Traveling to Recapture Onešs Past: Chatwin and McPhee

Abigail Metcalf (English 137, 1990)

Just as John McPhee travels to Scotland, the land of his ancestors, in The Crofter and the Laird, Chatwin goes to Patagonia to recover something of his past: he wants a replacement for the piece of supposed dinosaur skin that meant so much to him as a child, and he also wants to learn more about his uncle, Charlie Milward. He wants to see the land which stoked the fires of his childhood imagination and which he once deemed "the safest place on earth" (p. 3). Throughout the text, Chatwin uses personal details to convince the reader of the straightforwardness of his motives. When he comes to an old Indian trail, he honestly tells us that he had planned to come here, for he "had always wanted to walk the track" (p. 139). Since he always seems to reveal any previous intentions, the reader trusts that Chatwin has no secret agenda, and since his mission could be completed without developing the main theme of his book, Chatwin's personal revelations allay suspicions that he found only what he wanted to find.

Our belief in Chatwin's ability to see Patagonia better than could the average person grows as we gradually become aware of his innumerable personal contacts. Perhaps because of his uncle, or because of his position as a writer, he is able to move easily throughout the landscape in a variety of social situations. Like Joan Didion in The White Album, who appears to know everyone who was anyone in California during the sixties, Chatwin possesses sufficient charm and is enough of an insider to unearth the most deeply buried obscure characters and facts. He manages to track down the prince of Araucania and Patagonia in France and obtains an audience with him. Enabling him to uncover things that would take another decades to find, his social connections combine with his vast knowledge of the area and its history to grant Chatwin enormous credibility in the mind of the reader.

United Kingdom In Patagonia