description, narration, or the average length of passages?

3. Frequently, when the narrative is dealing with Anchorage, McPhee chooses to use a line of block text instead of a transition between paragraphs, for example, "POLAR REALTY. IDLE WHEELS TRAILER PARK. MOTEL MUSH INN."(131) How does this effect the narrative transitions? What is the effect of names like "Beluga Steam & Electric," Motel Mush Inn," etc. . . "

4. How does the phrase "struggling to remember Scarsdale," characterize the group of people McPhee is talking about? McPhee never actually says that the families in the enclave are materialistic, rather he uses phrases like "American Dentist." What does this phrase mean? Is the paragraph about Mr. Hickel a micro-narrative with a parallel structure to any other groups in the book?


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Last modified 8 November 2007