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Edward Adams’s Liberal Epic joins a renewed wave of interest in long-nineteenth-century British epic, arriving alongside Elisa Beshero-Bondar’s Women, Epic, and Transition in British Romanticism (2011) and following Simon Dentith’s Epic and Empire in Nineteenth-Century Britain (2006) and Herbert Tucker’s Epic (2008). Adams takes a thematic approach to genre, expanding his study of the epic beyond poetry to include military histories, war novels, and economic treatises by broadly defining epic as any “narrative that seriously takes up the content of war as ruled by the logic of heroic agency, that confronts the reality of killing at war’s heart, and that is written in a high style as part of a ‘great tradition’” (16-17). His study of the epic, therefore, is less concerned with poetic form than with “the entwining of two…[contradictory] notions, liberal and epic, one associated with progress, humanity, and self-determination, and the other with tradition, war, and violent domination” (19).
The prologue, introduction, and first chapter combine to provide the outlines of Adams’s argument: liberalism’s moral and intellectual rejection of warfare led to an effort to transcend narratives of violence, even while liberalism’s championing of individual freedom increasingly drew the culture toward the war epic’s heroic agency. Throughout these early sections Adams focuses on the eighteenth-century inheritors of the classical tradition and their attempts to manage that tradition’s depiction of illiberal warfare. Alexander Pope’s translation of The Iliad (1715-20) relies on poetic diction to sanitize Homer’s gore. Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall (1776-89) is read “as a series of epic experiments” (81) to limit the appeal of his sources’ presentation of violence and give the impression that the civilized world of the Enlightenment had overcome classical savagery. As Adams demonstrates, these efforts were part of a far-reaching cultural engagement with the epic form, supported by David Hume and Edmund Burke’s refashioning of the sublime and initiated by François Fénelon’s anti-war epic, Telemachus (1699).
Adams’s definitions reveal that the concept of Romantic liberal epic, the topic of his second chapter, is an oxymoron, since Romanticism’s inflexible embrace of liberal fairness rendered “reasonably mimetic narrations of combat violence in an epic mode” (107) practically impossible. Hence, Percy Shelley’s depictions of bloodless revolutions are the absurd but logical endpoint of the Godwinian refusal of war epic. Having discussed Walter Scott as a special case in the previous chapter, Adams focuses here on the philosophical and ethical break between the Romantics and their neoclassical forerunners. On the whole, the Romantics avoided not just Homeric savagery but the topic of heroic warfare altogether. Where Adams finds slaughter in Romanticism, in works by Robert Southey and George Gordon Byron, it functions to critique neoclassical attempts to justify or hide the horrors of combat. The Romantic ethos demanded a frankness about war too easily obscured by flowery poetics, so depictions of warfare drifted into prose. Pressing this point, Adams highlights William Napier’s effort, in the History of the War in the Peninsula (1828-40), to locate heroism and achieve realism in his combat narratives.
Although Adams addresses neoclassical and Romantic ideas about epic, Liberal Epic is principally a book about Victorians. The four central chapters revolve around Victorian writers who grappled with the paradoxes of liberalism, and the sweep of the discussion is overwhelming. In little more than one hundred pages, Adams takes on texts by more than a dozen authors, including novelists (William Thackeray, George Eliot, and Leo Tolstoy), historians (Thomas Macaulay, Thomas Carlyle, Edward Creasy, Henry Buckle, Alexander Kinglake, G. M. Trevelyan, and H. G. Wells), economists (J. S. Mill and John Maynard Keynes), and poets (Alfred Tennyson, William Morris, and Thomas Hardy). This lofty survey is less an argument than the picture of a culture caught in the gravitational pull of an ideological paradox. Thackeray’s ambition to raise his artistic stature by writing an epic is thwarted by his novelistic rejection of heroic agency; Macaulay’s novelizing approach to the battlefield (The History of England ) becomes caught in the epic’s triumphalist logic. Similarly, Buckle’s statistical approach to history, in the History of Civilization (1857-61), degenerates into epic tropes, and Creasy’s attempts to revive a sense of heroic agency, in Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World (1851), seem to collapse beneath the determinist march of Whig progress. Adams revels in these chiasmic, oppositional pairings, each side struggling but failing to fully reconcile liberalism’s core contradiction between the self-realization of heroic agents and the determinist force of civilizing free markets.
