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Beginning Again with Modernist Epic


. . . beginnings are important nay to our modern world almost more important than fullfilment . . . —Gertrude Stein[1]

In his 1978 book, On Human Nature, Edward O. Wilson famously claimed that “the evolutionary epic is probably the best myth we will ever have.”[2] His idea, which has since given rise to a field of sociobiology called “Epic of Evolution,” is that human beings have a primal need for explanations of their existence and cosmic order, a need better served by evolutionary science than religion or literature. Although many critics have objected to Wilson’s position, pointing out its misreadings of Darwinism, its male bias, its ethnocentrism, and its naturalization of an implicitly heteronormative reproductive sexuality, his claim retains its power, almost forty years later, as a description of how deeply the evolutionary imaginary has assumed the role of a cultural foundation narrative in late (western) modernity.[3] The once literary terms “epic” and “myth” have been colonized—at least in secular consciousness—by the more scientific “evolution.”

Wilson’s claim has ramifications for understanding sexual modernity through literary studies. For if “evolution” is really our best founding myth, then the question arises, how do we narrate sexual modernity on any other but tacitly reproductive grounds? There are many queer novels, of course, but as a product of bourgeois modernity, the novel always operates, in some sense, within modernity’s heuristics: as testimony, even in its abnormality, to Darwin’s plot.[4] And while the genre “modern epic” or “modernist epic” has occasionally been suggested as a form in which literature continues to command its own world-making agency, it too is usually read as demonstrating, rather than offering an alternative to, evolutionary paradigms.[5] In the later nineteenth century, epic often depicted a male-dominated evolutionary idea of history.[6] And the best-known modernist epic poems, Ezra Pound’s The Cantos (1915-1962), and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) in part inherit this connection.[7] Both poems sponsor the common view of epic as a “world of fathers and founders of families,” one that largely precludes femininity and homosexuality, and linked, as in Sigmund Freud’s version of Darwin’s “scientific myth,” with the ideological establishment of a reproductive patriarchy.[8]

However, there are other ways in which modernist epic has been, can, and should be interpreted. As Edward Carpenter realized, the classics provide a very different way of thinking about the world from that of evolutionary science, and a very different sex education.[9] Epic, accordingly, holds a strong potential as a genre for rewriting modernity’s “natural” story of civilization. It has been invoked, as feminist scholars have shown in reference to Elizabeth Barrett Browning or H.D., for instance, not only to assert a male-dominated evolutionary narrative, but also to restage the role of women in history. And epic has also, as queer-theoretical studies have suggested, offered modern writers a generic alternative to the reproductive norms of the novel. Barry McCrea’s In the Company of Strangers (2011), for instance, describes how Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) can be read alongside Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (1913) as a “queer family epic” based on a new “ideology of kinship.”[10] Similarly, in Whitman’s Queer Children, Catherine Davies reveals how gay, male, U.S. poets—Hart Crane, James Merrill, Allen Ginsberg, and John Ashbery, in particular—made use of the epic to eschew heteronormativity in representing the national body, creating their own literary lineage in the face of an exclusionary positivism.[11]

I want to argue, then, that we can begin again with modernist epic, theorizing it not always as subservient to an evolutionary imaginary, but also as an optic allowing a perception of how texts reinterpret sexual modernity. My guide for this reading is Sam See’s 2009 article “Making Modernism New,” which interprets Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler’s 1933 book The Young and Evil as reprising T. S. Eliot’s “mythical method” in such a way as to “freshen” the tradition, producing their own idiosyncratic text-based kinship in lieu of “‘the family-centered oral traditions available to other disenfranchised groups.’”[12] While following See’s model, however, this paper will focus not on The Young and Evil but on a book that inspired it: Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans (1925). By reading Stein’s book as epic, I will show how it models modernism’s potential to reimagine sociobiology’s master-narratives and to refashion the sexual architectures of modernity. This example will then serve me to urge a reconsideration of “epic” in relation to modernism’s foundational texts, as a frame that helps recover something of their originality, particularly in regard to questions of community, the canon, and genealogy.  

