McPhee and His Lists
Michael A. Talis, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002
The authors of this semester's texts have used any number of methods to
establish themselves as trustworthy voices in their writing. Some have
argued the case at the outset of a speech while others have been more subtle
about it. Many in our class would say that John McPhee, with his
soft-spoken and even-handed approach to writing, belongs to the latter
group. But, as we examine McPhee's frequent use of lists throughout
Almost every rise of ground, every beach, field, cliff, gully, cave, and skerry has a name. There are 138 people on Colonsay, and nearly 1600 place names. In the time of the chiefs and before the age of formal crofting, men used to climb hills in the spring and decide who, this year, would use what pieces of ground, and where, at the water's edge, they would fish. Their eye for minor landmarks became acute -- Murach Mor (the Big Bent-Cvered Hillock), Aodann Mor Thurnigil (the Big Rock Face at Twisting Gully), Tean-ga na Dubhaird (the Tongue of the Black Cape) . . . [54-55, list continues almost two full pages]
A few questions...
- What is the purpose of providing the reader with such lists?
- What, if any, added benefit is there for the reader from such lengthy
lists? How does this technique compare to that of other authors we've
read -- that is, those who authenticate their material with insider terms but
do it without lists or in fewer words? Take Wolfe, for instance, in the
Pump House Gang:
Maybe the "mysterioso" stuff is a lot of garbage, but still, it is interesting. The surfers around the Pump House use that word, mysterioso, quite a lot. It refers to the mystery of the Oh Mighty Hulking Pacific Ocean and everything. Sometimes a guy will stare at the surf and say, "Mysterioso." They keep telling the story of Bob Simmons' wipeout, and somebody will say "mysterioso." (27)
- Professor Landow has alluded to the fact that McPhee is skilled in constructing the order of these types of lists. What method do you think McPhee might be employing? Were you to incorporate this list-style into your own writing, how would you approach its construction?