McPhee’s work may not at first seem a proper subject of “literary” analysis. The Pine Barrens is nonfiction prose. In addition, it is not, at least at the level at which most people read it, rhetorical. There is no blatant effort to convince the reader to take a particular political position, no attempt at persuasion. McPhee is not literary, in the sense that he makes no effort to force the facts of his story to engage larger systems of thought or structure. On the other hand, the book is not mere journalism. The success or failure of The Pine Barrens does not depend on the objectivity of the narrator or on his reportorial skill. The reader does not judge this book as he would a work about current affairs, sociology, or history. There is no “theory” to be proved, applied, or demonstrated.
The closest approximation of what McPhee and his book are and do may be found in the world of travel writing. Here, the reader expects personal insight, demanding accuracy but tolerating interpretation of accurate description. The presence of a narrator is constantly felt, no matter how objective he may make himself. Historical background is accepted if it illuminates some aspect of the entire subject. Glimpses of people the writer offers are enjoyed, both as a community viewed from a distance and as individuals viewed in some detail. The reader practically demands the unusual, the fascinating, the exotic, and the new.
(The entire section is 1365 words.)
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