- Epic in American Culture: Settlement to Reconstruction by Christopher N. Phillips
Christopher Phillips doesn’t start by surveying available definitions of epic in order to put together a workable version of his own. Given the heterogeneity of epic works, he argues, a compelling list of the essential features that make an epic an epic is unlikely. Instead, he contends, it’s better to think of the epic genre (or perhaps genres in general) in terms of what Ludwig Wittgenstein called a family resemblance, an array of regularly recurrent traits, only some of which are present, with variable prominences, in individual works. I substitute “epic” for “language” in this passage from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (trans. G. E. M. Anscombe, Macmillan, 1953):
[I]nstead of producing something common to all that we call [epic], I am saying that these phenomena have no one thing in common which makes us use the same word for all,—but that they are related to one another in many different ways. And it is because of this relationship, or these relationships, that we call them all [“epic”]. … [W]e see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail.(31e, 32e)
Having introduced the notion of family resemblance, though, Phillips doesn’t proceed to try to enumerate the traits that constitute the genre at large, if not each of its instances; and if individual epics are epics by virtue of instancing some of the family’s component attributes, how can he, in the absence of such a compilation, employ this more flexible or versatile notion of genre to identify partial and particular instances of the family at [End Page 787] large? That is, how can Phillips decide which American texts are epic, and therefore eligible for examination in his book?
His solution is to go by way of literary history, rather than theory: “I will say here that to write an epic, or to engage with epic via other genres, is to place oneself in a genealogy dominated by central ancestral figures, primarily Homer, Virgil, and Milton, in this case,” though Tasso, Dante, Camoens, Ossian, The Kalevala, and others also appear as inspirational progenitors (6). An epic is a work begun with reference not to epic per se, but to some one or more epic works whose company the writer (or, in some cases, the painter, though for convenience I will just refer to “writers” for the rest of this review) wishes his or her work to join, whether by mimicry, satirization, reversal, or, in the majority of the works discussed in Epic in American Culture, by the extension or adaptation of various of the assets of predecessor epics to the American occasion. Each new epic writer, Phillips contends, chooses his or her ancestors, a notion he takes from Ralph Ellison, and thereby reconfigures the tradition the writer joins, a point taken from T. S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Because the new epic writer goes to his or her predecessors for productive strategies or devices, the ongoing active selection and alteration that is the tradition cumulatively assembles the textual features that constitute the loose cohesiveness of the family group; and criticism that follows along is able to discern a rough practical definition of genre surfacing from the ongoing work of self-consciously and deliberately participating writers. As Stanley Cavell (drawing on Wittgenstein) puts it in Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (Harvard UP, 1981):
[T]he members of a genre share the inheritance of certain conditions, procedures and subjects and goals of composition, and … in primary art each member of such a genre represents a study of these conditions, something I think of as bearing the responsibility of the inheritance. There is, on this picture, nothing one is tempted to call the features of a genre which all its members have in common. … [N]othing would count as a feature until an act of criticism defines it as such.(28)
This critical following along would work best in the presence...