Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1323
If Patagoni defies convenient genre categorization, it does impose a familiar literary pattern upon its subject: tragedy. The American hemispheres Metcalf surveys in the twentieth century have nearly lost their grandeur, and Patagoni, juxtaposing the old glory and the new wastage like an archaeological dig, reveals that past masteries of Indian civilization and the shadow masteries of North American mechanized civilization. The contemporary Peru of Inca Cola and starving Indians, and the Detroit of the 1950’s, with its historical tours and vast, empty airports, are full of echoes for the historian, and Metcalf ponders what went wrong and what has been lost.
The problem with America, for Metcalf, is the white man’s presence. Through centuries the Indian developed his consciousness of dependence on his native earth. His religious rites bound his life to nature and daily reminded him in folklore and superstition of his subservience to the “great creature” on which he lived:the earth is a great creature, the rivers the bloodvessels, the earth turns one way and another, to warm itself at the sun . . . the first man mated with a gentle doe, and deerlike, generation by generation, the race of indians evolved . . . out of the phallus of the chief came the first maize, from his head gourds.
The Indian’s intelligence evolved in harmony with his location. His architecture was a continued projection of the energies of the living earth, as trees supported verandas and building stones slid seamlessly into union. A Castillian entering this homeland was dubbed a vagabond, his wandering an indication to the Indian that the earth had not borne him: “such as were bred of ye scum of the Sea, without any other Origen or Linage, . . . that you are ydle persons, and have not wherein to imploy your selves, because you abide in no place, to labour and till the ground.”
The white man ruined what the Indian so delicately constructed. Metcalf’s collage elements depict an alien white intelligence converting everything it found into raw materials for its own products, the foremost of which was movement in space. Carved Tihuanacuan stone and building blocks were crushed and used as fill for railroads. Timber for railroad ties was shipped from Oregon. Patagoni’s central theme is the incompatibility of the rooted agricultural red man and the rootless technological white man; yet, since Detroit workers today make abstract art from old tailpipes and crank-boxes, Metcalf also propounds the permanence of iconography. The explorer was moving too fast to see, but his spirit was not as alien to the Indian’s as his speed made it seem. This blind movement spelled tragedy for the white as well as the Indian.
Metcalf settles on Henry Ford as a luminous example of the white man enmeshed in the tragedy he created by his foraging. Metcalf’s section on Ford begins with a quotation from McGuffey’s Eclectic Fourth Reader, which in its instructions on how speakers ought to control the pronunciation of words bespeaks reliance on mechanistic control in a world where no regional past sustained the settler. Ford is such a rich symbol for Metcalf because he was the supreme mechanist while remaining nostalgic about nature. He simply lacked native viability, and could not really inhabit his Michigan birthland the way the Indian, thanks to the patrimony of shared vision with ancestors, could inhabit his. Asked by a lawyer during a libel trial what the United States had been originally, Ford responded, “land, I guess.” So much, Metcalf implies, for the “great creature” described in the “Tihuanacu” section, where the earth is shown in its redoubtable presence, the Amazon of South America, a place of titanic struggle: “waves beating from riveredge to riveredge, hour after hour, land and trees crashing, terra cahida, the roar of artillery.”
Ford, unawed by geography, knew how to harness it. He placed factories alongside rivers for power and transportation. Chemurgy promised a method for transposing New World abundance into whatever a designer might have in mind. Ford built a workshop and experimented with grains and vegetables. Rumors arose that he would “perhaps grow a complete car of wheat.” Cabbage, carrots, onions, melons, cornstalks, and sunflowers disappeared into his hoppers. Flora, emblem of mythic dependence for a Mayan, held possibilities for all-new being under Ford’s willful genius. What had sprung from the archetypal mechanic’s head was not gourds but something wholly original:
for the nation, a car—a carnation!not an inca, but re-inca—in car!r e i n c a r n a t i o n !
Metcalf’s vision of Ford establishes him in an America void, rather than the Indian’s Eden. His cars moved across ice, mud, and mountains. When they broke down, the mechanic exulted—welcoming challenges to ingenuity—and blacksmithed repairs. Ford envisioned a life for his fellow mechanics, his tribe. His factory workers lived well on five dollars a day. Like the McGuffey speech rules, his mind stamped pattern on malleable substance. Metcalf quotes four pages of Ford’s manual of assembly processes for a crank-box (“Tap globe-seat cap holes for cap retention. Tap drain screw seat. Tap the two overflow screw seats”) and intersperses American pioneer songs (“Oats, peas, beans and barley grows . . .”) to exemplify how native a music Ford’s processes composed. Andean man, Metcalf shows, set flutes in the clefts of mountains for the winds to play a mountain music. Ford’s American music was the pockety-pockety of his internal combustion engine.
Metcalf recurrently directs the reader to the contrast of patterns the Indian and white were geniuses at fashioning. An Indian might wear “a garment composed of thousands of the tiny goldgreen feather from the hummingbird’s breast.” The structure of self-sufficient propulsion Ford perfected was contrary to nature, scary to innocent roadside chickens and inspiring folklore such as the tale of the Pensacola, North Carolina, hillbilly lady who shoots the first “moll t” she sees: “ah made it let loos-a that man.”
Ford’s empire proved inherently brutal and antisocial. Jobless workers assembled for a hunger march at the Rouge plant on March 7, 1932, and were gunned down by thugs hired by Ford’s director of personnel, Harry Bennett. Ford’s genius was eccentric and his vision the same. He believed milk to be poisonous and salt good for the hair. The inventor mentality—Metcalf shows by contrasting it with the Indian’s intuition of what was good for the tribe—proved selfish, shortsighted, and unnatural. Ford’s assemblage of his personal nature garden mixed domestic plants, animals, and birds with foreign species. Heated bird baths did not stop the birds’ migrating, and the rabbit population destroyed Ford’s orchards, so he killed them. The English birds vanished in the surrounding countryside. In addition, Ford’s restlessness, the very thrust which drove him to make what he made, judged his creations ultimately unsatisfying: “The Rouge is so big that it is no fun any more.” Unconnected to the past (“History is more or less bunk”) and bored by the present, Ford was the archetypal white forager-explorer and became the American Alexander with no worlds left to conquer.
Ford did endow America with a legacy, Metcalf demonstrates. It is the motor culture, and one of its festivals, the Southern 500 stock car race, is the book’s opening denunciation of that culture. What is ugly about this culture is its use of nature— steel, rubber, gasoline—to estrange people from nature. When the race ends the spectators leave their “raffish scaffolds” and “go out like sheep, like huancayo llamas.” The motors are silent “against the unmuffled thunder above. . . .” However dissatisfying the book finds contemporary mechanical America, it remains persuasive about the old options. The section “Diarios y Cartas” shows Metcalf wandering in the ancient places and advocating that his North American correspondents should pull up stakes and join him at Lake Titicaca or La Paz: “This is, beyond all doubt, THE CITY—incredible.”