The Pine Barrens Essay - Critical Context

John McPhee

Critical Context

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.