Beyond the Tree: Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans

Stein never used the word epic about her own work. Yet The Making of Americans, as several critics have explained, invokes the genre in various ways.[13] “The old people in a new world, the new people made out of the old, that,” writes Stein on the first page, “is the story that I mean to tell.”[14] The epic vector here is that of the national history: a frontier myth of migration and settlement. It’s an archetypal plot, germane to epic since the Aeneid. And in fact, one may discern a faint echo of Virgil in Stein’s opening sentence: “Once an angry man dragged his father along the ground through his own orchard” (The Making of Americans, 3). In Virgil’s epic, the early scene of Aeneas leaving Troy with his father on his back marks a point at which the narrative departs from the site of the Iliad. As the figure that is rescued from the ruins, Anchises is like an embodied tradition that will be carried westwards and developed. His presence symbolizes continuity in the translatio imperii. Similarly, then, one might expect the father in Stein’s in medias res opening to be coded as an organizing force behind the work as she proceeds.

But The Making of Americans is not a straightforward continuation of epic’s civilizational metanarrative. Stein’s opening continues: “Once an angry man dragged his father along the ground through his own orchard. ‘Stop!’ cried the groaning old man at last, ‘Stop! I did not drag my father beyond this tree’” (3). The humor of this anecdote, the now-belied “once,” and the fact that Stein drags on past it for another nine-hundred pages, imply, as Barrett Watten observes, its ironic “negation.” What Stein presents here, argues Watten, is an Oedipal “authorizing myth of patriarchy” or “‘moral prehistory,’” which “would become a principle of social reproduction if it were to be repeated—but clearly for her it must be gone beyond” (“An Epic,” 96-97). Stein’s opening, in other words, begins with an Oedipal deadlock, only to begin again on an alternative founding logic located somewhere “beyond” the hereditary limits and repetitions of the “family tree.” The opening thus stands as a “skeleton key” or “excessive abstract” for The Making of Americans as a whole, demonstrating in miniature the possibility of interrupting national history and beginning again differently. 

A “genetic” consideration of Stein’s opening helps to both illustrate and complicate this alternative founding logic. For Stein’s first two sentences are themselves an unacknowledged citation, taken from Aristotle’s Ethics via Montaigne’s Essays. The citation demonstrates how writing can begin again sui generis despite the tradition. Just as Montaigne “incorporated” many citations from classical authors in service of his own ends, thereby departing, as Antoine Compagnon argues, from a scholastic convention of filiative “auctoritas,” so Stein tacitly cites Montaigne at the beginning of her work to perform her departure.[15] Fascinatingly, this intertextual move has a non-normative sexual association, for Montaigne’s anecdote is not only improperly cited but occurs in the treatise “On Custom” beside a further example explaining same-sex sexual practice:

And the father whom his son was dragging and bumping along the street ordered him to stop at a certain door, for he had dragged his own father only that far; this was the limit of the hereditary rough treatment that the sons traditionally practiced upon the fathers in their family. By custom as often as by derangement, says Aristotle, women tear out their hair, gnaw their nails, eat coals and earth; and as much by custom as by nature do males have sexual relations with males.[16]

For Montaigne both hereditary father-son violence and sexual habits are culturally constructed repetitions: they both represent the force of custom as much as that of nature. The comparison, when considered as part of the palimpsest of Stein’s own opening, implies that patriarchy is no more natural as a basis for social order and progress than same-sex sexual relations: a queer tissue of connections might replace that of fathering.

In terms of plot, the consequences of Stein’s peculiar founding logic become clear early in The Making of Americans. As has often been noted, generational succession gives way, after a description of the unsuccessful marriage between Julia Dehning and Alfred Hersland, to a cataloguing and “diagramming” of different types of characters—a development usually linked to Stein’s discovery of Otto Weininger’s Sex and Character in 1907.[17] Stein called this process of starting anew with individuals “beginning again and again.”[18] Beginning, here, does imply birth, as in the sentence, “Mrs. Hersland as I was saying was never important for her children excepting to begin them,” but at no point in Americans is birth privileged above other kinds of beginning (The Making of Americans, 256). Rather, Stein’s work tries to build what she calls (in reference to Herbert Spencer) “a complete system for living” without buttressing her narrative on generational succession (365). The work tends—especially in the later passages describing the childless, and slightly “queer” David Hersland Jr.—to a kind of rhythmical stasis. A sentence describing an ordinary activity, like jumping, is thus repeated with very slight changes, to fill several pages. The result is the sense that life is simply happening, engendering itself, without telos or biological punctuation.

