The Pine Barrens Critical Essays

John McPhee


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 1365 words.)