John McPhee's Credibility as an Author

Caroline Ang '04, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

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In his book The Crofter and the Laird, John McPhee introduces readers to life on the Scottish island of Colonsay. He acts as part anthropologist, eager to document life on this feudal island. He also acts as part historian, tracing his ancestors and their clan roots.

As a writer, McPhee is superb. His descriptions of the coastline and peasant lodgings are strikingly detailed, and his portraits of the islanders are presented realistically with a touch of humor. As readers, we are inclined to trust McPhee's renditions of life on Colonsay.

Consider the following passage on Andrew Oronsay and his skill in playing the bagpipes:

"As I turned the pages slowly, he hummed some of the tunes that went by, and the tunes he was humming were so sad, beautiful, lilting and melodic that I found myself wondering if, when these themes emerged from the great Highland bagpipes, Andrew could hear something that I could not. My ear is not a good one for the sound of the pipes. The possibility crossed my mind that there might be some congenital difference in the architecture of our ears..." (77)

Reading Questions:

1. Why do we believe McPhee? How does he establish his credibility as a writer? In the above passage, what is he doing to gain the reader's trust? Is it working?

2. What makes his descriptions (and sometimes character judgments) more believable than those in D.H. Lawrence's Twilight in Italy?

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April 2002