(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Paul Metcalf is one of the undiscovered treasures of American literature in the second half of the twentieth century, and the publication of hisCollected Works by Coffee House Press is an occasion for rejoicing. This first volume, issued in the fall of 1996, will be followed by two more, the final volume planned for the fall of 1997 to coincide with Metcalf’s eightieth birthday.

Metcalf’s obscurity is not what is interesting about him—he should not be read because he is relatively unknown—but it is the necessary starting point. That which cannot be readily categorized is likely to be ignored, and it has been Metcalf’s fate to write in a form that eludes familiar labels. He is not a poet, although his literary “fathers” are Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Charles Olson. He is not a novelist, though he began his career by writing fiction. He is not a historian, though many of his books are largely assemblages of historical source-material. He is an artist of collage—but he notes that “collage” suggests a static image, whereas his texts unfold in time, with a narrative drive. He proposes the unhelpful term “narrative hieroglyph,” and compares his books to totem poles (see the essay “Totem Paul: A Self-Review,” inWhere Do You Put the Horse?, reviewed in Magill’s Literary Annual, 1987).

One of the virtues of this first volume is that it allows the reader to observe the development of Metcalf’s distinctive style. There’s an excitement, apart from the pleasures of the individual works gathered here, in seeing how a powerfully original artist discovered his medium. Few readers could have predicted from Metcalf’s first book, the novellaWill West (1956), the riches that lay ahead. Will West is Metcalf’s closest published approach to conventional fiction. (An earlier work, a conventional novel, “failed to move the hearts of New York editors,” Metcalf recalls.) The protagonist, Will West, is a young Cherokee Indian pitching in the minor leagues. He meets a white woman on a sunny, deserted beach, where they make love and frolic in the waves—and where, suddenly, Will chokes her to death. After the murder, he returns home briefly to his mother’s cabin in the Smokey Mountains, then—wounded by police—flees west. Intercut with this narrative are passages set in italics. At first these are stream-of-consciousness passages that open a window to Will’s thoughts, but as the novella proceeds these counterpoint sections are unidentified excerpts from historical texts, ranging from early Spanish encounters with Indians in America to scenes from the Civil War.

As a novella, Will West does not succeed. The interplay between the fictional narrative and the historical extracts seems contrived, and the fictional scenes, despite some local intensity, lack verisimilitude. There is a curious affinity between this book and the French nouveau roman, not a matter of influence but of imaginative convergence: like Alain Robbe-Grillet and Claude Simon, Metcalf displaces the attention of the reader accustomed to plot and character (there is a lot of attention to geography in Will West).

From Will West to Metcalf’s second book, Genoa: A Telling of Wonders, written in the 1950’s but not published until 1965, is an enormous jump. Metcalf’s most complex book and his best known (though still it has never had anything approaching a large readership), Genoa resemblesWill West to the extent that it combines a fictional narrative with extracts from other texts. Yet it is a far more audacious, more assured assemblage.

Three facts about Metcalf are essential background to Genoa. First, he is a great-grandson of Herman Melville, and he was reared in a home that became a shrine to the Melville revival, presided over by his mother, Eleanor Melville Metcalf. Growing up, Metcalf rebelled against all this, but ultimately (in part following the lead of Charles Olson) he reencountered Melville on his own terms. Second, Metcalf is an autodidact. He left Harvard in his first year there, and that—as he has proudly proclaimed—was the extent of his formal higher education. He is a prodigious reader who has acquired his knowledge independently, with the peculiar strengths and weaknesses of the self-taught (the latter outweighed by the former, but still to be noted). Third, he was an adept of Dianetics, the movement founded by L. Ron Hubbard and later transformed into Scientology. By that time, Metcalf has said, he had concluded that Hubbard was a con man, but he adds, “It is a truism that some of the most brilliant minds may be found in the heads of confidence men.” So while rejecting Hubbard’s promotion of Scientology as a quasi-religion, Metcalf retained from Dianetics “the notion that all memory is theoretically recoverable, from conception to the present,” and extended this from the case of the individual to all of human history.

And so Genoa is both an extraordinary meditation on the life and work of Herman Melville (especially on Christopher...

(The entire section is 2100 words.)