John McPhee: Teacher, Guide, Investigator

Quinn Kenworthy '04, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

John McPhee acts as our teacher, guide, and investigator in The Crofter and the Laird, The Survival of the Bark Canoe, and "The Search for Marvin Gardens." McPhee is, at so many points in these texts, a writer who loves writing and language. This love of language allows his enormous amount of technical detail to reach us. His prose is so enriched and infused with his lyrical tone, we cannot help but reach onward. After reading these three texts we are informed about the island of Colonsay, the ins and outs of making bark canoes, and the streets of Atlantic City; most importantly, though, we learn more about the nature of people, the way McPhee places himself in these texts, and the way he uses the specific to lead us to the general.

John McPhee's opening chapter in The Crofter and the Laird gives a full overview of his book by providing us with a brief general history of the people and place and by locating himself within the story. This first chapter accomplishes even more because McPhee also introduces the reader to some of the major themes of the rest of the work. As a sage, McPhee begins to unpack his stories, and as a writer who clearly loves language, he unpacks these condensed concepts lyrically and poetically. McPhee begins this unpacking process:

The Scottish clan that I belong to -- or would belong to if it were now anything more than a sentimental myth -- was broken a great many generations ago by a party of MacDonalds, who hunted down the last chief of my clan, captured him, refused him mercy, saying that a man who had never shown mercy should not ask for it, tied him to a standing stone, and shot him. [3]

This, the opening sentence of McPhee's novel, is striking, informative, and bold. McPhee admits that belonging to the clan is a "sentimental myth," which discredits his identity as a clan member, but more importantly it gives the reader a sense of McPhee as a truth-teller. This passage gives the reader an introduction, not only to McPhee's clan but also to the snap-shot style of his prose as the reader traces the history of Colonsay through stories such as these. McPhee continues to explain his understanding of Scotland in the first chapter, telling us that "the clans have survived only in the air, and all their setts and badges and bearings are pure nostalgia" (5). This is one of the many statements McPhee makes in The Crofter and the Laird to engage the reader in his understanding of Colonsay; McPhee writes about a people and a place that, to him, are mythical, sentimental, and hang in the air. At the end of the first chapter, when the reader wonders how McPhee will prove his points, he tells us, "As soon as I could, I took my wife and our four young daughters and went to live for a while on Colonsay" (10). In a casual tone McPhee drops an important fact that builds his credibility, assuring the reader that we can in fact trust him because he will physically be on Colonsay.

McPhee changes his tone throughout The Crofter and the Laird just as he does during the opening chapter. He moves from a storyteller to a historical expert, from an observer to a reflective philosopher, and from a person intricately connected to his stories to an outsider. These different techniques and tone shifts magnify the realities of Colonsay, a place where the distinction between insider and outsider is abundantly clear, both to McPhee and the reader. McPhee's sense of the islanders of Colonsay mirrors other sage writers' notions of insiders and outsiders, namely Henry David Thoreau's political speech, "A Plea for Captain John Brown" delivered on October 30th, 1859. In this speech Thoreau openly criticizes the American government and the institution of slavery and makes deep claims about human nature. Thoreau, like McPhee, writes about what separates people and nations and the ways these reasons affect communication and understanding. In "A Plea for John Brown," Thoreau claims:

We dream of foreign countries, of other times and races of men, placing them at a distance in history or space; but let some significant event like the present occur in our midst, and we discover, often, this distance and this strangeness between us and our nearest neighbor. . . . We discover why it was that we never got beyond compliments and surfaces with them before; we become aware of as many versts between us and them as there are between a wandering Tartar and a Chinese town. . . . It is the difference of constitution, of intelligence, and faith, and not streams and mountains, that make the true and impassable boundaries between individuals and between states. [14]

