Why No Epiphanies?

Sarah Petrides, American Civilization Graduate Student, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

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When I began reading John McPhee's The Crofter and the Laird, I was sure the book was going to follow the usual return-to-one's-roots quest story. That's the one in which the descendent of immigrants returns to his or her ancestral land to connect with the past. There are a few conclusions that the voyager in this sort of tale typically makes. The first is, "Wow. I'm glad my ancestors left this place. It's a dead end and if we'd stayed here, we'd be poor and miserable." The second is, "Fantastic! Now that I understand where I came from, I have a new appreciation of my own homeland. Knowing where I came from will help me get where I want to go." McPhee does follow the pattern with respect to the first point: Colonsay Island is rapidly becoming a fiscal mess. Its tiny population, remote location, and bizarre feudal system make its economic longevity doubtful, a point acknowledged by crofter and laird alike. However, McPhee doesn't come to the second conclusion: that his trip was beneficial to his "real" American life. In fact, he concludes the book by humorously commenting, "One associates with one's ancestors at one's own risk. I will never again be able to look a MacMillan in the eye" (159). This is the epiphany reached after a year in the lands of one's forbears: a tinge of joking shame over a story that happened so far in the past as to be completely trivial, a story that most MacMillans have never heard anyway. Throughout McPhee's book, as in this instance, he seems to take an almost ambivalent attitude toward his trip into the past. Looking at the book's graveyard scene might help us tease out these ambivalences.

I had crossed to Oronsay as the tide was going out, and it was now time for me to leave. From his house, Andrew can tell by watching a certain point on the western shoreline how much time a visitor has before it is too late to recross The Strand to Balaromin Mor. He said he would give me a ride partway on his tractor, and asked if I would like to have a look inside the church and the cloisters before I left. The church was floored with turf and a ram was grazing there. Andrew said that it was generally thought that St. Columba had established the priory in the sixth century, and that most of the present structures had been built on the same site by John, Lord of the Isles, in the fourteenth. Grass grew deep in the cloisters, among three rows of triangular arches and one row of semicircular arches, serene and intact. As we were going out, Andrew bent over and picked up a human occipital bone. "One of yours, I expect," he said, and handed it to me. Holding it, I felt nothing more than, perhaps, an affectionate curiosity. Since that day, though, I have found that that moment in the cloister has not left my mind, and that the touch of the grasses, the wet cool of the air, and even the inscriptions on the arches--"Celestinus Canonicus Huius Operis"--are more distinct in memory than they seemed to be at the time. I set the occipital piece on a ledge in the cloister wall where there was a small pile of other human bones. "Tidying up a bit," Andrew said. "Yes, tidying up," I said, and we went to the tractor. (77-78)

This should be "the moment" -- that instance in which contact is powerfully made with the ancestral presence. Yet McPhee's initial reaction is merely "an affectionate curiosity," although he does clearly recall it later (apparently to his surprise). What's the significance of the initial reaction, and what's the significance of the later memory? Why the resolute avoidance, throughout the book, of any sharply drawn conclusions -- why no earthshaking sense of connection? What can we understand about McPhee's project of travel writing in comparison to others we may be familiar with?

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April 2002