Deceased August 23, 2002
When Phil Metcalfe died of brain cancer on Aug. 23, 2002, the class and the College lost an extraordinary scholar and writer.The greater loss, however, was sustained by his friends and family in Oregon. While he long ago discontinued active contact with Amherst, Phil enjoyed a warm community in Astoria, where he lived for 15 years, and then in Portland, where he was a graduate student, teacher and researcher at Portland State University.
Born in Boston, Phil lived a year in Germany before his family moved to Oregon, and the German connection continued at Amherst as his major. Recently retired professor Don White recalled Phil as “one of my favorite students of all time, because of his intelligence, his intensity and his creative drive.”
Phil’s intelligence lay behind an uncommonly quiet manner. Its most public expression was in writing; our senior year, he won a prize for the best work of fiction written by an Amherst undergraduate.That story, “The Road to Madras,” (i.e., Madras, Oregon) was published the following year by no less prestigious a journal than The Paris Review.
Phil’s first book was 1933, a novelistic history of the year of Hitler’s rise to power, as seen through the eyes of five people in Berlin at the time. Published in 1988, the book is loaded with small details behind the larger stories, every detail the result of a kind of painstaking research that later made Phil the object of considerable awe at Portland State.
Equally remarkable was the manner in which he wrote it. Employed as a drawbridge operator in Astoria, he would take his notes and typewriter into the drawbridge cabin and write during the long lulls between boats. Following the book’s publication, Phil spent a semester at Amherst as a Copeland Fellow.
In his introduction to 1933 Phil wrote, “I did not want to be a detective so much as a painter who endows a lost world with the personality and dailiness it once possessed. ... I wanted to show that in a revolution there is not one reality but numerous, partial realities. For this purpose I imagined a narrative that could go anywhere: into embassies, private homes, concentration camps, even across the sea to America. For the most part, however, I was content to hover over Berlin and peek into windows and overhear half-remembered conversations. Rarely did I concern myself with whether people were right or wrong, good or bad. That would have hinted at the greater catastrophe to come. I merely wanted to capture a piece of the past and make of it a complete present, for myself and for whoever might care to read along with me. The assigning of responsibility could come later, when the narrative was done. For that the reader and I need only our moral intuitions.”
His wife and fellow Portland State alum, Amy Ross Metcalfe, is attending to the posthumous publication of a second book, Whispering Wires: The Tragic Tale of an American Bootlegger. Like 1933, it is real-life history told as if it were a novel; much of its substance comes from transcripts of federal wiretaps in the 1920s.
Besides his wife, Phil is survived by his father, Dr. James Metcalfe; his stepmother, Audrey Metcalfe; his sister, Susan M. Carrillo; and his brothers James and Duncan. Amy graciously sent a video of the memorial celebration held for Phil at Portland State in October. It shows friends and relatives speaking of how Phil combined, as one colleague put it, “the power and passion of his silences” with delightful warmth and good humor. Someone recalled being asked whether Phil suffered fools gladly and responded, “Phil never met a fool.” Other friends called him “the most serious person I ever knew” and, repeatedly, “the most patient.”
Amy wrote, “Phil and I lived in each other’s pockets and were very content that way. He was a kind, funny, extraordinarily intelligent person. He was not a man with, as Ezra Pound might say, ‘One thought less each year.’ He was a voracious reader, a person of well-considered and consistently liberal views, and—first and foremost—a writer and historian dedicated to his craft. He had many ‘day jobs’ over the years, but he was a writer, through and through. As the video makes clear, he touched the lives of many people. I miss him more each day. While Philip was not deeply involved in Amherst after his graduation, he is an alum of whom the College can be proud.”
John Stifler ’68