Do McPhee and Thoreau agree or do they stand at odds? In The Crofter and the Laird McPhee writes, "Enmeshed together, the people of the island become one another. . . They have to see each other almost everyday. Each life eclipses the other. They compete in the rental of space to visitors" (48-49). A few pages later we read, "There is nothing an incomer could teach and islander. In this world, it is true" (58). Thoreau and McPhee agree there are separations between people and places, but as Thoreau concludes, these separations occur because of differences of "constitution, of intelligence, and faith," and McPhee notices the physical divisions as equally important. Space, to both authors, is undoubtedly important. As islanders' lives overlap and collide, McPhee realizes himself to be an outsider, even when he is on Colonsay. McPhee makes explains what keeps people together and enmeshed, and Thoreau focuses on what tears people apart. McPhee, in his experience on Colonsay, is overwhelmed with the ways lives entangle, making him and the reader outsiders to a world we can only hope to understand. Thoreau and McPhee both acknowledge the ways distance both expands and collapses as they experience new people, places, and historic events.

These two authors seek truth, Thoreau in a speech and McPhee in a narrative about his ancestors' land. The authors, as sages, use specific stories to make broader claims about society. McPhee uses his year-long experience in Colonsay not only as a self-fulfilling journey to find out more about his ancestors, but as a way of investigating universal truths in different places with different people.

McPhee uses this same technique in The Survival of the Bark Canoe; he uses many details about canoes as a way of explaining people. In this book the reader learns about Henri Vaillancourt, a bark canoe maker and expert. We become enthralled with his character and work as McPhee creates him with a narrative so infused with detail that it becomes tiring at times. His details move along swiftly as we recognize the need for this information -- without it there would be no true understanding of the canoes and the process of building them. We cannot help falling in love with bark canoes and Vaillancourt just as we fall in love with Colonsay and the islanders.

We feel privileged to learn about bark canoes, their rarity is romantic; the precision in their creation is overwhelming. McPhee's attention to detail leads us through the texts, teaching us not only about the technical specifics of bark canoes and the history of Colonsay, but of the effects of using such detail. The texts begin to turn on themselves in this way as they become reflections of the very literary techniques they use. In The Survival of the Bark Canoe a conversation between McPhee and Vaillancourt shows this reflection -- and also the way the specific leads to the general:

"Oh, up north of Moosehead Lake. The Penobscot River. Chesuncook Lake. Caucomgomoc Lake. It's not just to get out in the canoe -- it's to get out and see wildlife. A moose, you know, thirty feet away. Next time I go, I'm going down the Penobscot and on to the Allagash lakes."

I said, "Next time you go, I'd like to go with you."

He said, "Bring your own food."

I had been yearning to make a trip into that region for what was now most of my life. Keewaydin had run trips there, but one circumstance or another had always prevented me from going. Just the thought of making a journey there in a birch-bark canoe was enough to make me sway like a drunk. I thought of little else through the winter and the spring. [22]

In this dialogue the reader not only hears the voices of Vaillancourt and McPhee, but we also see the ways detail operates in a given passage. Here the conversation begins with the specific names of the rivers and lakes in short two word sentences and ends with McPhee pulling back and assessing the situation, using the metaphor of swaying like a drunk to describe his excitement of taking a trip with Vaillancourt. Vaillancourt also tries to explain to McPhee why one would want to go on a canoe trip; the reader begins to understand more as McPhee does -- we begin to sway with excitement as he does. McPhee, as a sage, uses dialogue and persistent detail to unpack the complexities of his characters and their trades.

