American Epic  
English 454 Special Topics: American Epic 

Summer, 1998 

Auburn University

Dr. Jeremy Downes 

Department of English

Description Grading Texts  Schedule  List of Epics 
Projects  HyperEpos  Characteristics Bibliography Home

Course Description, Objectives

Not to be outdone by earlier, aristocratic poems of love, war, and empire, American poets have sought for over two centuries to craft the American epic. But how do you sing the modern epic, and "mirror this modernity"? How celebrate democracy (the man en masse) in an ancient, elitist genre? How do you handle the epic "machinery" (the gods and goddesses and so forth) in a secular society? These and many other problems are handled in different ways, leading one critic, at least, to describe American epic as that "strange, amorphous, anomalous, self-contradictory thing." In this course, we’ll try to give this "thing" some shape, to outline some of the problems encountered, and some of the variety of strategic responses used by Americans in their repeated quests for an epic, for that "supreme fiction." In addition to reading and discussion of the core texts for the course, students will have the opportunity to adopt an epic of their choice for further exploration.

Course Requirements and Grading

Final Exam (20%)

Midterm Examination (10%)

Short essay (3-5 pages): Each student will develop a sharply defined essay question or strong thesis for each core text, to be turned in on the day after we finish each text (1 paragraph each; 5%, but missing more than 3 of these responses will result in failure of the course). However, you will write only one essay, choosing the text and thesis which seems most interesting and useful. I strongly recommend that you write this essay early in the quarter. (10%)

Independent project on an American epic of your choice. This may be linked to the group presentation, but does not have to be. The various stages in this project of research and writing (conferences, bibliography, preliminary drafts) will contribute to the project grade. (20%)

Presentation: Each group will select an epic not on the syllabus, provide sample sections to the entire class the day before their presentation, and then lead a class session on their chosen epic. See handout and list of epics. (15%)

Participation: Active involvement in the course is essential; this includes participation in daily discussion, thoughtful reading, and serious engagement with both group projects and the work of the class as a whole. (20%)

Attendance: Five or more unexcused absences will result in failure of the course.

Additional writing, reading, quizzes, or oral presentations may be required as necessary.

*Any student who needs special accommodations in class should make an appointment with me.*

Required Texts

  1. Excerpts from Wigglesworth, Barlow, Dwight. Handout.
  2. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass. Bantam Classic Edition.
  3. Alexander Beaufort Meek, The Red Eagle. AU Academic Publishing.
  4. The Red Record: The Wallam Olum: The Oldest Native North American History. Trans. David McCutchen. Avery Publishing Group.
  5. Hart Crane, The Collected Poems. Liveright.
  6. Robert Pinsky, An Explanation of America. Princeton UP.
  7. Andrew Hudgins, After the Lost War. Houghton Mifflin.
  8. Sharon Doubiago, South America Mi Hija. University of Pittsburgh Press.


Tentative Schedule
June 17-19: Introductions, Handouts (If you cannot attend, please pick up reading, Haley 8076) 

Reading Day: Princeton Encyclopedia, "Epic"/ Michael Wigglesworth, excerpts from The Day of Doom 

Reading Day: Joel Barlow, excerpts from The Columbiad

June 22-26: Reading Day: Timothy Dwight, excerpts from The Conquest of Canaan 

Discussion: Traditional Epic. Begin reading Whitman (1-224) 

Discussion: Early American Epic 

Discussion: Contemporary scholarship on American epic 

Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1-91: Focus on "Song of Myself"

June 29- July 3: Whitman, 92-224: Focus on "Song of Myself" 

92-224: Focus on "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" 

225-322: Focus on "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" 

Focus on "Drum-Taps"

July 6-10: Whitman 323-361: Focus on "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d" 

323-361: Focus on "Passage to India" 

361-456: Focus on "A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads" 

Midterm Examination. Whitman, conclusions. 

Student selected text: Eliot, The Waste Land

July 13-17: Meek, The Red Eagle, 2-22 



Reading Day: Independent Project 

Student selected text: Longfellow, Song of Hiawatha

July 20-25:  The Red Record, 51-79

Project conferences by this point.


Reading Day: Independent Project 

Student selected text: Brooks, A Street in Bronzeville

Project Thesis due

July 27-31: Crane, The Bridge, "Proem," "Ave Maria" 

"Powhatan’s Daughter" 

"Powhatan’s Daughter" 

"Cutty Sark" 

Student selected text: Hughes, Montage of a Dream Deferred. Project Bibliography due

August 3-7: "Cape Hatteras" 

"The Tunnel," "Atlantis" 

Reading Day: Pinsky 

Pinsky, An Explanation of America 

Student selected text: Berryman, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet. Project Draft due.

August 10-14 Peer Review Day 

Hudgins, After the Lost War, 1-74 


Reading Day: Independent Project/Doubiago 

Student selected text: Ginsberg, Howl

August 17-21 Doubiago, South America Mi Hija, 1-69. Project Due. 

Reading Day: Doubiago 



Last Class Day: Conclusions, Review

August 25: Final Examination  
Description Grading Texts  Schedule  List of Epics 
Projects  HyperEpos  Characteristics Bibliography Top of Page
Copyright ©1998, 1999 by Jeremy M. Downes
Last modified:  May 15, 1999
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