Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1773
The first chapter of Apalache has three sections. The first is a record of early explorers’ impressions of the land beyond the coast. The second, a listing of Indian names, functions as a response to the language and point of view of the explorers. The last is a description of the geological changes and formation of the area, a look backward at a time before man came upon the land.
The attitude of the early explorers of the Appalachian area is awe at the richness and beauty of the land. Metcalf frames the selections from travelers and explorers with his own titles, such as “it happens that the land is smelt before it is seen.” The recorded impressions are, for the most part, through the senses. The explorers smell, hear, see, and taste this new world “with unspeakable pleasure.” Metcalf adds lists to expand their general observations; “swete wooddes” are turned into “oaks, pines, juniper sassafras/ wooded to the brink of the sea.” One phrase seems to touch Metcalf deeply, for he repeats it a number of times here and later in the book; it describes the grapes meeting the sea, “as the very beating and surge of the sea ouerflowed them.” It is rhythmically beautiful (a very important aspect of the book, since Metcalf has spoken about bringing “music to literature”) and suggests the bounty and interrelatedness of the land. The section ends with the travelers looking forward to new wonders: “and what else we know not yet, because our daies are young.”
The next section, however, looks backward to what is being displaced by the coming of the white men. It is a list of Indian names and words arranged in lines that resemble poetry, and prose sections from observers who are recording their movement through these places and names. One of the last blocks seems to be a translation of an Indian poem; it speaks of a sacred place
where the sun shines outat the bushy placeat the place of mudfirst or oldest planted groundthe dancing place . . .
The last section is a description of the geological shaping of “appalachia:/ manufacture of rock. . . .” The lines are arranged, once more, like poetry; in this wedding of science and poetry, lists are most prominent, and everything is active, altering and changing, creating the new land: “with the final retreat of ice, the seed fell and grew in ground/ rock, rock flour. . . .”
The first section in the next chapter, “The Feare in Ye Buttocks,” contrasts a rather distant and indifferent exploration of America with the more direct experience of the French who lived with the Indians in Canada. John Cabot’s narrative stresses the hardships of the voyage and the wonders that were seen, including a mermaid. Yet he and his fellow adventurers sail by and merely observe the land. The contrasting narrative, taken from Louis Jolliet, Jacques Cartier, and the Jesuits, documents the life of the Indians: their food, customs, and rituals. Sharing the lives of the Indians was difficult, and it violated all European customs. At one point, an Indian cabin is called a “miniature picture of Hell.” At the end of the second section, however, Metcalf cites an observation by one of the French: “Friends, I must confesse I loved those poore people entirely well. . . .” Cabot’s heirs would have very different feelings toward the native inhabitants and would treat them more harshly.
“South” connects the histories of William Blackstone and Roger Williams. Both Blackstone and Williams were forced to go south of the established Puritan theocracy in Massachusetts; the reasons for their flights, however, were very different. Williams was banished from Massachusetts by a court that disapproved of his teachings and attitude. Williams had argued against the king’s authority and held that the “churches of England [were] antichristian.” In the winter of 1634, he was banished and took up habitation with the Indians in what is now Rhode Island. His experiences with the Indians were very different from his treatment by the Puritans of Massachusetts. Williams found that the land of Rhode Island “was obtained by love” from Chief Canonicus, though “not price nor money . . . could have purchased” it. Blackstone was not banished, but chose to go to Rhode Island after the Puritans attempted to take over his land. He claimed that he had left England because he did not like the “lord-bishops” and that he was not now going to submit to the “lord-brethren.” In addition, Blackstone considered the British claim to the land, a claim that rested on Cabot’s having sailed by, dubious and unsupportable. Metcalf also contrasts the scholarly and open attitude of Blackstone and Williams to the closed minds of the Puritans. Williams claimed that the “Key” to “bring that mighty Continent of America to light” was a knowledge of Indian languages. That knowledge would enable Europeans to live with Indians in peace and understanding. Blackstone had an open-handed generosity; he is described riding a bull to Boston and “distributing fruits/ from his orchard/ to children on the way. . . .”
“Telemaque” is an intriguing web of connections between a slave named Telemaque, Homer’s Telemachus in the Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.), a slave conspiracy at Charleston, South Carolina, in the early nineteenth century, and an imagined or contrived black uprising in the 1960’s. These interwoven tales constitute another example of the reverberations mentioned in the epigraph. The documents relating the tale of the slave Telemaque (who was later freed and given the name Denmark Vesey by his master) and the story of Robert Williams are placed side by side in the book. Vesey’s plot for an uprising is depicted as a noble and just one through the parallels drawn with Telemachus’ resistance to the suitors who are illegitimately occupying his home. Vesey managed to get most of the blacks in his area involved in plans for a rebellion; those plans were compromised by another black man, and, although Vesey sent word to prevent the rebellion, 131 conspirators were arrested, thirty-five hanged, and thirty-two banished. The fears generated by this uprising certainly figured in the invented conspiracy in Monroe, North Carolina, in 1961. Some whites came to Monroe to help in the Civil Rights movement and stayed at the home of Robert Williams, a black leader. His home was soon raided, and a dubious discovery of an arsenal of weapons was duly reported in the newspapers cited by Metcalf. Williams’ flight to Cuba to escape unjust prosecution is contrasted to the rewards gained by the blacks who informed on Vesey and his followers: emancipation and the promise of fifty dollars a year.
