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PAUL METCALF
(1917-1999)
"Hell no, this ain't 'blackberry winter! This is 'late easter squirt!"
-- Leonard Webb, banjo player & caretaker 
 
On his 75th birthday the Jargon Society sent out a card of congratulations to Paul. We published his first book, Will West, in 1956. And followed it with Genoa, Patagoni, The Middle Passage, Both, and Araminta and the Coyotes. We congratulated Nancy Metcalf too, "who has put up with the King of the Cranks for 50 years and keeps on singing 'He's Been a Good Ol' Wagon and He Ain't Broke Down'." Now there is one less bruised New England savant to give up on the Patriots at the end of the half and the Red Sox in the bottom of the fifth.
 
Yesterday we drove over to Western Carolina University in darkest Cullowhee to hear the art critic and poet, Peter Schjeldahl, talk to students and faculty. I liked his blue-darter mentality. Rather like my own: able to hold onto a thought for about 10 seconds and then race on. I told him Paul Metcalf had just died and asked him if he had known him or read him. He said he didn't recognize the name. Which reminded me yet again how men of the city distrust loners and ignore those in the tall grass. In town artists organize into gangs and urban wolf packs in order to compete for the season's fleeting attentions and, maybe, even for a few bucks. I didn't want to trouble Peter with a list of some of my favorite isolatos: Bill Traylor, Juanita Rogers, Vollis Simpson, Georgia Blizzard, J.B. Murry, Thornton Dial, Jess, Forrest Bess, Leroy Person, Edgar Tolson. Some of these people could not read or write and didn't know what "art" was. No matter. And if I had told Peter that I thought Andy Warhol was even worse than Norman Rockwell, he might have paled and headed for the Asheville Airport.
 
The New York Times has had over a week to run an obituary of Paul Metcalf and nothing has appeared. [Shortly after writing this, one actually did appear -- pace!] The death of Kenneth Patchen occasioned one paragraph; Charles Olson, two paragraphs; Lorine Niedecker, no paragraph. I checked the record and discovered that The New York Times, the paper of record, did not record the passing of Mr. Metcalf's great-grandfather, a writer of the Berkshires named Herman Melville, in the year 1891. They are still up to their ignorant ways 108 years later... There are comic moments in the obituary of Melville in The New York Daily Tribune: "He won considerable fame as an author by the publication of a book in 1847 entitled Typee... This was his best work, although he has since written a number of other stories, which were published more for private than public circulation..."
 
For a Paul Metcalf issue of the magazine Lillabulero, edited by Russell Banks, 1973, I wrote a reminiscence called "The Roastin' Ears Are In And Vida Pitches Tonight!" Here's a bit of it.
 
"One can only speculate about how Paul Metcalf made the move from Cambridge life and the spell at Harvard to farmer-writer in the Blue Ridge and, later on, in the Berkshires. From a man who'd been subject to tuberculosis in his youth, he developed himself into a physical workhorse. The Metcalf calves and feet are built to stand firm-- a pair of trunks with tap-roots. Metcalf means Middle-Hill in Wensleydale, Yorkshire, where the name comes from. Accordingly, he plants himself. His approach to reading and writing is precisely the same as doing the daily chores; i.e., nothing to jabber about: do it. He doesn't cultivate literary gents. The few who get lip-service date back to his early days: Conrad Aiken, Henry A. Murray, Charles Olson, Wharton Esherick, Jasper Deeter, and Dubose Hayward. Paul liked to work in an outbuilding away from the womenfolk-- some old chickencoop or woodshed he'd converted and put a stove into. He worked to a schedule, with time out for pipe smoking and visits to the outhouse in the woods near the pond. The Metcalfs had things like indoor plumbing and home-freezers, but simply, and without self-conscious whimsy, they preferred the old two-holer and canning their own produce in Ball jars. They lived the quiet life and made sure not too many people came around to make it unquiet...
 
"There are always fresh herbs in the Metcalf salads; turnip or collard greens never far away; plenty of sorghum, plenty of garlicky dill beans and, in the spring, plenty of poke salad to tone you up. And Nancy does a mean, liberating chili...
 
"The Metcalfs are clearly not fancy people. They don't eat fancy, or dress fancy, or live fancy. They live in old wooden houses, listen to old 78s of "The Lark Ascending," and "Appalachia," and Roy Harris' Third, and Howard Hanson's Second, and the "Concord Sonata." They buy overcoats at the next-to-new shop in Pittsfield; read used editions of Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson and WCW and Grandpa Herman. There are comfortable, venerable dogs sleeping all over the furniture. Mitzi is my favorite...
 
"The Master of the House reads the sports pages of the Berkshire Eagle, dreaming of a new dynasty at Fenway Park, sips his bourbon, while the part of the self that fabricates those dark, peculiar New England books tiptoes into the cellar of the mind to see what devilment is brewing."


Jonathan Williams
Skywinding Farm, Scaly Mountain, North Carolina
 

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