Heroic Fiction: The Epic Tradition and American Novels of the Twentieth Century

By Leonard Lutwack | Go to book overview

1
History and Definition

To be fitted out as soon as possible with the accoutrements of Western civilization was an American desire from the very beginning of the colonial settlements. The call for epic poems written by American poets and celebrating the New World had become a critical commonplace by the time John Adams gave it succinct expression in 1785: "I should hope to see our young America in Possession of an Heroick Poem, equal to those esteemed in any Country."1 Poems answering the call duly appeared, in 1787 Joel Barlow's The Vision of Columbus (later revised and entitled The Columbiad) and Richard Snowden's The Columbiad in 1795. But an American imitation of ancient epics is found even earlier and, surprisingly, in a prose work, Cotton Mather's Magnalia Christi Americana ( 1702). To Mather the history of the Puritan church in the colonies and the lives of its outstanding leaders were noble enough subject to be embellished with traditional epic tags. These are clustered in the General Introduction, where the author is intent upon establishing the importance of his subject; epic form and tone hardly influence the bulk of the work, which Whittier described as a collection of "strange and marvellous things, heaped up huge and undigested." The Magnalia begins with the Customary announcement of the subject and invocation to the Muse:

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Heroic Fiction: The Epic Tradition and American Novels of the Twentieth Century
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iv
  • Contents v
  • Preface vii
  • Introduction xi
  • 1 - History and Definition 1
  • 2 - The Octopus 23
  • 3 - The Grapes of Wrath 47
  • 4 - For Whom the Bell Tolls 64
  • 5 - Bellow's Odysseys 88
  • 6 - Invisible Man 122
  • 7 - The Continuing Tradition 142
  • Notes 157
  • Selected Bibliography 167
  • Index 171
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