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La Victoria de Santa Anna : THE ALAMO. By Michael Lind . Houghton Mifflin: 351 pp., $25

March 09, 1997|MARSHALL DE BRUHL | Marshall De Bruhl is the author of "Sword of San Jacinto: A Life of Sam Houston" (Random House, 1993). He is writing a book on the destruction of Dresden in World War II, to be published by Random House in 1998

Although the epic poem holds pride of place in literature--the Babylonian "Epic of Gilgamesh," for example, dates from about 2000 BC--its stature in the literary family has been much reduced. Our times are more notable for protesting than for singing of arms and the man.

Every few years, to be sure, new and best-selling translations of "The Divine Comedy," "The Iliad," "The Odyssey" or "The Aeneid" appear, but there are disturbing signs that even these recycled classics, are being relegated to the attic, if not the dust bin. When major universities make the study of Shakespeare and Milton optional, what chance have Dante, Homer and Virgil? Ironically, however, so-called multiculturalism, while dooming two dead white English males, might turn out to be the salvation of two Italians and a Greek, even if their works are pillars of a much-maligned Eurocentric culture.

It was not always so. Most reasonably educated people of a certain age recall reading and memorizing sections of "Paradise Lost," "Canterbury Tales" and "Beowulf." There were also more accessible long poems such as "Idylls of the King," "Evangeline" and even "Song of Hiawatha." And while the above-mentioned works of Homer, Virgil and Dante might have been considered the preserve of the intellectual elite, it was a large elite.

But translations, however brilliant, are beholden to the inspiration of another, and to say that "something was lost in the translation" is not to employ an idle cliche. Texture, context, idiom and an author's particular style and voice are poor travelers across the gulf between languages. Although the Greek scholar and translator T.F. Higham praised translations as often attaining the level of high art, he admitted that they often "show the wrong side of the tapestry."

However, poets and literateurs, unwilling or unable to risk all in writing a Homeric epic from scratch, soldier on with their translations of epic poetry, while the compositions of original epics have languished. Long poems have been written and collections strung together under a single title, but the great sweeping Homeric hymn has been ignored.

Only one American poet in this century has had any success with the form, and Stephen Vincent Benet succeeded beyond all expectations. His Civil War epic, "John Brown's Body," published in 1928, was a selection of the Book of the Month Club, won the Pulitzer Prize, sold hundreds of thousands of copies and has never been out of print.

Oddly, given the copycat habits of book publishing, no one tried to emulate Benet's great success. One argument is that epics demand great men, great times and great events, and our century, while certainly tumultuous, is arguably unheroic. Benet avoided that problem by going back, in the Homeric tradition, to an earlier time. His journey to the mid-19th century, however, was a rather brief time trip compared to "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey," which were written hundreds of years, perhaps as much as a millennium, after the events occurred.

Michael Lind, a novelist and polemical author of such books as "The Next American Nation" and "Up from Conservatism," offers more interesting and controversial reasons than timidity or lack of talent for the dearth of epic poetry in America. In a lengthy and informative appendix to his epic, "The Alamo," Lind discusses the epic tradition and not so incidentally attempts, rather successfully, to disarm his critics. He chastises what he calls the American academic liberal establishment (read: the intelligentsia) for consistently deriding the epic tradition. Benet was certainly not taken seriously by most of his colleagues.

Lind argues that neither of the two great American literary intelligentsia--19th century New Englanders and 20th century Southerners--had any interest in writing American historical epics, which, he observes, had to do "less with art than with politics"--and, of course, with social class. The American intelligentsia, on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, has always been rather snobbish, and an "American historical epic," says Lind, "whether based on war, slave escapes, or frontier exploration, requires sympathetic, though not sentimental, portrayals of the very sorts of people whom the American literati have tended to despise."

Lind might also have added a relatively new group that has weighed in with its own arguments against the old-line literary masterpieces. Feminists in the academy have no patience for what can, in truth, be read as old-fashioned tales of male derring-do and bonding. The epics are therefore anathema to the politically correct. In a recent letter to the New York Times, a California woman took a reviewer to task for praising Robert Fagles' new translation of "The Odyssey," which she dismissed as "a quintessential male fantasy." She took particular exception to the reviewer's "naive, uncritical and pre-theoretical acceptance of Homer's text as a 'timeless Great Book.' "

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