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 Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

John McPhee's "The Crofter and the Laird"

Recently, I went to Scotland to do some cycling. I took John McPhee’s The Crofter and the Laird (1970) with me. I chose it because (1) it’s about Scotland, albeit a remote part of the country not on my itinerary; (2) it’s one of the few McPhee books I haven’t read; and (3) it’s physically lightweight and, therefore, easy to carry in my bike bag.    

The book, which originally appeared in The New Yorker (December 6 & 13, 1969), proved to be an excellent companion. It’s a portrait of Colonsay, “a small island in the open Atlantic, twenty-five miles west of the Scottish mainland,” and a number of its residents, including crofter Donald Gibbie McNeill, who has tenure of a hundred-and-forty-one acre farm, and laird Euan Howard, the Fourth Baron Strathcona and Mount Royal, who owns the island. McPhee calls the crofter-laird relationship “the grand anachronism of the Highlands.”

The Crofter and the Laird contains an abundance of information about Hebridean clan history and clan legends. But, for me, the most engaging parts are McPhee’s descriptions of his own personal experiences on Colonsay. For example: accompanying Donald Gibbie on a lobster-catching excursion (“But suddenly out into the sunlight – hanging onto the wire and snapping at it like a fence cutter – came several pounds of glistening, mottled, dark blue-green lobster, in shape and appearance identical to the most expensive creature in Penobscot Bay”); starting a fire in the kitchen stove (“In the early mornings, I go outside and break up the coal with an axe”); helping the laird prepare his launch for use by a group of marine biologists (“The launch is perhaps twenty-five feet long, has a large rust-covered inboard engine, and appears to be planted in the shed, an inertia of tons”).

At times, what’s described in the book matched what I saw on the bike trail. For instance, one day, traveling the West Loch Lomond Cycle Path, I spotted two highland cows in a field next to the trail. I saw them through McPhee’s eyes: “wooly mammoths, gigantic Saint Bernards, slow-moving hair-farms.”

Sipping a delicious decaf latte at Berkmyre Café in Kilmacolm, I thought of Donald Garvard, in The Crofter and the Laird, “stirring mayonnaise into his coffee.” Everywhere I went, I saw the “profusion of rhododendron” mentioned in the book – frothy purple rhododendron blossoms spilling over the tops of ancient stonewalls bordering the bike paths.  

In Edinburgh, I attended the Joan Eardley exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. The show was called “Joan Eardley: A Sense of Place.” It featured, among other works, Eardley’s great Catterline in Winter (1963). It got me thinking about evocation of landscape and the various narrative techniques McPhee uses in The Crofter and the Laird to convey a sense of Colonsay, e.g., perspective, detail, quotation, anecdote. Of these four, detail, for me, is the clincher. McPhee has a superb eye for detail. In The Crofter and the Laird, he notices the color of a peddler’s purse (“He opens the draw-string of a pale-blue woolen moneybag, puts the two coins inside, and draws the string shut”) and the type of band that the laird uses to fix his launch’s engine (“He rummages for a Jubilee clip”). Telling the story of the laird’s great-grandfather, Donald Smith, driving the last spike in the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, he mentions that the spike is “now on Colonsay, in a small showcase in the laird’s house.” It’s an interesting particular, and most writers would be content to leave it at that. But McPhee goes further. He says, “And there is a groove in it where iron has been removed so that bits of the spike could be set among the diamonds in the brooches of various Strathcona women.” That level of detail enlivens the book throughout. I enjoyed it immensely.  

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