Apalache Analysis
by Paul Metcalf

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Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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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...

(The entire section is 1,892 words.)