The American epic : a divided stream.

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Hubele, Donald
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Middle Tennessee State University
Classical epic models remind the reader of the sadness, futility, and sterility of living in the past; chapter one of this study illustrates, however, that from Cotton Mather to Walt Whitman, American history is celebrated in epic as an anthropomorphism of the mind of God. Further, classical poets who knew the glories of Troy also knew that its fate is inexorable to all in the future; from Whitman to Steinbeck, however, there are American epics such as The Octopus and The Grapes of Wrath that fly in the face of that knowledge.
Chapter two argues that Moby Dick provides an alternative epic polemic to that which follows in the wake of Whitman. Whitman's adherence to optimism and absolutes is the dominant strain up to the modernist period; Melville's darker vision--one with no allowance for absolutes--is the model for post modernism. Gaddis and Barth, for example, create an existential mythology and its corollary, an anti-historic paradigm, that, taken together, reflect the sterility of the twentieth century.
John Gardner's fiction, on the other hand, while often identified with the existential message of other post-modernists, carries on instead a running warfare with Satrean intellectualism. This warfare, outlined in chapter three, is seen most clearly in Gardner's epic fiction, Grendel and Jason and Medeia.
Following Gardner's lead, John Kennedy Toole and Michael Malone have both made the attempt to deal with adult fiction, to help establish what has been labeled as the "Mid-Life Progress Novel." As much as these epics are about quest, they are about exile. The quest is really one's search for where one began. Chapter four traces this phenomenon. In these mid-life quest tales, woman is always central to the way back.
The epilogue, therefore, anticipates a return to the classical epic model, one in which woman is arguably once again central to the story line. For example, the protagonists in the works of Berry Morgan and Anne Tyler--like those of Hawthorne--flourish when they remain at home, but here home is a central location to which there is a deep, abiding link to a matriarchal, mythopoeic heritage.