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W. Gilbert Adair: The American Epic Novel in the Late Twentieth Century

- Adrian Clarke

If the history of epic in this country effectively petered out with the mock-heroic variety - excepting C.M. Doughty’s The Dawn of Britain and footnotes such as the Arthurian poems of Charles Williams and John Heath-Stubbs - the reasons are not far to seek, and it is to the state of which the UK is now a client that we must look for further examples of the form. W. Gilbert Adair commenced that task long before he took up residence in the US and has now extended his pertinently selective study into the present century. His starting point is Pound’s characterisation of the epic as “a poem including history”, which leads him via the Renaissance “nation-poem” modelled on the Aeneid to demands in the wake of Independence for an American national epic that would be in its turn expressive of imperial ambitions. A satisfactory prototype failing to appear, “certain writers set out to transfer epic qualities to prose narrative”. (Bakhtin’s insistence that the epic’s concerns are anterior while the novel’s are contingent, constantly moving towards an inconclusive future, is acknowledged, though no immediate attempt made to refute it; rather, the whole book may be considered as an interrogation of that argument in the light of its chosen texts.)

With a glance at among others Melville,  Dreiser and Dos Passos, and a slightly longer consideration of Fenimore Cooper, Adair proceeds to four novels with epic ambitions of one sort or another that are perhaps variously symptomatic (though he reserves the term for more recent work)  rather than representative of the Cold War period, and a further five titles that may be seen as responding to aspects of its aftermath. His working definition of the characteristics of epic fiction - “a literary super-genre” - involves “an ambition to ‘include history’; some kind of bearing on totality, hospitable to a bonding in some form to empire; an educative function ... ”; also “physical massiveness ... a competitive breadth of spine standing out on a shelf, blatantly announcing the work’s, its subject’s, and its sheer effort’s mutually reinforcing importance”. His close readings of the novels integrate “suggestions discerned in semantic and syntactical minutiae of selected passages with an apparent larger strategic intentionality vis-a-vis some relation to imperial America”. They evidence as great a concern to explore the principal social and political factors that have shaped the texts , bringing an impressive range of information to bear in the process.

Of the Cold War novels, James Michener’s Centennial is the most up-front in its epic ambitions, presenting itself as an academic’s vetted version of a magazine’s fictional attempt to capture “the soul of America ... as seen in microcosm”. If that, in combination with scholarly notes to each chapter, is taken to indicate literary sophistication, Adair’s reading suggests rather, from pioneers and trappers to oilmen and corporations, a problematic relation of historical fact to teleological narrative as they elide unrealised possibilities in tracing a “manifest destiny”. His deployment of historical sources allows for a fair assessment of the novel’s claim to epic status within Adair’s criteria which are not Michener’s - the latter’s “epic hero ... is at work in history and is simultaneously history’s truth beyond the truth”. Centennial patently loses its way in the final chapter in which in the face of evidences of the depredations of international capital prophecy gives way to nostalgia; Adair, while registering a fascination with the novel’s “protracted massiveness”, demonstrates that what is offered is “pseudo-history” whose “ease of utterance” and “syntactical levelling” are indicative of a failure of epic ambition.

With The Executioner’s Song, Norman Mailer’s account of the murderer Gary Gilmore, epic novel criteria may be seen as starting to unravel at the pull of destiny, Mormon Blood Atonement, a debased heroism, mundane criminality, and individual salvation, all elaborated through the extensive use of raw documentary materials. Adair proposes “an epic scenario pitting an exemplary eye to one’s karma against the clinging to life here and now on which modern ‘civilization is built’”. He goes on to give as good a wide-ranging account of the case and its background as is ever likely to be compressed into 25 pages while not losing sight of Mailer’s “framings”, before, in a broader perspective, offering the book as an “epic-analytic achievement” primarily on the basis of its preparedness to “inhabit crisis permanently” rather than retreat into Centennial’s reproachful retrospection; meanwhile Gilmore’s heroic status or latent representativeness, Mailer believed, awaits an epoch in which his willing death “to absolve himself in preparation for rebirth” will accord him a kind of precursorial significance.

If that “quasi-religious aura” makes The Executioner’s Song a paranoid work, then Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow “is the paranoid epic to end all”. - Or - for the protagonist Tyrone Slothrop at least - a cycle whose “anti-paranoid part” is one, in Pynchon’s words, “where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long”. From the System’s surveillance of Slothrop and a possible link between his erections and V2 rocket strikes in World War 2 London, it is a novel of connections and their lack on every level from the personal to the cosmic and of plot strands that can subvert themselves almost as they are resumed: literary strategies to fix the reader in a fascinated double bind. Adair is unfazed: “Control trumps synthesis with its need for plot, resulting in apocalypse ... Bearing in mind Serres’s exposition of a link realised between informational and thermodynamic entropy once information was treated as a form of energy ... 1) can fiction, over time, evade entropy? 2) if so, how? 3) if not, why not?” In his reading Pynchon’s “epic paranoid strategy will include making entropy no longer simply an ‘adequate [cultural] metaphor’ but an active political and stylistic determinant in the form of Gravity’s Rainbow”. At one point Slothrop appears to essay the prophetic - if not in an imperialist context - as he conjectures “the Zone cleared, depolarized, and somewhere inside the waste of it a single set of coordinates from which to proceed, without elect, without preterite, without even nationality to fuck it up ... “. Thereafter he becomes an increasingly elusive figure, thus helping to answer Adair’s previous questions, and offering confirmation of his conclusion that “[t]he writing in Gravity’s Rainbow is indeed the only ‘epic hero’ in sight. Yet the writing repeatedly acknowledges - by insistence, by insinuation, and by example - its own infection by the deathly forces. ... The writing itself becomes a parodic sacrificial offering, without guarantee of ‘handing down’”.   

