Question…Enhanced!

8 11 2007

I had a conversation tonight with a professor of English literature at an Australian university (she teaches there…the conversation didn’t occur there). We got on the topic of epic stories, the ones that feed the moral codes and agendas of countries for millenia.

We went over the countries and their respective seminal works. Italy has the Aeneid, Virgil’s allegorical tome on the founding of Rome. France, The Horn of Roland. Mesopotamia, Gilgamesh. Russia has…War and Peace, I suppose.

But when we got to America, we stopped, as virtually everybody else has before. Is it possible in a land of contradictions, of millions of disparate voices, to ever have a unifying work? We speak of The Great American Novel, but the term strikes me as a way of ridiculing the works of the recently graduated or those of naively ambitious attitude.

In short, can there be The Great American Novel, or just many great, American novels?

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5 responses

8 11 2007
Drew

Since initially you we’re talking about epics and not solely novels, I’m going to assume your question is asking about a single great American epic.

These is a extremely interesting question and one I may bring up with a professor of mine next week. Its easy to rattle off all the great books you and I read when younger or the ones we have gained even greater appreciation for as we’ve grown older.

But like you said Kevin, the simple fact that America’s literary history is so nascent and diffused over geographic, cultural and class divides, we may simply not have a great national epic. This is either our greatest strength or our greatest cultural inadequacy. A case can be made for each.

“The epic is always concerned with crossing frontiers. Traditionally, “epic” is understood as an ancient, narrative poetic mode; as such, “epic” should not apply to so relatively young a tradition as American literature. Moreover, traditional epics champion an unbounded, pre-State spirit against which modernity (for America has relatively little tradition before the modern era), with its Laws and fortified boundaries, seems to chafe.”

Pinpointing an American epic in the pre-modern period is much easier than tackling the latter period. Melville’s Moby Dick comes to mind first. James cancels Twain, or is it Twain cancels James? leaving Twain a possibility? I think when we look at a great American epic we have to gaze into the subtle spirituality of the the seminal work. Here Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, Leaves of Grass, or possibly something written by London are extraordinary examples. Though, within each work there is something wholly personal contained within its pages that draws us closer to an idealistic adolescent America .

Then the great wars occurred, so did the industrial depression. And the nature of America’s epic changed radically. In a sense we grew up, fast. Eliot’s Waste Land is nothing like Leaves of Grass, The Great Gatsby or Grapes of Wrath like Huckleberry Finn. So often during this period American writers fled to the shores of Europe to experience something they could not at home. Hemingway immediately comes to mind. This lost generation produced works that can never be American epics because they’re not American in the traditional sense that was established a generation prior. At the same time though, Europeans were fleeing their worn torn homes and settling in American, only to produce seminal works about American life subsequent to the war. Nabokov, I feel, is probably the greatest among these writers. Ayn Rand too.

Are Nabokov’s novels now more epic than the ones that came before simply because life in America has changed so radically? Lolita paints a much more apposite picture of American landscape than Huckleberry Finn does. While Huckleberry Finn attacked the norms of race divide, Lolita challenges the norms of sexuality, an area of sociological discourse much more prevalent today than race. But Lolita is no epic, the protagonists, of sort, of America’s great epic could never be Humbert Humbert. But the tragic figure of Dolores Haze is fitting.

Mailer, Pynchon, Delillo, feel free to add any other’s that come to mind, all continue to try to write the great lengthy American epic. But I no longer think it is possible. Even though we are at a time when our culture has never been so homogenized, the global forces of integration are so strong that a true American identity is no longer possible. Only if we were to fall back into a insular nation, isolated from the extraordinary progress being achieved throughout the world and from the unimaginable despair crippling the rest, could we as a nation find our fictional epic struggle. The anxiety that prevails in our culture only goes to show that we as a nation continue to struggle with our national identity and the stagnation that ensues. The great heros of our revolution and the authors of our Constitution (a possible argument could be made that this document is our great epic) have become so trivialized that we are currently experiencing a duality of idol worship; on one hand we have the third great awakening and on the other hand 1980’s inspired super-hero sized athletes. All-in-all all we know anymore is our precarious place in history, with little to no cultural legacies to fall back on.

Only through a perfect little book could our present condition ever be summarized. And too bad its already been written. Its called ‘The Stranger’.

8 11 2007
scheity

Now that’s a response.

Yanders, you no longer owe any money for crashing at our place during Senior Week.

8 11 2007
Nicole

Hey Kevin… is your friend Drew single?

9 11 2007
Drew

Funny Kevin. I didn’t realize I was still indebted to your gracious hospitality after all these years.

But I’ve been thinking about it more even. And maybe I’ve gotten it completely wrong. Maybe our great epic isn’t even literary. What do you think about our great America epic being a film?

14 11 2007
scheity

I think that it’s almost impossible to have a written-word epic now, what with readership falling like it has nationwide. An epic, by nature, must be a massively accepted story. A country that reads, on average, less than a book a year cannot possibly elevate a story to such a necessary level.

Thus, a film seems to be the only choice.

Justin proposed that Star Wars is the American epic, and I’m inclined to go along with that one. Inside of it is the Alger story, with the unlikely hero rising up and, by little other force outside of his own will (except for, well, The Force), saving the world. The self-made man myth thus stays alive, just in different packaging. Lucas’ series also posits two flatly good and bad sides, without a whole lot of deviation from either. Our side is good, your side is bad. End of story. Is there any mentality more American than that?

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