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Reviewed by:
  • Joel Barlow's Columbiad: A Bicentennial Reading
  • Larry F. Kutchen (bio)
Joel Barlow's Columbiad: A Bicentennial Reading. Steven Blakemore . Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 2007. vii, 384 pp.

No early American work, perhaps no major work in all of American literature, has been a harder sell to prospective readers than Joel Barlow's Columbiad (1807). It has long been regarded warily or condescendingly as perhaps the baggiest of American literature's own great "baggy monsters"—those imperial long poems proliferated in the Revolution's wake among a small group of elite writers. Their ponderous and (paradoxically for aspiring epic poets) serially private laboring to represent the new republic as, fundamentally and fatally, the renovated telos of patriarchal western history would seem to have been driven by the felt absence of a living, vitalizing audience of new imperial citizens. Epic has a deep, core reflexivity regarding reception—the extending fellowship between its poet and readers that must ever proceed apace with the dread of mutual alienation, which grows with the imperial longing he expresses, bears, and bears through them. That reflexivity seems most conspicuous by its absence in these poems. Certainly such a longing dominates, if only negatively, the dream of achieving a traditional epic that lived for precisely one post-Revolutionary generation, from the static, infinitely horizontal typology of Timothy Dwight's The Conquest of Canaan (1784) to the allencompassing cartographies of the Columbiad, published just four years after the Louisiana Purchase. Epics endure for readers across centuries to the extent that their projections of their cultures' history without end do not simply override personal experience but are fraught with the depth, texture, and doubt of those lives undergoing such a grand paraphrase: the [End Page 438] dialogisms of patria (Virgil), of a dying chivalry (Spenser), of a Protestant faith imperiled by the kingdom of this world (Milton) countered by a Catholic crusading for that kingdom's promise of a more incarnate eros of heroic surrender (Tasso), and of a democratic reconception of that surrender as expansive affirmation (Whitman), all drive these epic narratives beyond their derivations and specific historical moments because they issue from a central enduring concern—with all the hopes and fears that attend the remaking of language to realize a culture's aspiriations to transcendence. As, essentially, so many grand elaborations of the central ambivalence resounding most deeply from its foundational story of Aeneas and Dido—that which surrounds the enchanting enthrallment to language itself—Western epics always have thrived on the combustible regenerativeness within the tension between poetry's "lyric" and narrative modes. The euphoric oblivion of the former is as much an agonistic product of as it is a crucible for the endless remastering and remembering labor of the latter. Because this dynamism of the opposition between love and conquest, generative of virtually endless variations, as well as of the torque for a given epic's didactic and teleological ends, is the poet's inescapable sharing of the experience of comprehensively remaking his people's language, engaging future readers may depend most on its recovery. Yet as the scope and force of that dynamic had been so powerfully and conclusively narrowed and compressed—given what seemed an eternally beautiful finish—within the revelation-suspending lines of John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667), the last of the great neoclassic epics that arose when the classical world's recovering was made to dilate toward unrequitedness by New World discovery at the end of the sixteenth century, its reopening may have had to await the development of a fundamentally new poetry. Could an epic poem not in mock form be wrought out of a distended neoclassicism? What stood in the way of achieving it?

In the only comprehensive reading of The Columbiad as a poem ever performed, Steven Blakemore seeks the epic audience Joel Barlow failed to engage; he must, therefore, succeed at the epic task Barlow would seem to have left undone. There have been several invaluable studies of this imperial poem's ideological work, notably those by Eric Wertheimer, John McWilliams, and William C. Dowling, which variously examine the poem's positioning of the republic within the larger cultural imaginary of Manifest...


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