The epic is dead . . . or is it?

Guest post by Christopher N. Phillips

What place does storytelling have in literary history today?  I didn’t expect this to be a central question in my book, Epic in American Culture, but the more I explored the topic, the more I realized that storytelling caused many of the problems I faced in this project—and story was a key part of the solution as well.

To start with, epic has always been bound up with story, hailed since Aristotle’s time as the quintessential form of narrative verse in the West. And there was no shortage of narrative material about epic, either: epic was the ancient form that gave way to the modern novel, it was the genre that died with Milton, and it was the term that ceased to mean anything by the late twentieth century.

These stories were rehearsed over and over again in scholarship, book and film reviews, and cultural criticism. And yet it seemed that nobody could stop claiming epic status for their most revered works—Moby Dick, Leaves of Grass, The Birth of a Nation, Beloved. This left with me with the questions of why Americans were so eager to see epic die, and why they couldn’t let it rest in peace.

As I continued my research, I found myself drawn to the lives of the authors I studied, as it became increasingly clear that the stories of the Iliad, the Odyssey, Paradise Lost, and the Divine Comedy didn’t travel by osmosis. The many authors who wrote epic works in early America had specific encounters with these texts that shaped their own horizons of what was allowable, and what was possible, in epic form. (Take the case of poet Timothy Dwight, who permanently damaged his eyesight by parsing Homer before dawn in college; when he returned to Yale years later as president, he campaigned to remove Homer from the curriculum.)

Alongside authors’ lives, the genre itself grew dramatically in geographic scope in the years between 1770 and 1870, seeing the first publications (either at all or in translation) of Beowulf, the Kalevala, the Divine Comedy, Gilgamesh, and the Mahabharata, among many others. Epic didn’t look the same after the Civil War in part because the canon had changed so much.

As I learned of these intertexts,  the story of epic literature also became much more interdisciplinary than I had anticipated. I found that early interpreters of the U.S. Constitution, reaching back to the ratification era, used epic as an analogy (and even a source) for the new supreme law. Epic became a gate-keeping term in American art as canons of taste emerged to support the professionalization of the fine arts. At the same time, the term came to mean “economic blockbuster” in the press, revealing a curious tension between academic canons and market forces that often elevated eye-popping works for a generation and then left their creators ignored by the art world soon after their deaths. (Benjamin West, Thomas Cole, and Emanuel Leutze all rode this roller coaster.)

Where did all this leave the literary history I had set out to write? The forms of texts turned out to have stories of their own, but they came into focus only in the midst of stories of lives, of careers, of professions, and of images of the past continually revised in the here and now. It turns out that epic didn’t stop meaning something; it simply moved beyond the literary into the aesthetic and cultural realms, and it’s still driving much of our mass culture today. From last summer’s box-office hits to today’s agonistic news coverage of elections and other crises, the story of American epic starts in medias res, and it isn’t over yet.

Christopher N. Phillips is an assistant professor of English at Lafayette College and the author of Epic in American Culture: Settlement to Reconstruction, which just came off press. This post is derived from Professor Phillips’s presentation at the 2012 meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth Century StudiesThe views expressed here belong to the author and in no way reflect the official opinion of the JHU Press.