Introduction

What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Ben McGrath is not like a piece by Jill Lepore, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Goodyear, or Filkins for Khatchadourian, or Bilger for Paumgarten. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Robert Macfarlane on John McPhee's "Sunset" Description


In an interesting piece in the current issue of Granta, Robert Macfarlane compares three “sunset” descriptions, one of which is from John McPhee’s “The Encircled River” (The New Yorker, April 25 & May 2, 1977; Book I in his great Coming into the Country, 1977). Here’s the description:

The air was cool now, nearing fifty . . . We sat around the campfire for at least another hour. We talked of rain and kestrels, oil and antlers, the height and the headwaters of the river. In the night the air and the river balanced out, and both were forty-six at seven in the morning.

Macfarlane comments,

Then there is McPhee’s sunset – in which the sun doesn’t feature at all, eclipsed from the scene as it is by facts. McPhee’s prose here concerns balance, and is balanced: note how carefully those three pairs of nouns match each other (singular noun, plural noun; rain, oil, height; kestrels, antlers, headwaters), preparing for the equalized temperature relationship of air and river at exactly “seven in the morning.” McPhee – a New Yorker staff writer for more than half a century – is a man committed to accuracy and to metrics. Coming into the Country, like his other books, carries an astonishing density of detail: his non-fiction, as David Remnick has observed, emulates the “freedom” of fiction but not its “license.”

Macfarlane’s noticing how “those three pairs of nouns match each other (singular noun, plural noun; rain, oil, height; kestrels, antlers, headwaters), preparing for the equalized temperature relationship of air and river” is superb. McPhee’s prose enacts the balance he describes. But I question Macfarlane’s suggestion that McPhee is, in this passage, describing a sunset. Maybe McPhee is implying one, but even that, for me, is a stretch.

It should also be noted that Macfarlane’s “sunset” quotation isn’t entirely accurate. It’s actually a merger of four sentences from three separate paragraphs. The middle two lines belong together; the first and last are grafts.

But Macfarlane’s larger point, that Coming into the Country is a landmark travel book, “an intricately patterned enquiry into America’s relationship with the idea of wilderness, braced by an awesome integrity of observation,” is incontrovertible.

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