“Okefenokee,” the shortest chapter in the book, puns on the name of an Okefenokee pioneer’s son, Hard Thrift, who cut down cypresses in the swamp. Metcalf places one word on each page to declare : “Hard Thrift logged the trembling earth.” Apalache is, in many ways, a hymn to the land and a lamentation over its devastation. What the Indians revered, European greed and thrift demolished.
“Shick Shock” considers the Indian migration away from the glaciers to a settlement in North America and the discovery of the New World by the Vikings. The Indian migration began in Siberia and extended to the lower Mississippi and the eastern United States. The motive was to escape the glaciers and the extinction of their food supply. One tribe finally reached the Hudson River valley, an area that reminded them of “the tidal ocean of their nativity.” In contrast to this search for a home, the Viking voyages were for adventure or simply to find new lands. In contrast to the Native Americans, Bjarni Herjolfsson, the first explorer, thought the land worthless and did not bother to explore it. Shifting point of view, Metcalf shows that the Indians noted the sudden appearance of the white man: “persons floating in from the east: the Whites were coming.” Later, Leif Eriksson came upon the fertile new land of America with its vines touching the sea and gave it the name “Vinland.” The white man’s coming, however, meant the end of a way of life.
“Cocoanut Indians” contains one of the most interesting and surprising juxtapositions in the book. Metcalf connects the story of the Swamp War of 1675 with the Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston in 1942. In the battle of 1675, after a “renegade Indian” led white men to the spot, Indian dwellings were set on fire by the “Army of the United Colonies,” and “women and children (no man knoweth how many hundreds of them) were burnt to death.” Nearly three hundred years later, very near the site of the inferno of 1675, hundreds were killed in a fire that swept a Boston nightclub. In each case, the exit was blocked, the bodies piled up in huge mounds as panic-stricken people attempted to escape the fire. The Cocoanut Grove had many more patrons that evening than the fire laws allowed, and hoards of illegal whiskey with no tax stamp on the bottles were discovered later. In contrast, the Indians were in their natural, communal habitat when they were destroyed.
The last chapter of Apalache is titled “Beothuk,” the name of a tribe of Indians that flourished until the late eighteenth century. The first section is a poetic-scientific description of the shaping of the “pangaea, the one land” into separate and identifiable parts. In this process, “afroappalachia” becomes the land of “appalachia.” The process of change continues in Metcalf’s description of the population of Sable Island, west of Cape Breton. English rabbits were brought in but were killed by rats from wrecked ships, so cats were brought in to kill the rats; later, dogs were brought back to kill the now-feral cats, rabbits were brought back, and finally imported foxes “destroyed both rabbits and cats.” It is a perfect encapsulation of Metcalf’s vision of the interrelatedness of things.
The last contrast of the chapter deals with the savage treatment that Henry Hudson received from his men, who abandoned him in a small boat in Hudson’s bay. The Beothuk Indians were also having a difficult time of it, caught between the enmity of other tribes and the incursions of the white man. No one knows what happened to Hudson and his small party, and no one knows what happened to the Beothuk Indians. Their enemies, the Micmacs,
thought them witches;they could raisea fog,through which to escape.
Metcalf ends the book with this account of the disappearance of some of the original inhabitants of the land; the shock of this event is alleviated by its having been placed in the realm of myth and mystery rather than fact and certainty.
Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 119
Butterick, George. “Paul Metcalf and the Documentary Narrative,” in The Review of Contemporary Fiction. I (Summer, 1981), pp. 256-264.
Campbell, Andrew. “Paul Metcalf, Geology, and the Dynamics of Place,” in Sagetrieb. V ( Winter, 1986), pp. 87-110.
DeFanti, Charles. “The Thrill of Choosing: Paul Metcalf and the Power of Not-So-Blackness,” in The Review of Contemporary Fiction. I (Summer, 1981), pp. 310-312.
Grossinger, Richard. “Notes from a Festschrift on Paul Metcalf,” in The Review of Contemporary Fiction. I (Summer, 1981), pp. 265-273.
Lewis, Harry. “Paul Metcalf Delivers the News,” in The Review of Contemporary Fiction. I (Summer, 1981), pp. 308-310.
Metcalf, Paul. Interview by John O’Brien, in The Review of Contemporary Fiction. I (Summer, 1981), pp. 237-255.
Metz, Roberta. Review in Library Journal. CI (December 15, 1976), p. 2582.
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