McPhee also describes places since his texts are all grounded firmly in specific locations. These spaces -- Colonsay, lakes, rivers, a workshop for making bark canoes -- are alive as McPhee uses his very descriptions to describe the bigger picture. In The Crofter and the Laird he even lets the reader in on his strategies:

Colonsay's physical perspectives are in some ways similar to its human ones. Things amplify. It may be the light. The cairns at the summits of the hills appear below to be as large as fortresses, at the very least, but if you go up there and stand on them they are only piles of stones, roughly six feet cubed. Shepherds built the cairns for guidance in the mists. The best way to know the island whole is to climb to the cairns in clear weather. . . . The hills, nearly all of them treeless, have the scale and appearance of mountain ranges, walling off one area from another in the way that mountains will divide two states or countries. And that is what the parts of Colonsay suggest -- separate states, separate territories. [49-50]

McPhee's notions of perspective are important in this description of Colonsay as he makes clear connections between the place and what it represents. He uses an opening sentence to set the scene and then follows it with two short and abrupt sentences. McPhee often does this -- uses topic sentences and lyrical descriptions followed by short, sometimes no more than two- or three-word punches, to get at the heart of what and why he describes the people and places the way he does. McPhee sets up cairns for the reader to follow -- moments to survey and landmarks to watch out for; he builds them for the reader so, like the shepherds, we can see through the mist.

Unlike Thoreau who claims physical landmarks have no bearing in separation between people, McPhee uses Colonsay's topography as a way of explaining human interaction on the island. McPhee would not argue that hills or mountains divide people completely, but Thoreau completely disregards the importance of landscapes. One of the reasons McPhee is so convincing is that he does not disregard anything, but instead he finds ways to incorporate every thing, place, and person into his text. McPhee and Thoreau deal with place differently, have different audiences, and offer different overall message. One cannot forget the political situation in which Thoreau wrote his speech, nor can one forget McPhee's present audience -- the general reading public. The political and social agency Thoreau wrote his speech for is absent in McPhee, though passion is not.

McPhee's use of physical description also appears in his 1972 essay, "The Search for Marvin Gardens." In this essay McPhee travels to Atlantic City, New Jersey, to find all of the streets and locations on the Monopoly board while simultaneously explaining games of Monopoly. By moving back and forth between Atlantic City of the past, the Atlantic City of his present (in the 1970s), and a Monopoly tournament, McPhee literally takes us on a trip through space and history. Just as we enter bark canoes in the woods and the island of Colonsay, here we are thrown into the rundown Atlantic City and a mission to find Marvin Gardens. The difference in this essay is that McPhee successfully jumps back and forth in time and place, where as in The Survival of the Bark Canoe and The Crofter and the Laird we stay in one place, though we gain many different perspectives.

"The Search for Marvin Gardens" also raises questions about the ways an author slants his or her work to fit his or her points: What does a sage (or a satirist, essayist, novelist, poet) owe to the places he or she writes about? In McPhee's works the reader gets a sense that he cares so much about the places and people he writes about because the care he puts into his descriptions not only enriches his text but they become the text. McPhee blends historical narratives into this essay to make us care about the history of Atlantic City, and though some critics blame McPhee for painting an overly negative vision of Atlantic City, he still paints a clear picture. In "The Search for Marvin Gardens" McPhee's descriptions destroy any previously held perception of Atlantic City as a beachfront paradise:

Game 3. After seventeen minutes, I am ready to begin construction on overpriced and sluggish Pacific, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. Nothing else being open, opponent concedes.

The physical profile of streets perpendicular to the shore is something like a playground slide. It begins in the high skyline of Boardwalk hotels, plummets into warrens of "side-avenue" motels, crosses Pacific, slopes through church missions, convalescent homes, burlesque houses, rooming houses, and liquor stores, crosses Atlantic, and runs level through the bombed-out ghetto as far -- Baltic, Mediterranean -- as the eye can see. [13].

This passage shows how McPhee jumps from the Monopoly game to the streets of Atlantic City. The first part of this passage is formal, concise, almost mathematical, while the second part has longer sentences with specific information, but constructed in a more subtle and accessible prose. The amount of information in this short passage is representative of the rest of this essay in which McPhee shows -- teaches -- the reader so much over the eleven or so pages. What makes this essay so amazing is that he pushes us to read further, convincing us that we do want to know more about Atlantic City, the games of Monopoly, and where exactly Marvin Gardens is located. His historical narrative is not alienating because his prose is rich -- he gives us so much, like his books, but with a love of language and writing that comes across in every word. The last sentence of this passage is long and as we walk the streets with McPhee, he shows us all we need along the way. He uses the metaphor of "a playground slide" to describe the streets -- his use of the familiar (the Monopoly board, a playground slide) helps the reader to relate to his prose. McPhee has the ability to use the familiar to explain unfamiliar places (Atlantic City and Colonsay), trades (building bark canoes), and people (the people who live on Colonsay and Henri Vaillancourt).

