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Paul Metcalf Biography

(1917–1999), Genoa, Patagonia, Both, Call Me Ishmael, Apalache, Waters of Potomac

American prose writer, born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, educated at Harvard; he was the great-grandson of Herman Melville. Since his mother was Melville's literary executor, Metcalf's home was constantly visited by scholars, one of whom was Charles Olson, who later had a profound influence on the development of Metcalf's writing. Metcalf led an independent existence, refusing to be tied to any particular institution; while living in North Carolina, he visited Black Mountain College but made no attempt to affiliate himself to it. His books offer beautifully composed alternative histories of America, written from the native American viewpoint of writers like William Carlos Williams and composers like Charles Ives. Metcalf employs montage to great effect, weaving together both fictional and non-fictional material, the latter drawn from a wide range of sources, including history, biology, mythology, and geography. While Genoa (1965) concentrates primarily on Melville, it also includes Christopher Columbus, the war in the Pacific, and a pair of fictionalized brothers; Patagonia (1971) places Henry Ford alongside Peruvian Indians; Both (1982) pairs Edgar A. Poe with John Wilkes Booth. These strange and unusual combinations yield surprisingly central understandings; Metcalf's achievement in Genoa rivals Olson's in Call Me Ishmael. Particularly from Apalache (1976) onwards, his books are composed in a symphonic manner, a process which culminates in Waters of Potomac (1982), a long and moving account of America's tragic descent into waste, divisiveness, and pollution. Enter Isabel: The Herman Melville Correspondence of Clare Spark and Paul Metcalf (1991) testifies to Metcalf's lifelong meditation on his great grandfather's influence and centrality.

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: McTeague to Nancy [Freeman] Mitford Biography