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 Pine Barrens provides these components in abundance, but there is also the writer’s method to consider; thus, any analysis is not a matter of interpretation but is primarily an appreciation of McPhee’s skill as a writer and an organizer. The book begins with a literal overview. Almost cinematically, McPhee positions the Pine Barrens geographically and socially. The most impressive aspect of his discussion in the first chapter, “The Woods from Hog Wallow,” is the very presence of this wilderness in a state that has become an archetype of industrial development and residential density. McPhee is careful to expand the view to include the additional irony of finding this area in the center of the Eastern megalopolis that stretches from Richmond to Boston. It is a most unlikely place for the Pine Barrens, but the Pine Barrens is a most unlikely place.
After this sweeping overview, McPhee zeros in first on the town of Hog Wallow and then on an individual who will remain as a “guide” to what the Pine Barrens is and what it means. Fred Brown, offered by the writer as the prototypical denizen of the pines, is allowed to speak and act, without the narrator interrupting the action. Indeed, the narrator’s presence is noted only when he wishes it.
The first example of McPhee’s shifts from close observation back to expansive comment is worthy of close examination. Upon leaving Fred Brown’s house to get water from the pump outside, McPhee leaves Fred as a subject as well. When McPhee operates the pump, it is as if he were pulling knowledge from the ground. Just as surely as the water rises from the earth, he describes its quality, the natural reservoir from which it comes, and the condition of that source as compared to others in the country. The reader is moved far away from Fred’s house in the Pine Barrens and yet paradoxically remains there, because...
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McPhee’s work is rarely treated in a critical fashion, although he is almost universally respected as a skillful prose artist. This neglect may be the result of most of his books having been compilations of articles written for The New Yorker, the magazine for which McPhee is a staff writer. It is convenient to place McPhee in the upper echelon of popular writers who write well about mostly unfamiliar subjects.
The question remains: Why has not McPhee made the jump from writer to New Journalist and near artist, as have other nonfiction stylists, such as Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, and Norman Mailer? The reason is probably that McPhee takes up far less space in his own work than these other writers. The Pine Barrens is an excellent example of this phenomenon. The reader is never aware of an authorial presence in McPhee’s books; the emphasis is on subject not on writer as subject or on writer as stylist. McPhee has no interest in making his audience see the familiar in a different way; instead, he insists that the unfamiliar be seen as it is.
Such work is not readily convertible to art, even though it may have a profound effect on the reader. It is not evasive to suggest that McPhee escapes theories and interpretation for this reason: He is dedicated first to the reader, to whom he offers lucidity, experience, and immense descriptive skill; that is enough to satisfy the desires of most of his audience and is an enviable ability on any scale.