These three McPhee texts all maneuver their way through time and space, all settling by their ends, at places where readers are left with a distinct taste in our mouths. After reading these two books and one essay I am drawn to their conclusions, the final sentences, that last moment when for eleven pages, a hundred and fifty pages, and a hundred an eleven pages, I become obsessed with the subject matter, drawn to the lands, inspired by the characters. The final passages in these books are marked with a certain flavor, one that leaves me asking, why did he end this way? In The Crofter and the Laird McPhee ends with an old story about the fighting clans:

Unlucky is the time that you remind me of it," MacMillan said, and he drew his sword and went back down the hill. MacLeans swarmed around him, but he stood with his back to a high stone wall and magnificently began to hack them down. Swinging and thrusting, he killed sixteen MacLeans, and he might have killed them all, but other MacLeans went around to the other side of the wall and pushed out stones at the base, making a hole through which they chopped at MacMillan's legs until he fell. McPhee went on up the hill. One associates with one's ancestors at one's risk. I will never again be able to look a MacMillan in the eye. [159]

In a dramatic tale McPhee concludes his book with a slightly negative tone, stating that he will "never again be able to look a MacMillan in the eye." Is this McPhee's final thought after living on Colonsay for a year? The sentence before the last, though, gets at the conclusion I find to be most important and interesting. He makes sure to bring his story to the general with, "One associates with one's ancestors at one's risk." Even the use of "one" in this sentence displays McPhee's desire to make his personal stories universal. McPhee risks much in going to Colonsay with his wife and daughters -- he leaves his comfortable life in the United States to learn about the history of his ancestors and their land. This final story of death is startling, McPhee's reaction to never being able to look another MacMillian in the eye is dramatic and telling. Through his experience on the island, McPhee chooses to end with himself, so unlike the title The Crofter and the Laird leads us to believe this book is about just that, it appears this is also about McPhee's personal experience on Colonsay. McPhee, as a sage, is also unpacking himself within his larger narrative.

In the concluding moments in The Survival of the Bark Canoe, McPhee also ends with a personal story; the canoe trip has come to an end and the men are driving down the road, out of Maine. Just as Vaillancourt tells McPhee early in the book that canoe trips are also about seeing wildlife ("A moose, you know, thirty feet away"), McPhee returns to the moose and wildlife, but in an unsettling way:

Fifteen miles down the dirt-and-gravel road, in what is now the black of night, we are blinded by the oncoming headlights of a many-ton truck, a logging truck -- the immense, roaring descent of the West Branch Drive. . . . On and on the truck approaches, an omnivorous machine, swallowing earth and sky. In the blackness, it dominates all -- all light, all sound. Suddenly, though, there is another sound, distinct from the engine's churning. The truck is forcing something up the road, something moving in flight before it, that now, within inches of our windows, pounds by. A hoofbeat clatter, a shape as well, a stir of dust, a glimpse of a form, a terrored eye, a spreading rack -- a moose. A bull moose.

