“Proposal: a series of regional research and cultural projects—attack each region—using students, locals, natives, whatever—and from every angle, every scholarly discipline, every mode of expression. In the end, for each region, produce a book, and an arts festival.”
U.S. Dept. of Interior, Paul Metcalf 1980
Embarking on a 10,000-word article on Metcalf yesterday, or today, and re-reading his first published work, Will West, you re-read that paragraph that gobsmacked you when you first read it & suppose to yourself that even though Will West is a rather inferior work of art it nevertheless contains what might be the most cogent and necessary formulation of Metcalf’s credo, manifesting itself in his subsequent body of work year after year:
It is those of us who cannot untangle ourselves from the past that are really dangerous in the present because we are only partly here our eyes are blind because our appetites are turned inward or backward chewing on the cold remnants of our inheritance of our facts of our history to try to find who we are what we are where we came from what is the ground we stand on to whom does it belong and did it belong. We are dangerous because when we come out of the past we are rich with its energies and poorly experienced in the business of daily living and we hurl ourselves across the present with the blind fierceness of a martyr or a convert defending our damage to the defenseless with a language they cannot understand a language created from false concepts of time of history of past present and future. In the end we will bring to the world nothing useful and although we may find what we have been and even what we are nevertheless for all our search the heavy helpless stumbling of men born in quicksand we will never know what we have done.
A chilling admonition, and timely as ever. Lest we be ignorant of our past or our country’s past. (Come to think of it, is this just a transparent gloss on Santayana’s old adage that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”? Damn.)
America’s frontier is endless, just as any other aspect of our past, our history, is endless, and endlessly available to us. – Paul Metcalf
Certain books enthrall us, set us on a quest to discover more — not just the author’s complete bibliography, but the author’s influences and acknowledged peers. I think of them as gateway writers. — W.G. Sebald was one for me; because of my total admiration for his books I sought out I don’t know how many authors he mentioned in their pages or in interviews – Jean Améry, Alexander von Humboldt, Thomas Bernhard (did I already know Bernhard?), Adelbert Stifter, Gottfried Keller… Later there was Joseph McElroy, whose essays and interviews opened the door to truly dozens of books I might not have discovered until much later, or ever: Nicholas Mosley, Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas, A.R. Ammons, Michel Butor’s Mobile and Degrees, Harold Brodkey, Galway Kinnell’s terrible Book of Nightmares, E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful, and last but certainly not least, PAUL METCALF.
In turn, the work of Metcalf came to occupy the same central place in my thoughts as Sebald’s & McElroy’s before, and Metcalf became a gateway author for me.
Why Metcalf? Metcalf’s work plunges us headlong into the history of the Americas in all its manifest plurality. Using sophisticated montage techniques and synthesizing reams of material, always with a poet’s ear, Metcalf constructs versions of the historical record that resound into the continuous present. (The past is not even past, to paraphrase Faulkner; indeed, Metcalf’s achievement is in part to have captured that immediacy.)
Metcalf’s landmark works include :
-Genoa, 1965. Metcalf’s early novel, written after he had systematically read through the entirety of Herman Melville’s work (Melville was in fact an ancestor of his), explores themes of teratology (monstruousness, and anatomical pathologies), genetics, seafaring, and the elusiveness of identity (in particular, those of Melville and Christopher Columbus).
-Patagoni, 1971. Part travelogue, part meditation on mobility across the American continent, via Henry Ford’s invention of the automobile and the native mythologies of Peru, this is as weird and wild as anything Metcalf published. It is segmented into three discontinuous sections. Beautifully published by The Jargon Society — see picture above.
-Apalache, 1976. A kaleidoscopic exploration of the geological and human history of eastern North America, Apalache might be the pinnacle of Metcalf’s œuvre. The book’s epic scope and its inventive visual prosody are unsurpassable, in my opinion.
-Waters of Potowmack, 1982. A documentary history of the Potomac River watershed, from its discovery and settlement on up to the 1960s, Waters of Potowmack eschews the irregular prosody so characteristic of much of Metcalf’s work, in favor of simple blocks of prose. What we have here is a chronological compendium of a place. In a similar vein is Mountaineers Are Always Free! (1991), Metcalf’s short history of West Virginia (recommended).
-Those are the big ones. But there are also a great many shorter works not to be missed, including Firebird, U.S. Dept. of Interior, Golden Delicious, and Both. And there are probably a dozen other short ones, in addition to The Middle Passage and I-57. More on these another time, perhaps.
Paul Metcalf as photographed by Jonathan Williams.
From the jacket of Metcalf’s Araminta and the Coyotes (Jargon Society, 1991).
Metcalf was never fashionable, come to think of it, although he did elicit the admiration of many of his peers, from Genoa (1965) onwards. I will be writing more about Metcalf, as I am writing an encyclopedia entry about his life & work. It’s going to take some time.
For those whose curiosity is piqued, here are some good links of freely available Metcalf. Anything I can to do to promote this man’s adventurous view of history, I will do. You’ll find some video footage of him jaunting about in Ohio, visiting Alex Gildzen, as well as a brief recording of him reading from Patagoni and Apalache.
One last word to the wise: Metcalf’s works can be found from used sellers in the U.S.A., often very cheap, sometimes in elegant first editions (see in particular Patagoni and Both, published by The Jargon Society), or very cheap indeed in the 3-volume Collected Works published by Coffee House Press in 1996-1997 ($8 for all 3 volumes + shipping, last time I looked). Also, a few of his books (The Middle Passage, Both, Araminta and the Coyotes) are available in 1st ed. new and sold by the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, who act now as the custodian of The Jargon Society’s remaining stock. (As for The Jargon Society, that’s a whole nother story.)
– Audio & images –
A selection of items from the Paul Metcalf archive, now in the possession of the New York Public Library. Some typewritten letters, photos, + lots more.
A four-minute video by Alex Gildzen, a friend & admirer of Metcalf’s, with home movie footage showing Metcalf gallivanting about in various locations over the years.
A recording of Paul Metcalf reading some of his work at a public reading in 1975. At about the 1 hr. mark, Metcalf reads “Darlington, South Carolina,” the opening section of his book Patagoni (1971); “Sable Island,” a section from Apalache (1976); and a very short poem called “Moby’s Brothel.”
– Interviews –
A long, in-depth 1981 interview with Metcalf by John O’Brien, publisher of Dalkey Archive.
1983 interview with George Myers, Jr. at Gargoyle Magazine.
– Miscellaneous –
Various bits about Metcalf, with some excerpts from From Quarry Road, over at Dan Visel’s blog, with hidden noise.
Various Metcalf discussion at John Latta’s blog, Isola di Rifiuti.
Metcalf’s obituary in the New York Times, after his death from a heart attack buying apples at a farmer’s market in 1999.
A 1999 eulogy of Metcalf and note on meeting Metcalf, by Allan Kornblum, founder of Coffee House Press, who published Metcalf’s complete works in 3 volumes.
A 1999 eulogy by Lucia Berlin, discussing a book project to which Metcalf contributed, Headlands: The Marin Coast at the Golden Gate.
A review by David McCooey of Metcalf’s 3-volume Collected Works.
Here is a page from Paul Metcalf’s Apalache (1976), to my mind one of the most beautiful books ever written. The work is available in vol 1 of Metcalf’s Collected Works, published by Coffee House Press, or alternately in an exceptionally handsome 1st edition from Turtle Island Foundation. (The page scan is from the latter.)