Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 532

Paul Metcalf is the great grandson of Herman Melville. Like his grandparent, Metcalf’s scope as a writer is broad in geographical and cultural subjects. Melville’s placing a tattoo-covered savage, Queequeg, in bed with Ishmael, the white American narrator of Moby Dick (1851), is comparable to Metcalf’s union of South American Indians and Henry Ford. The connection of pagan and civilized poses the problem many contemporary writers have addressed: Western civilized man is adrift and alienated because he lacks meaningful symbols to order his spirit and behavior.

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English writers in the twentieth century have offered various opinions on this problem. T. S. Eliot was pessimistic, sensing in The Waste Land (1922) that cultural cohesion was impossible. Ezra Pound was more optimistic, arguing that America could be saved if Confucian principles were adopted by its rulers. D. H. Lawrence searched past civilizations and advocated abandoning civilized mores and replacing them with the sensibilities of Etruscans or Mexican Indians. Other writers have offered Eastern religion as a means of rescue. The message of Patagoni seems closest to Lawrence’s point of view. The white American needs to return to the symbology of Incans and Mayans and recognize that a place supersedes its inhabitants and must be listened to and, ultimately, worshiped. The Indian’s art had significant dialogue with his place. He was not alienated from but embraced by his environment, and his works bore testimony to his happy situation.

Metcalf’s architectonic style, the joining of apparently different subjects without transitional explanation, is also typical of twentieth century writing. Unexpectedness, strangeness, freshness are aesthetic ideals this style attempts to embody. The virtue of Patagoni is its accessibility. Though a reader may have initial difficulty adjusting to the lack of plot, the suspension of a directing narrative voice, the book is much easier to understand than books in a similar style, such as Pound’s Cantos and Olson’s The Maximus Poems, which require cribs or even libraries for elucidation. Metcalf’s book is not written only to a coterie of scholars but to general readers as well. Despite its readability, Patagoni goes unread just as Metcalf’s earlier book Genoa (1965), written in the same collage style, goes unread. This seems mainly attributable to the publisher, The Jargon Society, which specializes in producing avant-garde books in small numbers. Yet Patagoni revivifies the content of history books and social studies texts that most Americans encountered in the elementary grades. Its avant-garde style is not really all that new. The critic Guy Davenport has pointed out that Metcalf’s eclectic style, where almost anything pertinent will be inserted, is much like the style of his grandparent’s Moby Dick: “Of what other novel than Moby Dick can you say that a chapter on any subject under the sun might fit into it?”

Patagoni’s madeness stands for more than its author’s attempt to be different for the sake of being different. He attempted to make a hieroglyphic, a lasting American symbol, upon which the twentieth century reader can meditate. Its obscurity seems only to heighten the quality of its vision, just as a stone covered with glyphs discovered among Mayan ruins mesmerizes its happy finder.

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