Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia is a notable addition to the genre of travel literature. Within this boundary the episodic book ranges freely, partaking of a number of other forms—adventure tales, dream histories, character sketches, short stories by Charley Milward, commentaries on literature inspired by the idea or the actuality of Patagonia, and imaginatively re-created historical accounts. These elements reflect Chatwin’s focus on the Patagonian people, but he is a skilled depicter of the Patagonian landscape as well. His presence on Annie Dillard’s “Natural History: An Annotated Checklist” confirms this ability.

The author’s absorption in the subject of Patagonia begins in childhood, with his longing for a reddish scrap of mylodon hair given to his grandmother by her cousin, Charley Milward the sailor. In Patagonia claims genesis in a quest for that lost piece of mylodon hide. Chatwin’s journey is roughly southward, a rambling voyage through Patagonia, a desert region divided between Chile and Argentina.

Approaching the Rio Negro, the traveler notes heat, drinking, dust, and small discords of the border region. The mixture of peoples—British, Scots, “Its,” Araucanian Indians—prefigures the complex microcosm he will encounter in the desert. Rio Negro astonishes with other contrasts, the bitter-leaved thorns of the desert juxtaposed to the settlement fruits and flowers. The narrator muses on Charles Darwin’s puzzlement over the desert’s magic spell, contrasting him with W.H. Hudson, so sure of its quiet source. This early episode conveys a whole series of the author’s interests—Patagonian unrest, microcosms, startling oppositions, literary antecedents.

A plethora of incidents and eccentric characters, too many to itemize, reinforce these and other concerns. From a wealth of colorful scenes, three sets of characters stand out. These figures grip Chatwin’s imagination most strongly: Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch; Patagonian anarchists, who rebel against estancia owners and other authorities; and Charley Milward, worldwide wanderer, purveyor of mylodon hair, captain, and entrepreneur.

In Cholila, near the Chilean frontier, Chatwin visits a decaying log cabin. Now the home of a poor family, the cabin is the starting point for an imaginary journey. Chatwin shows the reader a letter which proves to be from Butch Cassidy, one of the local bandoleros norteamericanos. This author pursues Cassidy through his Western career, portraying him as a revolutionary beloved of Mormon homesteaders, a young man who saw his natural foes as banks, railroads, and cattle companies. He recounts two well-known versions of Cassidy’s death, one the familiar account of a shoot-out in Bolivia, the other a Pinkerton Agency record in which Cassidy and the Sundance Kid die in a gunfight with Uruguayan police. He adds a further history in which they kidnap the young, disturbed patrician, Ramos Luis Otero; Otero escapes and the two are...

(The entire section is 1228 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Clemons, Walter. Review in Newsweek. XCII (July 17, 1978), p. 84.

Deas, Malcolm. “The Sands of the Deep South,” in The Times Literary Supplement. December 9, 1977, p. 1444.

Kramer, Hilton. “Patagonia Revisited,” in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIII (July 30, 1978), p. 3.

Reid, Alastair. “The Giant Ground Sloth and Other Wonders,” in The New Yorker. LIV (October 9, 1978), p. 186.

Richardson, Maurice. “Walkabout,” in New Statesman. XCIV (October 21, 1977), pp. 550-551.