John McPhee's stories in "Coming into Country" inform readers about completely alien subjects -- grizzly bears devouring blueberries, Alaskans scouring their land for a place to build a capital city, and a bush country dweller waiting for a shipment of bees from Navasota, TX. But he also makes a statement about a subject we must know well in order to appreciate what he tells us -- the story. Through its focus on the foreign, "Coming into Country" meditates on the worth of knowledge and stories, and how the stories people choose to tell (the knowledge they choose to impart) depend on the spaces they are in.

McPhee's description of an encounter with a grizzly bear in "The Encircled River" embodies his work's thesis. Before the following passage, McPhee quotes another author discussing whether carrying a gun is a help or a hindrance when stumbling upon a grizzly bear. The author, Andy Russell, says that bears can differentiate between a gun-carrying human, who may smell arrogant, and a human without arms. The bear doesn't act irrationally when moving towards a man with a gun; it knows it's threatened by the weapon. In this passage, the evaluation of the bear's knowledge introduces McPhee's evaluation of his own knowledge, and also to draws attention to what the reader doesn't know about McPhee and his stories:

Like pictures from pages riffled with a thumb, all of these things went through my mind there on the mountainside above the grazing bear. I will confess that in one instant I asked myself, "What the hell am I doing here?" There was nothing more to the question, though, than a hint of panic. I knew why I had come, and therefore what I was doing there. That I was frightened was incidental. I just hoped the fright would not rise beyond a relatively decorous level. I sensed that Fedeler and Hession were somewhat frightened, too. I would have been troubled if they had not been. Meanwhile, the sight of the bear stirred me like nothing else the country could contain. What mattered was not so much the bear himself as what the bear implied. He was the predominant thing in that country, and for him to be in it at all meant that there had to be more country like it in every direction and more of the same kind of country all around that. He implied a world. He was an affirmation to the rest of the earth that his kind of place was extant. [62-3]

McPhee begins expressing confusion about himself. But instead of beginning a long explanation of "why I had come," McPhee explains the knowledge the bear had given him. The sight of the grizzly scares McPhee and makes him question himself, but it also calms McPhee because it gives him knowledge about the place he is in. McPhee's seamless weaving of information about himself and the bear is a survival tool; he needs to tell himself the story of the bear's significance to survive a moment of extreme panic.

Questions

1. How does the repetition of "I" reflect McPhee's fear?

2. Compare sentences structures in the beginning and end of the passage. See "I will confess that in one instant I asked myself, 'What the hell am I doing here?'" and "He was the predominant thing in that country, and for him to be in it at all meant that there had to be more country like it in every direction and more of the same kind of country all around that." How do the different rhythms these sentences create reflect how McPhee's emotions change?

3. While McPhee seems to value knowing the greater meaning of the Grizzly Bear, he doesn't bother to tell readers what the bear actually does. He instead veers into descriptions of bears more generally. What effect does the withholding of information have on readers?

4. Is McPhee's subject matter more like Didion's or Chatwin's? His style?


Victorian Web Overview Victorian courses

Last modified 8 November 2007