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Roads to take when you think of your country: American epic poems by women

Jenny Goodman, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation focuses on American women's responses to the Western epic tradition and, more specifically, to the modern American epic tradition. I examine women poets' strategies of self-legitimation and their transformations of national narratives in this male-centered genre. I argue that the poems in my study do not merely reflect roles historically available to women but actively imagine new possibilities for women as agents in American history and creators of "usable" national pasts. Chapter One discusses the invisibility of women's texts in most scholarship on the American epic and outlines my approach to recovering women's efforts. Chapter Two focuses on Muriel Rukeyser's "The Book of the Dead" (1938). I examine Rukeyser's assertion of her authority as a woman in the making of American cultural traditions and her simultaneous examination of her position as a privileged poet attempting to represent the oppressed. Rukeyser represents women's agency in Popular Front causes by rewriting the male-centered version of the Osiris/Isis myth in Eliot's Waste Land. Chapter Three explores Gwendolyn Brooks' Annie Allen (1949) as a response to African American women's situation during and after World War II. I argue that Brooks' African American female hero should be read not only against the dominant Western heroic tradition but also against African American intellectuals' representations of heroism as a masculine quest for identity involving a journey away from home and family. Revising the notion of woman and domesticity as constraints on the male artist-hero, Brooks depicts her female hero as needing to resist the social script of romance. In Hard Country (1982), Sharon Doubiago, a white author with working-class origins, reveals the connection between America's genocidal history and the denial of all that the culture deems feminine. In Chapter Four, I maintain that Doubiago's strategic adoption of the marginal stance inaugurated in the 1855 "Song of Myself" enables her to write an anti-imperialist epic of the North American continent. Simultaneously, Doubiago resists Whitman's tendency to erase the subjectivities of societal "others." My conclusion discusses Adrienne Rich's move toward imagining a more inclusive epic tradition in her recent work.

Subject Area

American literature|American studies|Womens studies|African Americans

Recommended Citation

Goodman, Jenny, "Roads to take when you think of your country: American epic poems by women" (1997). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9809340.