McPhee Kills Chickens

Nina Strohminger '04, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

"I have today killed Calum McAllistser's chicken," (93) announces John McPhee in his memoirs from the island of Colonsay, The Crofter and the Laird. In this passage, McPhee reports the experience, ostensibly to illustrate a point about Colonsay:

News of the death of this chicken apparently reached every ear on the island before the pinfeathers had settled to the ground. It is not a scandal. No one seems to hold it against me. It just is news, and I am already becoming known as the one who killed Calum McAllister's chicken-- a description that probably translates into a single word in Gaelic" (93-94).

Apparently, the smallness of the island provides a type of community that is alien to us city folk. In this situation, 'gossip' seems to take on an inoffensive, or at least ironic, gleam. McPhee seems mildly amused but reverent. What, if anything, can we conclude McPhee wants us to believe about this community based on the event as he describes it?

In this book, there is a lots of discussion (implicit and explicit) about the hierarchy of different peoples's spoken language. How are we expected to assume that this hierarchy fits into issues of class and anscestry? How does his comment about the tendency for Gaelic to have a name for even the most obscure of phenomena tie into these themes? What does it indicate about McPhee's attitude toward the language and the people (bearing in mind that it may be presumptuous to assume that language provides us information about its speakers)?


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April 2002