American Epic


Several typical characteristics of American epic.  These were generated in student exams in Summer, 1998.


Typical Formal Features

Technical, Formal Innovation (formal and linguistic) 

Fragmentation, Discontinuity, Erratic Form 

Lyric, not narrative, construction 

Multiplicity of voices 

Active role of author

Imitative of other epics (especially of Whitman) 

Voice is direct, informal, frank in tone 

Colloquial language 

Reflective, thoughtful 

Recitation of contemporary cultural markers, specifics of place and time: "cherishing the detail of the nation (and the world)" 




Typical concerns
Thought over action 

Gives voice to the voiceless/opposes dominant culture; epics of tribes, minorities, focus groups, countercultures; the eccentric self, the regional, marginal 

Contemplation of important social issues 

Criticism of War 

Critical vision of Society 

Focus on Personal 

Focus on Movement (journey, quest, movement itself) 

Focus on Sexuality 

Focus on the Future 


Focus on Self (Celebration and quest of self) (and applying that outward to other people) 

Focus on Nature 

Focus on Transcendent Experience/the idea of Eternity 

Focus on Connections, Relations (Love) 

Focus on Fragmentation, Rootlessness 

Focus on American content: themes, history, society 

Focus on contemporary, modern images



In the more traditional frameworks associated with epic poetry:
Hero: non-traditional, "hero of the mind," a different kind of "epic self," often the poet him/herself; a mind heroic in perception, escaping limits; the "missing" hero-- never well-defined, thus leaving space for growth, change
Journey: internal, personal, abstract (mental, spiritual, emotional, metaphysical); possible journeys, not physical ones
Goal: more abstract, "better society," improved understanding of self
Conflict/Opposition: Conflicts of the self, individual vs. society; Themes of love and war, but more abstract, most anti-war

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