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Epic in American Culture

Settlement to Reconstruction

Christopher N. Phillips

Publication Year: 2012

The epic calls to mind the famous works of ancient poets such as Homer, Virgil, and Ovid. These long, narrative poems, defined by valiant characters and heroic deeds, celebrate events of great importance in ancient times. In this thought-provoking study, Christopher N. Phillips shows in often surprising ways how this exalted classical form proved as vital to American culture as it did to the great societies of the ancient world. Through close readings of James Fenimore Cooper, Lydia Sigourney, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Herman Melville, as well as the transcendentalists, Phillips traces the rich history of epic in American literature and art from early colonial times to the late nineteenth century. Phillips shows that far from fading in the modern age, the epic form was continuously remade to frame a core element of American cultural expression. He finds the motive behind this sustained popularity in the historical interrelationship among the malleability of the epic form, the idea of a national culture, and the prestige of authorship—a powerful dynamic that extended well beyond the boundaries of literature. By locating the epic at the center of American literature and culture, Phillips’s imaginative study yields a number of important finds: the early national period was a time of radical experimentation with poetic form; the epic form was crucial to the development of constitutional law and the professionalization of visual arts; engagement with the epic synthesized a wide array of literary and artistic forms in efforts to launch the United States into the arena of world literature; and a number of writers shaped their careers around revising the epic form for their own purposes. Rigorous archival research, careful readings, and long chronologies of genre define this magisterial work, making it an invaluable resource for scholars of American studies, American poetry, and literary history.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii

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pp. ix-xi

The first thanks go, of course, to my wife, Emily. She has not yet read this book. This is because she has not needed to. She has heard and discussed every idea of every page, including the ones that didn’t make it into the final version. She has mourned the deletions, nodded politely at the digressions, and taught me when...

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Introduction: Epic Travels

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pp. 1-19

Ocian in view! O! the joy.”1 These words by Captain William Clark recorded the Corps of Discovery’s sighting of the Pacific Ocean from the Coastal Range west of what is now Portland, Oregon, on November 7, 1805. From this most tangible of Miltonic mounts of vision, Clark and his co- commander, Meriwether Lewis...

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Prologue: Reading Epic

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pp. 20-36

All writing of epic begins with reading epic. One of the crucial reasons for the historical fluidity of epic’s definition as a form is the variety of purposes and circumstances with which readers approach epic works— works that readers understand to be epic, or wish to be epic, or have heard are meant or reputed to be epic...

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1. Diffusions of Epic Form in Early America

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pp. 37-71

The range of readings and readers of epic in colonial America testifies to the fluidity of epic as a genre even as early as the seventeenth century. Many critics have assumed that epic was a fairly fixed idea in eighteenth- century En gland and British America, partly from the proliferation of mock- epic poems and partly from...

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2. Constitutional Epic

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pp. 72-96

While American poets were experimenting with epic form, the concept of epic itself became increasingly influential in cultural spheres beyond that of poetry, and indeed beyond that of literature, as the term was coming to be defined in the early nineteenth century. Perhaps the most significant one, though previously...

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3. Epic on Canvas

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pp. 97-135

Despite the seeming ubiquity of “epic” in the literature of art history— including its popular manifestations, such as Robert Hughes’s 1999 American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America— virtually no study has ever analyzed the historical meanings, uses, and evolutions of the term in art and art criticism. Only one...

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4. Transcendentalism and the “New” Epic Traditions

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pp. 136-159

The work of artists such as West, Cole, and Leutze inhabited an uneasy space between the national and the transnational. American art, for all its wealth of material for landscape painting, relied on methods and styles imported from Europe— and often made in or sent to Europe as well. Similar practices of import...

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5. Tracking Epic through The Leatherstocking Tales

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pp. 160-186

While other American novelists have been more celebrated in the past century of criticism, few have been hailed as his country’s bridge between epic and novel as oft en as James Fenimore Cooper. Lukács found “truly epic grandeur” and “almost epic- like magnificence” in Cooper’s portrayal of the Mohicans in the...

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6. Lydia Sigourney and the Indian Epic’s Work of Mourning

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pp. 187-219

In his quest for the all- inclusive poem of America and democracy, Whitman naturally included Native Americans. But amid celebrations of the city and the wild, of sex and the dignity of slaves, this inclusion was strangely oblique: the “red girl” that marries the trapper, the “squaw rapt in her yellow- hemmed...

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7. Longfellow’s Pantheon

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pp. 220-252

When Lydia Sigourney died in 1865, she was one of the best- selling American poets of the century. One of the few who outdid her in sales was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a lawyer’s son from Maine who by 1865 had published over 100,000 copies of his volumes of poetry, from his early collection...

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8. Melville’s Epic Career

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pp. 253-284

Did Herman Melville have a career? The question sounds facetious, since many critics have gone to great lengths to articulate and contextualize that career. In almost every case, however, that career has been one of a fiction writer, and especially of a novelist, whose turn to poetry on the eve of the Civil War has...

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Epilogue: Invisible Epic

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pp. 285-304

Epic did not end with Melville’s Clarel in the United States, but it changed quickly and drastically.1 As epic merged more completely with what Edward Mendelson calls “encyclopedic narrative,” the representation of an entire cultural moment through the lens of science, writers who engaged epic were faced with the choice...


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pp. 305-325


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pp. 327-347


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pp. 349-360

E-ISBN-13: 9781421405278
E-ISBN-10: 142140527X
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421404899
Print-ISBN-10: 1421404893

Page Count: 376
Illustrations: 20 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2012

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Literature and history -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Epic literature, American -- History and criticism.
  • Literature and history -- United States -- History -- 18th century.
  • National characteristics, American, in literature.
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