It is many hours to the end of Maine. The last glimpse of Henri must wait until then. He has -- in Greenville, New Hampshire -- one final thing to say to Warren, one farewell remark. He says, "Thanks for taking care of the canoe." [114]

This choice as an ending is also interesting because it takes the reader away from nature just as that drive takes the men away from nature as well. The image of the bull-moose and the logging truck take away the romantic state of wilderness much of the text exists in, perhaps as a message that the innocence of wilderness is lost. The way McPhee tells the reader about the truck dominating the landscape and "swallowing earth and sky" makes us worry about the survival of the wilderness and the bark canoe. Does McPhee mean to say that the bark canoe may not survive, that the bull-moose and the innocence and beauty it once represented are gone? This image of a dead moose and the enormous logging truck are very troubling. McPhee ends with Vaillancourt's voice, and a comment from him saying so much about his character and the book. By ending with, "Thanks for taking care of the canoe," the reader is reminded once again how much Vaillancourt cares and loves his birch-bark canoes, how much he appreciates others caring for them, and how his simple ways say so much. As a concluding remark, the reader who has become so involved with Vaillancourt and his love for bark canoes, is relieved (especially after the previous paragraph), believing perhaps bark canoes and the men we have watched paddle them will be ok. We are left hopeful is some ways and though for a long moment we are stuck on the image of the moose, McPhee gives us, and perhaps himself as well, some hope. Is part of the job of a sage to leave us with some kind of hope?

In "The Search for Marvin Gardens" McPhee clears up the looming question as to where exactly Marvin Gardens is and what it, if anything, it comes to represent. Throughout the essay, Atlantic City is described as run-down, impoverished, but in some ways romantic. When McPhee tells the reader that the prisoners in the jail have no pens and pencils and instead write on the walls with paper napkins with charred ends, a romantic scene is created. The end, however, reveals Marvin Gardens as a middle-class suburb, secluded from Atlantic City, and representative, in some ways, of the loss of that romanticism found in other parts of Atlantic City. Though it would be na•ve to describe impoverished areas as romantic, but there is something about Atlantic City that McPhee paints as romantic. Marvin Gardens is not raw, instead it is groomed, manicured, isolated; McPhee describes:

Marvin Gardens is the one color-block Monopoly property that is not in Atlantic City. It is a suburb within a suburb, secluded. . . . Marvin Gardens, the ultimate outwash of Monopoly, is a citadel and sanctuary of the middle class. "We're heavily patrolled by police here. We don't take no chances. Me? I'm living here nine years . . . Number one, I don't want to move. Number two, I don't need the money. I have four bedrooms, two and a half baths, front den, back den. No basement. The Atlantic is down there. Six feet down and you float. A lot of people have a hard time finding this place. People that lived in Atlantic City all their life don't know how to find it. They don't know where the hell they're going. They just know it's south, down the boardwalk." [20]

McPhee ends The Survival of the Bark Canoe with someone else's voice, and he uses the same technique here. We are left with the voice of this person to whom we get no introduction, the search over, the truth revealed. Marvin Gardens is a let-down, a middle class suburbia not even in Atlantic City. From this final voice we see an example of the American desire to stay put -- if there is enough space and money then why go? McPhee, though he does not say it outright, seems disappointed with this place, however the search feels symbolic -- symbolic of the job of the sage, symbolic of American suburbia, symbolic of the way we romanticize certain places and disregard others. After reading this essay we are drawn to the streets of Atlantic City, full of broken glass and lonely jail cells, and without knowing it ourselves, McPhee has taken a stand against middle class suburbia. McPhee has tricked us in a way, tricked us into his head. McPhee does this throughout his three texts. By the end of The Crofter and the Laird we are not sure if we will ever be able to look a MacMillan in the face either; we think perhaps we want to learn to make a bark canoe, maybe take a trip into the pristine wilderness; and maybe we should go on an investigatory mission to find out about a place, its streets and history. McPhee pulls us into his texts and lets us roam around with him, lets us investigate and prod around the dirt roads, and slyly reveals critical and significant broader truths.

Works Cited

McPhee, John. The Crofter and the Laird. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969.

McPhee, John. "The Search for Marvin Gardens." In John D'Agata, ed., The Next American Essay. Saint Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2003.

McPhee, John. The Survival of the Bark Canoe. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975.

Thoreau, Henry David. "A Plea for Captain John Brown" (1859).


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Last modified 16 December 2003