A hitherto unnoticed extract that appears in Stein’s unpublished notes for Americans is resonant here. Taken from Helen Wilmans’s The Conquest of Death, it reads simply: “In the economy of nature the time will come when generation will lose itself in regeneration.”[19] Apart from offering a startling alternative to Hemingway’s etymology of the phrase “lost generation,” this passage is a comment on the ends of human evolution. Stein, of course, having studied biology, was interested in evolution; and The Making of Americans is, as Steven Meyer and others have shown, deeply engaged with evolutionary aetiologies for national identity.[20] As this quotation suggests, however, Stein’s goal was not simply to confirm or perform a dominant Darwinist understanding of how Americans are made in the longue durée—one legible in, say, Frederic Jackson Turner’s history. Rather, she was invested in finding alternatives to evolution as the “scientific myth” of national making. Although years later Stein repeatedly claimed that she “began with evolution,” she also emphasized that her role was that of “killing” it, killing that is, “the nineteenth century which was so sure of evolution.”[21]

While Stein may do away with generation, she does not do away with sex. Sex, as Weininger revealed to Stein, is essential to character, more essential in fact, than characteristics inherited from the family tree. Although, to be clear, Weininger was not primarily talking about sexual intercourse, his theory does comprise a determinist view of sexual attraction as mutual character completion.  Stein emphasizes this slippage by translating Weininger’s “sex” into “bottom nature” (The Making of Americans, 191). “Bottom nature” is, for Stein, both a “fundamental” part of every character, and a changing and narrative element: bound up with composition and “making.” (Writing a bottom nature is a way of “making” a character.) Stein’s representation of American history can, by this non-familial means of categorizing people, jettison fathering while still moving forward with a peculiar textual and sexual ontogeny of its own—one which is, as Lisa Ruddick writes, “autotelic,” “masturbatory,” and often “spectacularly anal” (Reading Gertrude Stein, 77). Materialized in Stein’s innuendos, rhythms, and pleonasms as an atopic textual pleasure, sex in Americans is less a discrete biological fact than a creative practice. Within this self-maintaining and self-reproductive ecology, “beginning again and again” stands as a figure for an ongoing erotic process which does not privilege “fullfilment.” Stein makes Americans on the basis of their bottom nature: sex and the national story are enacted at the same time. And since her characters, like the indistinct figures of Finnegans Wake (1939), are not discrete, but “impinging” on each other, often unifying into a general “any one” or “one,” Stein can, quite reasonably, claim this process to be that of telling the epic story of “the completed history of everyone” (380). The Making of Americans emerges, then, as neither primarily a novel of individuals and their relations, nor as an encyclopedic enumeration, categorization, and census-taking, but as something much more ambitious: an attempt to narrate U.S. modernity anew on the grounds of its own queer poeisis.

Really the Beginning

The Making of Americans is, however, only one, and perhaps not even the best, example of how the possibilities of epic were applied to reconsider sexual modernity. Many foundational modernist works involve similarly unusual sexual dispensations: Marcel Proust’s Recherche, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928), or Mário de Andrade’s Macunaíma (1928), for example, make comparable, and clearer cases for the imbrication of an all-encompassing non-normative sexuality and the prospect of beginning again with national narrative. And The Young and Evil performs a more palpable and more readable queering of mythology and community-founding. Why then, raise up Stein’s Americans as the emblem of a revisionary modernist epic? Written mostly between 1906 and 1908, Stein’s book certainly has the advantage of priority over these other texts, but if priority is key, then Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855) or Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) make more sense as starting points. In each of these texts, a diachronic axis of generational descent is replaced by affiliation through idealized homoerotic relations, suggesting an innovative structuring glue for national belonging.

However, one implication of the term modernist epic is precisely that historical priority ought not to be a value. This is what The Making of Americans registers so well, explicitly overwriting genetic origins as sources of identity by an immanent erotic beginning again. Stein performs and takes to its logical extreme a possible originality without origins, maintaining a sense of composing foundations without supporting the patriarchal cultural etymology that Freud would later establish as the “scientific myth” undergirding modernity. While this “beginning again” is evidently a diegetic element for Stein, an always new way of telling U.S. history, it is also, as her use of Montaigne’s citation suggests, an invitation to reconceive literary history around its reified canonical metanarratives—an attempt to write, as she said of Americans, “the beginning, really the beginning of modern writing.”[22] In this sense, Stein’s book, as Jessica Berman has argued, contains a response to Raymond Williams’s contention that the institutionalization of modernist fiction has barred our access to its radical possibilities for imagining community.[23] For “beginning again” resists precisely the fixed, evolutionary, formulation of a culture; it is a slippery, queer, and ultimately utopian move to deconstruct and remake canonical foundations in accordance with its idiosyncratic vision. Beginning again with the epic strain of modernism is, then, an imperative to appreciate modernism’s longest and most ambitious works in their most radical potential, not as testimony to an establishment, but as windows onto the problem of imaginatively modeling sexual modernity—or rather, since each such text must inevitably begin again, of plural sexual modernities.


