McPhee's Sensitivity and Lawrence's Savagery

Nathan Deuel, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

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In Etruscan Places and The Crofter and The Laird two men write about two countries. Compare McPhee's interaction with Scotland to Lawrence's with Italy.

First, McPhee:

At home, the McNeills waste nothing. When their old steel teapot develops a leak, Donald plugs up the teapot and looks inside. The points of fourteen screws intruded (32).

Then, Lawrence:

By this time, we and our desire for candles had become a feature in the landscape. I said to Luigi, why didn't we ask the peasants He said they hadn't any. Fortunately at that moment an unwashed woman appeared at an upper window in the black wall. I asked her if she couldn't sell us a candle. She retired to think about I -- then came back to say, surlily, it would be sixty centimes. I threw her a lira, and she dropped a candle. So! (90).

Both men concern themselves with races of men. Both stories document a writer's attempt to make sense of the modern condition of older cultures. Note two different conclusions. McPhee offers a spare conclusion: "One associates with one's ancestors at one's risk. I will never again be able to look a MacMillan in the eye" (159). Lawrence expounds:

Why, oh why, wasn't the tomb left intact as it was found, where it was found? The garden of the Florence museum is vastly instructive, if you want object-lessons about the Etruscans. But who wants object lessons about vanished races? What one wants is a contact. The Etruscans are not a theory or a thesis. If they are anything, they are an experience (114).

Neither travel story -- McPhee's published as a short book and Lawrence's included as part of a longer collection -- seems to require maps to enhance credibility and tangibility. McPhee is the more sensitive reporter and Lawrence is a savage exaggerator. Both writers have problems, but which convinces better and why? Of note: New Yorker staff writer McPhee wrote the story for the magazine in 1967, while sickly Lawrence wrote in 1934.

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April 2002