McPhee, Didion, and Lawrence

Marlene Sloger, American Civilization MA Student, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

While there are many differences in the writing styles of McPhee and Lawrence, one particular difference struck me in The Crofter and the Laird. In Lawrence's writing about Italy, the reader is constantly aware that he is a foreigner visiting a strange and exotic land. With McPhee, this feels somewhat different, perhaps because, as we discussed in class on Tuesday, his style is so much more understated. Other than tracing his lineage, McPhee never claims that he is anything other than a visitor, yet his tone somehow conveys an impartial, yet sensitive, observance of Scottish landscape and culture. How could we describe the difference between McPhee as outsider and that of Lawrence as outsider?

To remind everyone of McPhee's style, this passage contains an example of his descriptions of Colonsay:

Colonsay is less like a small town than like a large lifeboat. By a scale of things that begins with cities and runs to hamlets, the island is some distance off the end. The usual frictions, gossip, and intense social espionage that characterize life in a small town are so grandly magnified on Colonsay that they sometimes appear in surprising form, in the way that patches of skin magnified a hundred diameters may appear to be landscapes of the moon. Air and water, sea and sky, life is imploded upon the people here by the blue bottle that surrounds them. Everyone is many things to everyone else, and is encountered daily in a dozen guises. Enmeshed together, the people of the island become one another. Friend and enemy dwell in the same skin.

Perhaps McPhee could be better compared to Didion. Consider this passage from her chapter "In Bogota":

Of the time I spent in Bogota I remember images, indelible but difficult to connect. I remember the walls on the second floor of the Museo Nacional, white and cool and lined with portraits of the presidents of Colombia, a great many presidents. I remember the emeralds in shop windows, lying casually in trays, all of them oddly pale at the center, somehow watered, cold at the very heart where one expects the fire. I asked the price of one: "Twenty-thousand American," the woman said. She was reading a booklet called Horoscopo: Sagitario and did not look up. I remember walking across Plaza Bolivar, the great square from which all Colombian power emanates, at mid-afternoon when men in dark European suits stood talking on the steps of the Capitol and the mountains floated all around, their perspective made fluid by sun and shadow; I remember the way the mountains dwarfed a deserted Ferris wheel in the Parque Nacional in late afternoon.

Are there similarities between McPhee and Didion's styles? If so, are these similarities found in writing style, or the ways in which each author positions him/herself as an outside observer? In his description of Colonsay, McPhee seems absent from the passage, whereas Didion is very much present. Is this a true statement? Is it possible to be an impartial observer of a foreign culture? Is either author even striving for such an effect?


Victorian Web Overview John McPhee Victorian courses

April 2002