- The Quest for Epic in Contemporary American Fiction: John Updike, Philip Roth and Don DeLillo
For The Quest for Epic, Catherine Morley selected three American novelists who were born in the Depression and came of age in the 1950s, a decade of (as she says) profound national “myth-making” (144). John Updike was born in 1932, Philip Roth in 1933, and Don DeLillo in 1936. Their lives’ work attracted Morley because it covers the last half century of American history, from the beginning of the Cold War to millennial reflections. Midcentury mythmakers asserted the nation’s autonomy and uniformity, with the white male as its representative figure, its hero. By century’s close, however, America could not ignore its pluralist and global aspects. Above all, Morley is looking for “an evolving rather than static national consciousness” (75).
While Updike, Roth, and (to a much lesser extent) DeLillo put their backs to the national border and documented everyday American life, they also, Morley argues, gave their work a transnational identity. There are nine texts under consideration, five by Updike—the Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom series (published in 1960published in 1971published in 1981published in 1990, and 2000)—a Roth trilogy with Nathan Zuckerman as narrator—American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998), and The Human Stain (2000)—and DeLillo’s Underworld (1997). The series, trilogy, [End Page 627] and novel ultimately have transnational identities because they follow the epic tradition of Homer, Virgil, Dante, Milton, and Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). Morley recognizes the “home-grown influences on their work,” Emerson’s in particular, but she focuses on how they “transformed the American epic by imbibing and re-working aspects of the Joycean epic” (33). “Genre transcends the national,” she says (32).
Morley’s argument hinges on showing this Joycean influence and the extent to which these novels are rightly called prose epics, and in this regard she succeeds. As the “genre most associated with the national” (36), she writes, the epic enables “the nation to recognise itself” (44). However, while the epic is “locally and nationally specific,” it also “includes remnants and textures of other cultural edifices” (18). The epic remains what it was centuries ago, “the ‘book of the tribe’, a chronicle rooted in communal experience” (54), but it now also includes “those forbidden ‘true stories’ which have been systematically suppressed and omitted from the official, homogenous histories of nations” (47). Whether in poetry or prose, the epic is a “palimpsest” with allusions to a diversity of sources, from old plays and poems to recent newspapers and songs (150).
The prose epic in Morley’s definition is thus a paradox, its inclusiveness making it both a “means of nation-building” (126) and an ideal genre for “destabilising” the nation-state (17). This genre not only transcends the national “on the strength of the number and sophistication of its generic crosscurrents” (29), it pluralizes national identity by telling a “popular history” (47). And although the modern epic continues to be “a predominantly masculine genre,” its hero is presented ironically (6). With Leopold Bloom in Ulysses as exemplar, the questing hero is mired in unexalted, domestic realities and is unknown in the public arena (67). Time ticks on without redemption or enlightenment in the conclusion. Moreover, the hero-protagonist is not a true-blood citizen: Bloom is Hungarian-Irish, Zuckerman is Jewish-American, and Nick Shay in Underworld is Italian-American. From this perspective “he writes himself into the larger world,” as DeLillo has said (qtd. in Morley 137). In short, the hyphenated identity of the epics’ heroes echo the mixed identity of the genre and the nation.
American novelists are therefore drawn to the prose epic because of its “democratic sensibilities” and because it demands full reflection on the state of the nation (4). The writer’s historicizing abilities are tested. Morley asks whether, as their careers evolved, Updike and Roth were able to transcend the 1950s, that time when a “distinctly American canon as a response to matters of foreign policy” was formulated...