This essay collection offers welcome evidence that epic criticism is thriving, even in academic conditions not obviously favorable for its nurture. It is possible that epic’s canonical status would lead to its neglect at a time when new cultural forms are more vigorously explored, or that such comparative generic criticism might lose its value in fields dominated by historicist criticism. Instead, as this collection’s strongest essays demonstrate, new ways of reading and new scholarly interests have strengthened the study of epic. Indeed, as this book’s title reminds us, history has always defined epic: epic has been linked to epoch, both because epic’s subject is characteristically national history, and because epic responds directly to national needs and desires.
This volume’s diverse essays have in common their performance at a symposium on “Epic and Epoch” held at Texas A&M in 1990. They cover a wide range of the epic’s history, divided into three areas: the ancient (Greek and Roman) epic, postclassical epic through the Renaissance, and post-Renaissance epic literature. In these groupings appear the anticipated names of Homer, Virgil, Statius, Dante, Milton, Pound, and Pasternak, but also less familiar ones (e.g. Galdos, Chapelain, and the Cantar de Fernan Gonzalez). Van Kelly provides a useful and extensive introduction that works toward a definition of the epic while indicating the salient topics of the volume’s essays.
W.R. Johnson opens the collection proper by reconsidering the accepted ways of distinguishing between oral and written epic, in the cases of Homer and Statius. This essay is followed by a cluster on Homer’s Odyssey by Jenny Strauss Clay, Marylin A. Katz, Sheila Murnaghan and Victoria Pedrick (as Dasenbrock later reminds us in his essay, this has been “the century of the Odyssey, not the Iliad” [p. 230], but the imbalance here is noteworthy in any case). The section on postclassical epic includes an assessment of Dante’s “heroic poetry” by J.K. Newman, a reevaluation of the Spanish epic of revolt by Mercedes Vaquero, George S. Tate’s Girardian reading of the Scandinavian sagas, John T. Shawcross’s repositioning of Milton in relation to the epic tradition, and Ullrich Langer’s bracing contemplation of “Boring Epic in Early Modern France.” The book’s final section, on post-Renaissance epic, casts its net wide to bring in Allan H. Pasco’s interpretation of epic’s decline in the French Romantic period, Reed Way Dasenbrock’s assessment of Ezra Pound’s response to the Iliad, a look at how epic was transformed in Russia in response to Stalin’s tyranny, by Frederick T. Griffiths and Stanley J. Rabinowitz, and Stephen Miller’s account of Galdos’s epic of Spain, with Ortega’s response.
Characteristic of a conference essay collection is this breadth of reference, as well as their diversity of style. Some are quite informal, bearing all the signs of their oral delivery (for example, the essays by Johnson and Pasco), while others are more detailed and formal scholarly pieces (such as Vaquero’s and Miller’s); some expansively survey the issues (for example, Newman’s), while others are more narrow in focus (for example, Pedrick’s). These differences tend to be complementary rather than distracting, however, since they display the variety of critical approaches to the problem of reading epic today. The best essays directly take on the challenge that epic poses to current critical values and methodologies. Sheila Murnaghan, for example, gives the reader some perspective on the attempt to read a feminist heroine into Homer’s Penelope; in the end, she argues, the modern reader must recognize the epic as a genre that has always been gendered male. Ullrich Langer uses the perspective of social and political history to show us how a given historical moment can shape epic practice: in this case, he looks at how the court culture of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century France constructed the genre to suit its own literary and social values, oscillating between entertainment and correctness. In the final section, Griffith and Rabinowitz explain Bakhtin’s theoretical definition of the epic in the context of his resistance to Stalin’s regime, a response suggestively contrasted with Pasternak’s and Nadezhda Mandelstam’s oppositional tactics. Their essay thus allows us to locate the development of a theory of epic in the dynamics of a devastating time of political history. Theories of the epic, like the genres itself, are hardly disinterested.
Different readers will find different things of value in this collection. While the classical essays themselves cover a relatively narrow range of material, classicists will appreciate that many of the essays (although not all) on the later literature are broad and accessible, yet sophisticated in method. Many will interest a wider critical audience insofar as they tackle defining the epic genre in new and challenging ways. The collection as a whole pushes the definition of the epic out from its usual limits (for example, in Tate’s consideration of the sagas or in Griffith’s and Rabinowitz’s reading of Mandelstam). All the essays show us that every epoch shapes its own epic (or may indeed not be able to sustain the genre at all, as in the Romantic period or our own time). In the writing, revision, and rejection of epic, writers define themselves against the past and imagine how their own time will be seen in the future, in the same way that Homer’s own heroes fought, remembering the giants of the past and envisioning the perpetuation of their own kleos in the songs of the poets to come.