Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

John McPhee is one of the most accomplished and respected prose artists writing in English. The Pine Barrens is perhaps his most well-known work, and in many respects it exhibits to best advantage the salient characteristics of all of his writing. First, the subject is a modest one for an essay: McPhee does not choose for his subjects the famous, the newsworthy, the popular, or the attractive. Instead, he writes about the places, people, and events that lie just below the level of popular consciousness, and he writes about them in a way that affords the reader a look beneath the superficial.

McPhee’s canon includes works about a headmaster at a small New England private school, a basketball player, a chef, the state of Alaska, a tennis player, and oranges. In each case, the reader is first amazed that whole books are dedicated to these seemingly unassuming subjects and then astonished that upon completion of the work a significant amount of knowledge about the subject has been painlessly learned because of McPhee’s impressive and lucid prose.

In The Pine Barrens, the subject is a geographic and ecological area of the state of New Jersey. As a place, the Pine Barrens are practically invisible, but under McPhee’s close scrutiny and tender handling, they become a complete world, a fragile, balanced, human ecological system. The subject is large, but McPhee encompasses it with his prose, making it understandable and...

(The entire section is 472 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Clark, Joanne K. “The Writings of John Angus McPhee: A Selected Bibliography,” in Bulletin of Bibliography. XXXVIII (January-March, 1981), pp. 45-51.

Gillespie, Angus K. “A Wilderness in the Megalopolis: Foodways in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey,” in Ethnic and Regional Foodways in the United States: The Performance of Group Identity, 1984. Edited by Linda K. Brown.

Lawrence, Sally. “Structure and Definition: Keys to John McPhee’s Style,” in Technical Communication. XXXIV (November, 1987), p. 296.

Miers, E.S. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXXIII (May 12, 1968), p. 18.

Natural History. Review. LXXVII (August, 1968), p. 80.