Epic at the End of Empire

Epic at the End of Empire

2011-12-07
The American Epic Novel in the Late Twentieth Century: The Super-Genre of the Imperial State
Gilbert Adair
Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2008. Print.

In The American Epic Novel, Gilbert Adair presents a “State-of-the-Empire address” that interrogates the epical form in a time where authors no longer talk of writing “The Great American Novel.” As Joseph Tabbi finds, such an exploration goes beyond expanding the canon and presents “a new, compelling context for ‘the literary’ itself.”

The following review originally appeared as the forward to Gilbert Adair’s The American Epic Novel in the Late Twentieth Century: The Super-Genre of the Imperial State.

During its rise, the American empire brought American literature along with it. Even as late as the 1970s, those who argued for a U.S. national exceptionalism could find support in American literary forms distinct from Classical and European literature. The Scottish historian, V. G. Kiernan, clearly had in mind Herman Melville’s “Whiteness of the Whale” when, in 1975, he authored America: The New Imperialism: From White Settlement to World Hegemony. Melville in prose, Walt Whitman in poetry, and also the “inadvertent epic” (Fiedler) of Harriet Beacher Stowe were once necessary to the imagination of American enterprise abroad. World travel amid ever expanding markets also brought with them new forms of subjectivity, so that authors such as Henry Adams, the James siblings, and Gertrude Stein might further align the formation of Empire with the formation of a distinctive literary consciousness. Part of what distinguished literary innovation in America was the idea that forms and identities were not only changeable, but that change itself - like the expansion of capital, control, and technology - might be endless.

Authors of contemporary world-fictions, who after the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s could confront Empire in its apparent realization, might have been expected to consolidate those earlier developments and indeed “innovation without end” (or justification) is all but enforced today by university writing programs and a proliferation of cultural NGOs. We now have, under development, a world-aesthetic that for all its celebration of content “diversity” can feel as settled, long lasting, and inevitable as the Roman or Greek epic. All the while, however, Empire has scarcely needed to legitimate itself through its literature, and its chroniclers no longer cite literary authors except in (their) passing. Not one of the authors treated at length by Adair, for example, neither paranoid Pynchon nor popular Michener, not Mailer, DeLillo, Silko, Wallace, or Goldsmith, is mentioned in Hardt and Negri’s Empire. Melville’s Bartleby and Robert Musil’s Count Leinsdorf do make separate appearances, but these figures are treated less as characters in literature than as empirical nodes in the grids of Power; their “singularity” is no different, really, from differently designated, but equally non-descript “women,” “races,” and “cultures” that move through Empire. “Ah, Humanity!” indeed. Bartleby has become, in the eyes of contemporary theory, merely one of “the poors” whose world-altering power is in an isolated refusal of work (not participation in Euro-styled party politics; not as a subjectivity whose development might have political consequence). Where the historian Kiernan yielded to novelists and poets for cultural descriptions, Hardt and Negri merely appropriate literature while presenting Empire itself as a work of cultural imagination.

Gilbert Adair, a practicing poet, when writing on fiction, is quite generous in his use of literary theory, though never does he allow theory to overtake the work of imaginative writing. An Irishman who has relocated to “the Empire State” of New York, Adair is uniquely positioned to deliver a set of overlapping, “mutually reinforcing” statements. What we have in this book is not exactly an outsider’s perspective. Among the current generation of scholars anywhere, who has been untouched by American culture? Adair delivers his State-of-the-Empire address not from the standpoint of any of the dozens of emerging, increasingly wealthy, and increasingly powerless, national republics. If we wanted to be fashionable, we might consider placing Adair’s critical writing in the interdependent, border crossing “World Republic of Letters” - except for the fact that the capital of Adair’s empire is not Paris (the city which, according to Pascale Casanova, has traditionally administered that Imagined Republic, confirming the transnational modernism of Adams, Pound, Eliot, Hemingway, Stein, and Faulkner). Given the present admixture of so many canonical and non- or sub- or supra-literary works, we might better think of Adair as writing from just beyond the reach of administered culture, speaking for all those who have been sent by Empire to some perpetual, internal exile: “Upstate.”

