The Fortunes of Epic Poetry: A Study in English and American Criticism, 1750-1950

By Donald M. Foerster | Go to book overview

4 The Epic in an Epic Land: American Theory, 1812-1860

IS NOT AMERICA herself a great epic? Or, is it not her destiny to become one? After 1812, such questions were being asked in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. Having emerged safely if not victoriously from the war with England, the young nation was growing aware of her vast natural resources and her promise as a commercial power, of her potential importance as a political force, of the possibilities of illimitable progress under her democratic form of government. She was also growing aware of a need, or at least of an irresistible desire, to lessen her cultural dependence upon Europe, to develop, among other things, a new literary tradition that would reflect the realities and the ideals of democracy. Needless to say, this spirit of self-reliance soon infiltrated not only American critical theory as a whole but also that part of it which is our present concern, American attitudes toward the epic. Homer, Milton, and the other heroic poets were often, though by no means always, re-estimated from the point of view characteristic of a young, a democratic, a self-assured but at times self-apologetic country.

To understand the attitude of the American Romantic, it is necessary to glance briefly at the critical estimates that had obtained in colonial days and in the period of the Revolution. The Puritans, as men of the Renaissance in recognizing the values of pagan poetry, conceived of the epic as a conscious work of art by which the author intended, perhaps primarily, to call attention to certain eternally valid ethical truths. The moral insight and purpose of Homer and Virgil were regarded as only slightly less

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