Paul Metcalf Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Paul Metcalf is known both as an originator of genres and as an experimental writer. He was born to Henry and Eleanor (Thomas) Metcalf. His mother was Herman Melville’s granddaughter and literary executrix. As a result Metcalf’s childhood home was a haven for Melville scholars in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Metcalf himself did not really become interested in literature until he was fourteen years old, when he met Charles Olson, a Melville scholar and writer only eight years his senior who became a lifelong influence. At the age of nineteen Metcalf entered Harvard University, and when he was still in his early twenties he spent a summer studying with Conrad Aiken, who inspired him to write verse. Aiken also encouraged Metcalf to read the major works of William Faulkner. On his periodic visits to the library in New York, Metcalf became acquainted with the poetry of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, with various historical works, and with the works of Herman Melville.

After marrying Nancy Harman Blackford on May 31, 1942, Metcalf remained in South Carolina for two years. During this time Metcalf experimented with several different literary forms. Initially, he intended to become a playwright, but after an abortive effort at writing a play he wrote a novel instead. Two years later he moved to Black Mountain, North Carolina, in the hope that the mountain air would be beneficial for the tuberculosis that had confined him to bed for an entire year. Soon after his arrival he was reunited with Olson, who was then rector of Black Mountain College, where he also taught poetics and discourse. During this time Olson introduced him to the writer Jonathan Williams and oversaw Metcalf’s progress.

Metcalf’s literary career began in earnest in 1956, when he approached Olson, who had just published his first important work, Maximus, to critical acclaim, with the idea of writing a historical novel about the Spanish conquistador explorer Hernando de Soto. Encouraged by Olson’s approval, Metcalf wrote his only novel in the conventional sense of the term, Will West, which was published by Williams’s Jargon Press, a press as well known in the United States as Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press was in England. This work clearly reflects the influence of Faulkner, Williams, and Olson, as well as that of various historical works. Will West, which ranges in time from the arrival of de Soto to the removal of the Cherokees from North Carolina to Oklahoma, is the first book in which Metcalf experimented with the technique of combining historical material with contemporary material. The work reflects Metcalf’s belief that the American experience is more than simply a transplantation of European culture. During this time Metcalf supported himself by teaching courses in creative writing and by conducting workshops.


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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Gartung, Karl. Review of Collected Works, Volume III: 1987-1997, by Paul Metcalf. The Review of Contemporary Fiction 18, no. 2 (Summer, 1998): 225-226. Calls Metcalf “one of the most original minds of the century.”

Lillabulero, no. 12 (Winter, 1973). Special issue on Metcalf.

The Review of Contemporary Fiction 1 (Summer, 1981). A special issue devoted to Metcalf.

Sagetrieb 5 (Winter, 1986). Another special issue on Metcalf.

Smith, Dinitia. “Paul Metcalf, 81; Wrote Experimental Tales.” The New York Times, January 31, 1999. An obituary for Metcalf.