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

By Leonard Lutwack | Go to book overview

7
The Continuing Tradition

The epic tradition in the twentieth-century American novel begins with Frank Norris's many-faceted examination in The Octopus of the possibilities of heroic action in an economic situation; these he finally rejects in favor of a cosmic law governing men and making their conflicts vain. Moved by the needs of their time, Steinbeck and Hemingway restore the epic hero and the communal sacrifice for a cause, no matter how desperate and how sordid the circumstances may be. The Octopus ends with the scattering of the forces of the ranchers, the dispersal of a comitatus, whereas The Grapes of Wrath and For Whom the Bell Tolls present the simple beginnings of communities committed to purposeful action. Homer, declares Kenneth Rexroth, "portrays heroic valor as fundamentally destructive, not just of social order but of humane community."1 Such is the viewpoint of Norris and to some extent of Ellison as well. Steinbeck and Hemingway reflect rather the tradition of the Aeneid when they show how violence brings divided people together into a comitatus, though theirs is a comitatus of commoners, from whose midst issues a hero. "Alone a man is nothing" are the dying words of Richard Wright hero in The Outsider; in 1953 this sentiment came at the end of a long series of similar declarations. In joining Communist labor organizers Jim Nolan in Steinbeck In Dubious Battle

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