Adams’s primary interest is in exposing liberalism’s internal tensions, and his invented generic classification has been carefully constructed to pry open imperialism’s ideological gaps. Although some will question the historical legitimacy of Adams’s generic experimentation, the result of this sophisticated bricolage speaks to the value of Adams’s approach. Following in the path of Franco Moretti’s Modern Epic (1994), Adams’s liberal epic is a thematic category, operating across formal limits. It is the outgrowth of deep cultural forces, yet the liberal epic has been productively bracketed, and, in this regard, Adams surpasses Moretti. Beyond being historically bound, Adams is careful not to claim too much for his new subgenre. The liberal epic’s solution is not hegemonic. Indeed, Adams is forthcoming with counterfactuals: the pacifism of Tolstoy, the Socialist anti-heroics of Morris, and the reactionary hero worship of Carlyle all come near and yet turn away from the liberal epic’s strategy of compromise, its comfort with leaving liberalism’s competing pressures unresolved. The liberal epic’s logic is presented as just one ideological solution to the problems of liberal imperialism, and a temporary one at that.
In the final chapter, Adams brings the liberal epic’s trajectory to a close. Focusing on Winston Churchill’s military histories, particularly Marlborough (1933-38), Adams concludes with his most pointed critique of “the rot (or emptiness) at [liberalism’s] heart” (235): despite modernism’s persistent denunciation of war, there was still room enough within the liberal imagination for Churchill’s innovative wedding of graphic brutality with a tale of civilization’s progress. In contrast to his liberal forerunners, “Churchill’s liberal imperialism has little pity, and no shame” (253). Here, epic violence is no longer softened by the liberalism’s legal frameworks; liberalism itself has come to accept the epic’s logic of triumphalist violence. As Adams explains, “Churchill … wanted, needed, argued for war, for the history of war, for narratives centered upon violent killing, for the moral and intellectual value of seeing heroes destroy their enemies” (194). In the introduction, Adams links Churchill’s embrace of ferocious Homeric agency to contemporary videogame first-person shooters like Halo and Doom, and, as he later shows, the modern world’s undiminished bloodlust is the byproduct of liberalism’s split consciousness: “[e]pic survived or persisted in the modern liberal world and in spite of liberalism’s profound ethical and intellectual objections, because liberalism needed and still needs its horrific sublime, offensive and beautiful drama of domination” (290). Why? “[B]ecause only by ... tinting and thereby embodying the ‘invisible’ hand was [liberalism] able to see and believe that it had any real power, autonomy, and freedom at all” (252). Despite moral and intellectual protestations, “war did still serve both the self-interests and the self-regard of the liberal middle-class nations” (179).
The grand scope of Adams’s project has certain drawbacks. Literary history drawn at this scale must necessarily forgo detail and, therefore, demands that the reader be acquainted with an unusually wide range of texts. Adams’s deployment of his own scholarly breadth too often exacerbates these difficulties. His use of untranslated Greek and Latin will likely be more bothersome than evidentiary. Moreover, the book’s organization, which skips across genres, periods, and texts without clear direction, can be dizzying. Adams’s brief skirmishes with Tolstoy and H. G. Wells, for example, are little more than parenthetical musings, and his light engagements with the economics of Adam Smith and Keynes will leave many readers wishing for either substantially more or quite a bit less. Adams’s case is only muddied by these digressions. Further compounding the book’s already tottering organization, the index has been confined almost exclusively to the names of authors, with few entries for key concepts and almost no markers for individual texts.
Despite these and other minor difficulties, Edward Adams’s Liberal Epic is a welcome contribution to the study of the long nineteenth century, and it will be of particular interest to scholars working in the rhetoric of empire and warfare. Adams is at his best when he is discussing the prose military histories of his principals (Gibbon, Macaulay, and Churchill). Despite its tangents, Adams’s book delivers a sustained examination of an empire anxious to narrate its origins and progress as anything other than brutality and domination.
Eric Hood has a PhD in English from the University of Kansas and is an editor at The Digital Mitford: The Mary Russell Mitford Archive. His dissertation, “The Hero as Man of Letters”: Intellectual Politics and the Construction of the Romantic Epic, examines the transformation of eighteenth-century epic poetry.