It may be argued that the studied incoherence of the last section of Gravity’s Rainbow puts in question its status as a paranoid work. Quoting its protagonist, Kid, on that subject (“Everything you look at seems just an inch away from its place in a perfectly clear pattern ... ”), Adair finds that Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren “subsists in part as an extended stand against paranoid interpretations”; it offers “the processual experience of a paranoid reading for roughly its first half, shifting to a different kind in the second - closer to a commending of oneself to what is there, instead of illusion”. Determining what is there in the course of Kid’s visits to the city of Bellona - which has suffered a mysterious disaster that  has caused a breakdown of familiar social structures and left buildings burning to the ground at one point and subsequently intact -is ultimately impossible. An SF time-loop, unreconciled time-frames and evidences of irreconcilable laws of physics are reviewed inconclusively. Through his status as a poet, Kid’s contacts in Bellona are various, but his principal involvement is with a “semi-outlaw” gang - the scorpions - whose leader he becomes. The novel’s account of daily life in the scorpions’ “nest” prompts Adair to enlist Pound’s further definition of epic as a “tale of the tribe” - one, in Pound’s and Kipling’s spirit, designed to offer socially-applicable values; “[a]t the same time, the operative assumption that this specific ‘communal world’ merits the exhaustive treatment it receives over hundreds of pages, quietly but enormously derides priorities that are ‘second nature’ to an attitude of respect for the official social hierarchy”. Larger themes are traced - through a possibly hallucinated manifestation of the myth of the Goddess in the form of a metamorphosing modern Daphne, and equally in the day-to-day interactions of characters whose antagonisms raise ethnic, sexual and gender issues. Bellona itself, its “part-models in the nation’s inner cities” with “their disproportionate share of American devastation”, is “a black hole of repetition where much can be learned but nothing passed on. It’s a temporal complexity perhaps indeed ‘up to’ the task of ‘including future’”.

The final chapter “Epics on the Verge of an Empire” offers readings of Don DeLillo’s Underground, Lawrence Schiller’s Perfect Murder, Perfect Town, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest - all products of the period that saw the “triumph” of capitalism and a trumpeted “end of history”, and Kenneth Goldsmith’s Day. Of these Almanac of the Dead, coming in the wake of 70s formulations of “identity politics”, if not the most notable literary success, is in some respects the most radical departure from Virgilian epic, while in others remaining its mirror image. (Bulk is on Adair’s side, but it could be argued that, accepting Deleuze and Guattari’s conditions of a deterritorialization of language, connection of the individual to a political immediacy, and the collective assemblage of enunciation, the book belongs in their category of “a minor literature”.) In its multiple narratives - mostly conveyed in flashbacks - the numerous Native American characters respond to oppression and to ancestral voices equally in their criminal defiance and revolutionary struggles towards a reclamation of the land stolen from them. It may be that under “globalization” there are no tribes left with a tale to tell, or, with their increasing dispersal, no teller with authority to speak on their behalf; Adair questions quite whose aspirations the novel’s prophetic thrust furthers as it manipulates an empathic response from the reader who is “short-circuited into a kind of sociality” that remains invisible other than in terms of sales.

The last is undoubtedly the most provocative selection. Kenneth Goldsmith’s Day is a transcription of every word of the New York Times of 1st September 2000, working down each column in turn to produce a book of 836 pages. “Is this fiction at all, let alone epic fiction ... ?” Adair asks, proceeding to identify “a diversity of characters and micro-narratives that no novel can come close to matching”. Length also supports his contention, and  a “massive framing or defamiliarizing” that realises epic’s educative function in offering numerous discoveries unlikely to have been made in perusal of the paper in its original format; however, the problematic relationship of journalism and history, the arbitrariness of meaningful juxtapositions when they occur, and the difficulty in identifying the paper’s “tribe” would all appear to disqualify the work’s categorization as epic in the Poundian tradition. Adair concludes that Day is an heroic representation of information overload - aggravated by the internet, that - creating a “compound crisis of epic method” - cannot be “synecdochized”.

In Virilio’s cyberspace with its “non-situation” an act of appropriation such as Goldsmith’s retains the virtue of insisting on its own materiality, while, perhaps thankfully, failing most of the criteria Adair has traced to register a possible exhaustion of the epic tradition. Nonetheless, the revival of unapologetic and very physical imperial interventions in the wake of 9/11 can only encourage further variations on the “super-genre” (one of Goldsmith’s ongoing projects is another NYT transcription, this time for the fateful day). The present book establishes an expanded critical framework with wider implications for literature in the period it covers and should sharpen appetites for responding to what may be to come. Meanwhile a paperback edition to enable a wider readership would be very welcome.


The American Epic Novel in the Late Twentieth Century is published by the the Edward Mellen Press at £74.95.


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