METCALF, PAUL [CUTHBERT] - American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

METCALF, PAUL [CUTHBERT] (1917-1999). Since his three-volume Collected Works was published (1996-1998), Paul Metcalf’s writings are widely available. He is probably best understood as a member of the Black Mountain group; although he never attended that experimental North Carolina college, his early work was printed by the Black Mountaineer Jonathan Williams at Jargon Press. Most important, Metcalf was profoundly influenced by the group’s dominant figure, Charles Olson.* Living near the college in the early 1950s, Metcalf had contact with Olson and others and also spent time on campus. But his most important connection with Olson was Herman Melville*: Metcalf was his great-grandson, and his parents, especially his mother, Eleanor Melville Metcalf, had been generous to Olson in his scholarly pursuit of Melville from the time he was a graduate student at Harvard.

The Melville influence is most evident and successful in Genoa (1965), an Olson-esque pastiche and montage drawing on Melville biography, family history, and writing, particularly Moby-Dick* (1851), as well as historical documents concerning Christopher Columbus’* voyages and discoveries. Here and elsewhere in the Metcalf canon there are rich allusions to other Olson concerns, such as Mayan civilization. Parts of The Middle Passage (1976) are stunning, for example, that on the killer whale Orca. Especially memorable is the epic and musical description of whale copulation, presented in stirring, graphic, and ecologically poetic language. Whales generally and Moby Dick specifically are depicted in The Wonderful White Whale of Kansas (1997), in which Melville’s Captains Ahab* and Vere (of Billy Budd* [1924]) are presented as Wizard of Oz-like manipulators of men.

On their own, not as merely those of Melville’s descendant, Metcalf’s sea writings (and others) offer fertile and easily accessible grounds for research and criticism.

Donald Yannella