Uncovering a Hidden Tradition: Gwendolyn Brooks’ “The Anniad” and Alice Notley’s Descent of Alette as Feminist Epics
My thesis investigates the patriarchal nature of the epic genre and posits that modern and contemporary epics written by women and engaged with various feminist goals cannot be labelled “feminine” or “female” due to the essentialist and vague nature of these modifiers. Instead, we should employ the the term “feminist” to navigate the ways in which epics authored by women undermine the patriarchal tradition of the form. Despite the fact that, throughout history, women poets have employed the epic genre, many scholars see “women’s epic” or “feminine epic” as a kind of hidden or obscured subgenre, which suggests a further need for scholarship that brings feminist epics to the forefront and defines them in more helpful ways. I suggest “feminist epic” as a term and description, and not a classification, for epics authored by women that further feminist goals, and resist the notion that feminist epic constitutes a subgenre or constitutes a separate “female” canon.
Feminist epic describes a heterogeneous grouping of works that produce various political agendas and formal innovations. I posit two postmodern texts, Gwendolyn Brooks’ “The Anniad” and Alice Notley’s Descent of Alette, as representative examples of how feminist epic extends, and adds meaning to, the epic genre at large. Moreover, both works engage with very different feminisms and political issues, thus complicating and adding nuance to the qualifier “feminist.” Upon delineating what makes these poems “epic” and remarking their individual considerations of the form, I parse the differences between Brooks’ intersectional feminism, and the second-wave feminist underpinnings of Notley’s long poem, to establish that while these pieces might share a genre, their politics are
Brooks’ “The Anniad” reflects an early intersectional feminist investment. Written from the perspective of a young black woman in Chicago, Brooks’ “The Anniad” elevates protagonist Annie’s interiority to the level of epic importance. “The Anniad” highlights Brooks’ formal mastery and innovative manipulation of both epic and mock-epic strategies to represent the contemporary, war-time environment in which Annie is situated. Notley’s Descent of Alette, on the other hand, employs the epic trope of katabasis to make a more second-wave feminist claim about American cultural hegemony and patriarchal domination. She employs a radically dialogic form to reveal the impossibility of a singular, epic male hero in her contemporaneous, Reagan-era political moment. Instead, Descent’s hero is a collective of oppressed people, spearheaded by the female hero Alette. While “The Anniad” engages the specifics of identity in order to make a feminist claim about the importance of individual black women’s experiences, Descent obscures identity coordinates in order to engage with epic archetypes, such as the divine, feminine Mother figure versus the patriarchal Tyrant.
The differing feminisms and generic innovations apparent in these works provide preliminary indications of the range of texts we might describe as feminist epics. Engaging the term “feminist epic” as a description, while also taking into account how these works add meaning to the term itself, begins to uncover the hidden tradition of feminist epic.