In Adair’s book, significance emerges gradually, in layers and resonances that convey not a totalized theory but the various states of Empire, circa 1970, 1990, and the longue durèe of the current world-system. If this book is a welcome, overdue presentation of major contemporary world-fictions, it is also the first critical work to comprehend what the American novel after Empire has become. For more than a century, even as political writers hesitated to call the United States an emerging empire, literary critics hesitated to use the term “epic” in describing works of literature. Yet that did not keep poets in America from attempting (and failing at) the production of a “nation poem” in the Renaissance tradition. Since Fennimore Cooper attributed Homeric stature to the American Indian, American novelists have shown a marked tendency to write in the epical register - although any formal completion or comprehensive representation inevitably gets frustrated by the Republic’s headlong movement into an expansionary future. While American literature was under development in the 19th century, Adair argues, Empire was a kind of outer horizon directing and constraining possibilities within the totality of U.S. cultural endeavors. Yet with Empire’s arrival (and consequent prognoses of its decline), we have not seen the culmination of a single, grand narrative legible within a self-contained national literature. Not least to be interrogated today, is the ambition for narrative itself to contain “multitudes” that now include not only peoples, but a variety of powers, knowledges, and possible experiences selected out of an unprecedented wash of “information.”

One no longer hears talk among the current generation of fiction writers about producing “The Great American Novel,” but that hubris has not altogether departed in the face of new challenges. The novel, after all, remains the most imperialist genre. As empires tend to absorb more individuated cultures through assimilation or multicultural cohabitation, the novel demonstrates an ability to absorb within itself anything available in print, be it the daily news, the text of advertisements, even other literary forms. “The single-languaged and single-styled genres” - poetry, domestic fiction, even classical epics (Bakhtin 266) - become something else in the novel, less a repository of truths or lasting human sentiments than a kind of standing reserve. There’s a certain kind of novel that interests itself in human senses and sensibilities not for their own sake, as in Jane Austen, but as elements capable of being transformed into some larger system, a world-fiction adequate to the world-system that informs and shapes contemporary life. This is the epical form, less a “genre” than a set of mutually supporting constraints that Adair takes as his object of study.

It may have only seemed fitting that the world’s “only superpower,” the only nation so far actually to have deployed one of the new super weapons, would also develop the first “super-genre.” After all, American fiction in the 1970s had already produced more “mega-novels,” arguably at a higher pitch of literary accomplishment than at any time in the nation’s history since the decades preceding the Civil War. It was the Cold War, and the Manichean stresses that made a standoff of competing superpowers unsustainable, that energized politically minded authors in the 1970s, and its collapse reconstituted the cultural landscape in the 1990s. From that temporal contour, Adair is able to take a closer look at those 1970s American mega-novels and in doing so he reveals an endless skepticism for the literary endgame it has proved to be. On skepticism as a formal constraint as much as a political disposition, see Chenetier’s Beyond Suspicion: American Fiction since 1960. As Adair’s chapter on Pynchon shows, these world-fictions kept themselves going mainly by the gambit of questioning their own narrative mainsprings, by exposing their own sleights with the same energy that goes into exposing operations of power and knowledge in the world. More contemporary “systems novelists” - such as David Foster Wallace, William Vollmann, and Ben Marcus - have called the bluff of their postmodern predecessors. However, instead of escaping self-consciousness, this second generation of systems novelists too often reduce consciousness to matters of interpersonal relations - the endlessly anxious and always ambiguous querying of uncertain lovers (in Wallace), a free-floating cognition driven by linguistic invention (in Marcus), and (in all) the altering of human consciousness materially, not through argument or ideology at all but through evolution, ecology, and pharmacology.

One distinction of The American Epic Novel is not to offer a development in the line of Melville, James, and Pynchon; least of all does Adair propose a simple expansion of the canon to include minority, ethnic, and aggressively gendered writers. What we are given, rather, is a new, compelling context for “the literary” itself. One way of talking about Empire’s unprecedented reach and power, is its having left behind not only literature (as an important source of cultural capital), but the print-based forms that served to underwrite nation states and earlier, outward-reaching empires. As long as Empire depended for its cohesion on the formation of what Benedict Anderson refers to as “imagined communities,” it was, of necessity, bounded geographically and by a common language. Even Empire’s development along abstract economic and technological lines had to recognize humanity, if only for the end-product consumption that feeds finance. In recognizing humanity, Empire also, de facto, has had to recognize (and, where necessary, reconstruct) the world-making power of narrative (Aschcroft 1989).

