The Pine Barrens

by John McPhee

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 472

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 fascinating. Categories can be deceiving. The Pine Barrens is literally a book about some woods and the people who live in them. This is an alluring place, but few readers have the wherewithal to realize this fascination, even if the opportunity to visit and explore the place were available. McPhee does the work for his readers.

The book is a single long essay divided into nine chapters, each one of which could serve as a finished work. In effect, the nine essays offer a survey of the natural world of the Pine Barrens, the history of the area, an examination of its people and their customs, the wildlife of the barrens, and a glimpse of several possible futures for the area. This book is not, however, an ecological tract or (at least not overtly) a plea for a particular method of management or preservation. Nor is it a technical or scientific description of a landscape. To the contrary, McPhee’s singular talent is the ability to condense scientific data and concepts—as well as his own observations—into prose that not only is accessible but also gives the reader an appreciation of the scope and size of the subject. All the subjects McPhee writes about are “bigger” than they first appear. His task, admirably performed, is to convince one of that fact. McPhee can make anything interesting. One need only trust him.


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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 92

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.

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