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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 431

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Coming into the Country is a work of nonfiction by John McPhee and first published in 1977. The book is written in three parts and is comprised of notes from four trips to Alaska that McPhee took between the years 1975 and 1977. In Coming into the Country, McPhee travels through many parts of the state with Alaskan bush pilots, prospectors, and inhabitants living off of the land. McPhee also writes of businessmen and politicians that inhabit the more urban parts of the state. As John McPhee was living in New Jersey and initially a writer for The New Yorker magazine, the three parts of the book were first published in The New Yorker before being compiled into a finished book. The three parts of the book are entitled “At the Northern Tree Line: The Encircled River," "In Urban Alaska: What They Were Hunting For," and "In the Bush: Coming into the Country."

The book draws portraits of many inhabitants of Alaska in the late 1970s and, through these portraits, draws a larger conclusion as to what Alaska represents as a symbol. McPhee talks with one young prospector in the Yukon toward the end of the book and quotes the prospector as saying,

In the society as a whole, there is an elemental need for a frontier outlet, for a pioneer place to go—important even to those who do not go there. People are mentioning outer space as, in this respect, all we have left. All we have left is Alaska, which on the individual level, and by virtue of its climate, will always screen its own and will not be overrun.

The prospector’s view of Alaska mirrors many other Alaskans’ feelings about the state they live in, which at the book's point in American history was less than twenty years old. Alaska is a state that in many ways represents the last frontier of the Americas. The nature of Alaska’s terrain, its climate and overall ecosystem, make conquering Alaska in a similar way to the continental United States impossible. In a similar way to Thoreau’s Walden and Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, John McPhee's Coming into the Country shows the virtue and the difficulty in exploring the last frontiers. It shows the difficulty and grit required to live deliberately off of the land. The book draws a stark contrast between the larger society of the continental United States and the people and environment of Alaska. Coming into the Country is a true portrait of this “last frontier” and the people who decided to be a part of it.

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 928

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 it.

The second essay, centering on an airplane and helicopter tour in the southern part of the state, delves further into the politics of Alaska. The group whose trip McPhee records is examining possible sites for a new state capital. A referendum has approved moving the site of state government from Juneau, in the far southeastern part of the state, and the search for a new location is centered on the population-rich areas, including Anchorage and Fairbanks. The committee reflects the tensions between those who want to leave the capital in Juneau—either to preserve Juneau’s source of income, to avoid spending a huge sum of money, or to keep the politicians isolated there—and those who favor the move. Involved in the decision is disagreement over finances: Will the oil reserve of Prudhoe Bay continue to fund the state’s economy and thus make the expense of a new capital bearable, or is the boom temporary, fueling a foolish willingness to spend money that will not be available? Again, as in the first essay, the beauty of Alaska’s wilderness dominates McPhee’s descriptions.

The third essay, making up about half of the book, consists mainly of vignettes of individuals living in the town of Eagle. Situated on the Yukon River, not far from the Canadian border, the town was the first to be chartered in the Alaskan interior, a center of commerce during the gold rush days, and the present home of a variety of Alaskans. There are Indians living a short distance from the town, getting little notice from the whites, a situation symbolic of the social stratification of the entire state, where Aleuts, Eskimo, and other American Indians seldom enter the consciousness of whites except to incur resentment over the native population’s claims to vast areas of land. Waiting for the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act to have its effect is blamed by many of the whites for the end of homesteading and the unavailability of land for house building, mining, and other pursuits.

McPhee maintains strict objectivity in his portraits of the residents of Eagle. Most of them “came into the country” to escape what they regarded as the negative aspects of life in the lower forty-eight: the threat of socialization, crowding, emphasis on wealth and conspicuous consumerism, and bureaucracy. Some of them are Fundamentalists who for a time dominated the town and its politics and who resent the newer arrivals, who have supplanted them in some of the public offices.

Some of the residents live a kind of suburban life, never venturing into the surrounding wilderness, while others spend much of the year hunting, trapping, or mining, enduring dangers and discomfort to earn a meager living. Since Eagle is still a small town, isolated for much of the year, bitter feuds erupt. As some of the vignettes show, there is plenty of gossip and resentment among the residents of Eagle; having little else to talk about, they talk about one another. As in the other essays, however, McPhee never permits the reader to forget that these people live in a setting of surpassing beauty, that to do so they must accept continual hardships and dangers, and that many of them survive only because of amazing ingenuity and courage.


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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 78

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.