Have we not reached a different, post-human understanding of Empire when one of its primary expressions can take the form of Kenneth Goldsmith’s Day? What better instance of the present - its persistence, the feeling of stagnation that comes from enforced perpetual “change” - than Goldsmith’s transcription of one issue of the New York Times. By reducing all elements, headlines, datelines, and so forth, to a single running text, Goldsmith in this book (and related transcriptions of a radio weather report for a year of every word spoken by Goldsmith and those he encountered in the course of one day) alters the terms of worldly engagement. By abdicating all authorial pretension (apart from the publication of these transcripts in the form of books, and quite artful, limited edition books at that), Goldsmith produces “information machines” that are themselves objects of contemplation. What is conveyed by these “works” is neither news nor conceptual content, neither ephemera nor substantial “works” that can be held for a time in consciousness or (for somewhat longer) in history. Goldsmith is offering instead an invitation to readers to reflect on the materiality of communication and textual production itself. Such a work is not imperial in its ambitions so much as it is radically empirical. Goldsmith’s work evokes, from Adair, as much insight and imaginative participation in Empire’s moment by moment living presence as any novel under discussion here, and Empire’s presence-in-transcript shows up the arbitrariness of all narrative, and a distrust of metonymy, as our preferred ways of handling the flood of information produced by communication systems.

One drawback of the recent transformation of Literary into Cultural Studies, with a wider range of content produced through ever shortening generations of media, is the loss of distinctive forms that can be not just repeated (remixed, mashed, or recombined) but gone back to for more (the way that historical judgments by each new generation can be passed by re-reading a canonical work). The success of this book will depend, I suspect, on whether “Empire” and “Epic” as worldly presences (if not “totalities”) can in fact provide the horizon and constraining force that has been missing in recent critical writing. One sign that this book opens out into a field (rather than simply offering so many more or less interesting “readings”) is the way that popular, literary, historical, and theoretical content do in fact “reinforce” one another throughout the book. Another sign is that this book does not stand alone. Its appearance reinforces, and is supported by, a number of important studies, for the most part unknown even to Adair. A similar topical range, including chapters on Tom Clancy as well as Pynchon, DeLillo, and Gaddis, is demonstrated by Piotr Siemion in a mid-1980s Columbia University dissertation, Whale Songs: American Fiction in the Age of Bureaucratic Domination (which unfortunately never reached publication, though its author has since reached a world-wide audience with his first published novel).Siemion’s chapter on Tom Clancy appears in the edited volume by Joseph Tabbi and Michael Wutz, Reading Matters: Narrative in the New Media Ecology. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997. Print. It would be well if Adair’s book encouraged readers to hunt down Robert Arlett’s Epic Voices, a book that includes writers from both sides of the Atlantic, John Fowles and Doris Lessing as well as Norman Mailer and Thomas Pynchon. Timothy Melley, in Empire of Conspiracy, was able to embrace different sides of discourse, including Margaret Atwood and the Unibomber Manifesto as well as Pynchon and Joseph Heller. A similar international, cultural, theoretical and literary integration can be found in Salah El Moncef’s Atopian Limits. Steffen Hantke (who, since then, has branched off into the study of “Horror” in popular culture) actually managed the sustained reading of Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men that Adair stops short of, a rare refusal in this most generous and comprehensive reading to date of epic, Empire, and their generic transformations across multiple media.

Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, New Edition. London: Verso, 2006. Print.

Arlett, Robert. Epic Voices. New York: Susquehanna University Press, 1996. Print.

Ashcroft, Bill. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures. London: Routledge, 1989. Print.

Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Austin: University of Texas Press Slavic Series. 1982. Print.

Casanova, Pascale. The Literary Republic of Letters. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006. Print.

Chenetier, Marc. Beyond Suspicion: American Fiction since 1960. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996. Print.

el Moncef, Salah. Atopian Limits: Questions of Self, Complexity, and Contingency in Postmodern American Narrative. Bern: Peter Lang, 2002. Print.

Fiedler, Leslie A. The Inadvertent Epic From Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Roots. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979. Print.

Hantke, Steffen. Conspiracy and Paranoia in Contemporary American Fiction: The Works of Don DeLillo and Joseph McElroy. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1994. Print.

Kiernan, V. G. (1975) America: The New Imperialism from White Settlement to World Hegemony. London, Verso, 2005. Print.

Leclair, Tom. The Art of Excess: Mastery in Contemporary American Fiction. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989. Print.

Melley, Timothy. Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Cold War America. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999. Print.

Negri, Antonio and Michael Hardt. Empire. Boston: Harvard University Press, 2000. Print.