One way of approaching this project might be to take some aspect of traditional epic and see whether and how it applies to or is developed in one or more American epics. Obviously, the more you can focus on the particular "Americanness" of its development, the better.
I think I might skip over the too-obvious invocation of the muse to talk about the opening setting of epic poems, because I noticed that Wigglesworth, Dwight, and Barlow all begin their epics at night. Thinking back through other epics, I have trouble remembering any others that do so. Both Homeric poems open with assemblies; the Aeneid with a storm at sea; Paradise Lost with the fallen angels in Hell. While these last two might be related to the dark of night, itís hard to say without exploring it further. Are there other American epics that open in darkness? Is it common, and maybe significant, or are these three poems exceptional? Once Iíve got this beginning question or set of possibilities, what can I do with it? How can I explore the implications of this kind of opening setting? How is it related to the projects of these particular poems (Does it contrast with the closing setting? How does it contribute to the themes and progression of each epic?) And how does it relate to American epic as a whole? (I remember Peter Levi remarking that "The English poem is a sun that sets"; what does a setting in nightfall or the middle of the night suggest for these American poems, and for America itself?)
Another way to approach the project, one that might require less reading, would be an examination of a particular long poem or other kind of text to see if it is, in fact, an epic. (Here it would be best to avoid texts that are already to some extent accepted as epicpoems by Whitman or Pound, say.) Does your chosen text conform to certain expectations we have of epic poetry? Does it satisfy some parts of the usual definitions? Or does it revise those expectations and definitions in interesting ways? If you choose to explore the epic qualities of prose, drama, film, or some other medium, you need to explain that shift of genre and/or medium.
The film version of Gone with the Wind is being re-released this week, and maybe itís worth asking whether that film is "really" an epic. How fully does it conform to some of the definitions I've seen provided/suggested in this class? How does it change them? How do I deal with this shift of medium? Is film an elite form of discourse? Does it have the "rhythm of recurrence" suggested by Frye, a set of repetitive patterns that are somehow Ďlikeí verse?Many more traditional ideas for papers focused on single texts are out there, some of them already well-explored in the scholarship, some not. While I donít expect your research to be exhaustive, I do expect you to make sure that youíre not reinventing the wheel. I donít want to see the 7000th paper on "images of nature" or "transcendentalism" in Whitman.
While weíre at it, do we really need to be thinking in terms of "papers" at all? What about other ideas? Develop an annotated bibliography of recent epics? Of epics devoted to particularly local or state histories, like Meekís Red Eagle? Of scholarship on American epic? Design your own course for American epic (Of what century? Womenís epic? African-American epic?) Are there more creative projects to develop? Editions of texts worth developing (Morton, for example, or Meek)? Develop a substantial web page dealing with your particular topic, or with the course?
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