[1] From the first draft of The Making of Americans, in Gertrude Stein, Fernhurst, Q.E.D, and Other Early Writings (New York: Liveright, 1971), 138. The spelling is Stein’s.

[2] Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978, rpt. 2004), 201.

[3] For a synoptic account of the “Epic of Evolution,” and its many problems, see Venla Oikkonen’s Gender, Sexuality and Reproduction in Evolutionary Narratives (New York: Routledge, 2013), 17-41.

[4] For a sense of this, see Gillian Beer’s classic Darwin’s Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983, rpt. 2009).

[5] See for example, Franco Moretti, Modern Epic: The World-System from Goethe to García Márquez, trans. Quintin Hoare (London: Verso, 1996).

[6] For this connection see Simon Dentith, Epic and Empire in Nineteenth-Century Britain (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006) 126-130, and Herbert F. Tucker’s Epic: Britain’s Heroic Muse, 1790-1910 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008) 466-468.

[7] See for example, Lois A. Cuddy, T.S. Eliot and the Poetics of Evolution: Sub/Versions of Classicism, Culture, and Progress (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2000).

[8] Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 13. E. M. W. Tillyard expressed the view of the genre of epic as precluding the female and homosexual in his statement that “[n]o pronounced homosexual, for instance, could succeed in the epic, not so much for being one as for what his being one cuts him off from” (The English Epic and its Background [London: Chatto and Windus, 1954], 8). For an excellent discussion of the role of gender in relation to epic in The Cantos and The Waste Land, see Mary Ellis Gibson’s Epic Reinvented: Ezra Pound and the Victorians (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), 179-190. For Freud on Darwin, see Sigmund Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (London: Hogarth Press, 1949), 125.

[9] For the potential seen in the “Greeks” by Carpenter in relation to Whitman, see Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985, rpt. 2016) 208-209.

[10] Barry McCrea, In the Company of Strangers: Family and Narrative in Dickens, Conan Doyle, Joyce, and Proust (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 21.

[11] Catherine A. Davies, Whitman’s Queer Children: America’s Homosexual Epics (London: Continuum, 2012). For comparable studies of male relations in the modernist epic poem, see Wayne Koestenbaum’s reading of The Waste Land in Double Talk: The Erotics of Male Literary Collaboration (New York: Routledge, 1989) and Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Purple Passages: Pound, Eliot, Zukofsky, and the Ends of Patriarchal Poetry (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2012).

[12] Sam See, “Making Modernism New: Queer Mythology in ‘The Young and Evil,’” ELH 76, no. 4 (2009): 1073-1105, 1097.

[13] Astrid Lorange, for instance, observes that “Americans is an epic, as well as an ironic commentary on the genre of the epic,” in How Reading Is Written: A Brief Index to Gertrude Stein (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2014), 207. Deborah M. Mix claims that Stein’s book tries “to carve out a place for [immigrant experience] within American literature, and particularly within the field of the epic,” in A Vocabulary of Thinking: Gertrude Stein and Contemporary North American Women’s Innovative Writing (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2007), 152. See also Barrett Watten’s “An Epic of Subjectivation: The Making of Americans.” Modernism/modernity 5, no. 2 (1998): 95–121.

[14] Gertrude Stein, The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family’s Progress (Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1995), 3.

[15] Antoine Compagnon, La seconde main: ou, Le travail de la citation (Paris: Seuil, 1979), 282.

[16] Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays of Montaigne, trans. Donald M. Frame (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1958), 83.

[17] See Leon Katz, “Weininger and The Making of Americans.” Twentieth Century Literature 24, no. 1 (1978): 8–26, 8.

[18] Gertrude Stein, “Composition as Explanation,” in A Stein Reader, ed. Ulla E Dydo (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1993), 493–503, 497.

[19] Note #197, GSNB, Beinecke Library, Yale University. The note was probably written around the same time as Stein’s first draft of Americans, circa 1903. I am grateful to Professor Leon Katz for his help with these notes.

[20] See Steven Meyer, Irresistible Dictation: Gertrude Stein and the Correlations of Writing and Science (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 1-16, 173-178.

[21] Gertrude Stein, Wars I Have Seen (London: B. T. Batsford Ltd, 1945), 39, 23. This reading follows Lisa Ruddick’s suggestions in Reading Gertrude Stein: Body, Text, Gnosis (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990), 126.

[22] Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 215.

[23] See Jessica Berman, Modernist Fiction, Cosmopolitanism, and the Politics of Community (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).