Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 660
In Apalache, Paul Metcalf attempts to re-create North American history in a sweeping epic style. One of the techniques that Metcalf uses to create that epic is to show the interaction of the past and the present. In his book’s epigraph, Metcalf quotes Ken Kesey on the processes of change: “. . . the reverberation often exceeds through silence the sound that sets it off; the reaction occasionally outdoes by way of repose the event that stimulated it; and the past not uncommonly takes a while to happen. . . .” The reverberations that Metcalf traces in this book range from the long, natural epochs of prehistory, through the extended migrations of the Indians, to the relatively short and destructive era of the white man in America. The book might be called a revision and a restructuring of American history in the broadest manner possible, as it traces the reverberations of one event and one people upon another.
The book has an impressive historical span, and Metcalf uses a combination of history, journals, scientific texts, newspaper articles, myths, and poetry to create an encyclopedic vision of the land of Apalache and its people. He uses a factual or documentary rather than a traditional fictional or poetic method; he uses historical records, pamphlets, and documents rather than speaking in his own voice, but the result is no less imaginative. Metcalf includes an extensive bibliography of the sources he uses in each chapter; most of the books and pamphlets he cites seem to be from the nineteenth century. It is clear that he prefers these earlier voices to modern “objective,” and therefore unimaginative, versions of that history. The work might be called a pastiche, except for Metcalf’s cunning selection, arrangement, and juxtaposition of his materials. He is constantly setting one text against another in the book, placing a later text next to an earlier one, a process that results in a rich intertextual creation. In addition, Metcalf rearranges his material into different blocks of print; sometimes they are arranged as lines of poetry, sometimes they are italicized. The sections of each chapter continually comment on one another, and each chapter reflects on the previous ones. Thus, readers need to come to this book free of the usual expectations. They will not find a direct authorial voice, nor will they find footnotes or other apparatus to indicate the specific sources that Metcalf has used. The text speaks for itself.
A primary theme of Metcalf’s book is his evocation of a North American Eden and its subsequent decline. This Eden is seen in many guises: in the sensuous apprehension of the New World, in the processes of natural change, and in the life of a people who were at one with the land they inhabited. The threats to that Eden can be seen early in the book, when Metcalf quotes from the awestruck reports of the first white explorers of the Appalachian area from Maine to Virginia. Despite their admiration of the land, their coming was to bring about a fundamental displacement, and Metcalf evokes this change in its most elemental form by listing the Indian words for things and places that were to be extinguished. Other and more brutal examples are given in the book, but none so complete.
Another major theme of Apalache is the contrast between the civilized and the savage. Metcalf records the observations and claims of the white “civilized” settlers and contrasts them to the actions and words of the “savage” Indians. The actions of the white men toward the Indians and toward one another are truly civilized only when they are in tune with nature; yet the only ones who seem consistently connected to nature are the Indians who were rapidly being displaced. Roger Williams of Rhode Island, for example, finds more kindness at the hands of the Indians than in his fellow settlers. Left to their own devices, the white settlers are inevitably destructive of the land and other people.
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