Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Coming into the Country is divided into three sections, arranged to provide different perspectives on the history of Alaska and on what it was like during the early 1970’s. This was a time of great change for the largest and least populous state of the United States. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (1971) had brought an end to homesteading, and even in the most thinly populated areas of the state there was little or no land available for potential settlers; the state was in the process of deciding which areas of federal land it would take as part of the statehood agreement, millions of acres were being reserved for possible designation as wilderness areas, and the native entities had yet to delineate the territories which would, in part, settle their claims.

At the same time, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was in the early stages of operation, bringing not only great new wealth to the state but also new cultural and economic problems. There was a strong initiative to move the state capital from Juneau to a site nearer to the population centers of Anchorage and Fairbanks. Finally, there was a continuing struggle between those who would develop Alaska’s resources and those who wished to conserve those resources and preserve much of the state’s unspoiled wilderness.

McPhee’s three essays record his experiences in the state and suggest how the state’s problems affect individuals in many parts of the region. In the first essay, he joins a group of three men who are surveying the Salmon River. A little-known stream in the magnificent Brooks Range, entirely north of the Arctic Circle, it has great power and beauty; the men are government functionaries who are to evaluate the Salmon’s potential for designation as part of a wilderness area. This essay has a dual focus. On one hand, it describes the journey the men make down the river, suggesting the ruggedness of such trips and the dangers involved, which range from hypothermia and encounters with unpredictable bears to faulty equipment and errors in estimating distances; any of these could be lethal. On the other hand, McPhee conveys the vastness and power of the landscape, the variety of wildlife which inhabits it, and the relative weakness of the humans who find themselves in...

(The entire section is 928 words.)

Coming into the Country Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Core, George. “The Eloquence of Fact,” in The Virginia Quarterly Review. LIV (Autumn, 1978), pp. 733-741.

DeMott, Benjamin. “Two Reporters: At Peace and War,” in The Atlantic Monthly. CCXIV (January, 1978), pp. 91-93.

Hoagland, Edward. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXII (November 27, 1977), p. 1.

Johnson, Diane. “Ah, Wilderness: Texas and Alaska with Kramer and McPhee,” in Terrorists and Novelists, 1982.

Weber, Ronald. “Letting Subjects Grow: Literary Nonfiction from The New Yorker,” in The Antioch Review. XXXVI (Fall, 1978), pp. 486-499.