Edward Adams. Liberal Epic: The Victorian Practice of History from Gibbon to Churchill. University of Virginia Press: Charlottesville and London, 2011. ISBN: 978-0813931456. Price: US$39.50.[Record]

  • Eric Hood

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  • Eric Hood
    University of Kansas

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 …