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Continuity and Change: Experimental Women's Writing and the Epic Tradition

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In this dissertation, I contend that women experimental writers engage the literary epic mode to explore and invigorate questions about female authorship, history and narrative, and the city and its communities. Analyzing connections and challenges to the Western epic tradition in contemporary texts, I examine how the works find epic a generative mode through which to investigate, contest and reimagine how one tells the community's story and what that story is. Emphasizing how the texts work at the intersections of continuity and change, I bring these particular works together for their shared concerns and varied responses to the genre's formal and thematic conventions, and to the literary critical discourses about epic. Central to my inquiry is how the authors' texts interrogate epic's cultural and political meaning in a manner that contributes to interpretive readings of the genre that have accrued over time by presenting provocative new questions and assertions.

I analyze Alice Notley's The Descent of Alette for its inquiry into gender, genre and female-authorship. Notley's poetic innovations use quotation marks to cite and contest a masculinist literary tradition, question formal limitations and possibilities, and ask how a female writer may present her own story of community, war and revolution. In addition, I examine Vanessa Place's Dies, Bhanu Kapil's Schizophrene and Cathy Park Hong's Dance Dance Revolution for their depiction of histories that challenges epic's traditional domain as History as told by its victors. Rather than fortify a past for the community, their experimental texts open up the possibility of other pasts, ultimately contesting the concept of any single authoritative story passed on to present and future readers. Finally, I argue that Renee Gladman's Event Factory shifts epic from a story about the distant past to the historical present in order to make claims about understanding contemporary crises. Gladman's text highlights epic's history as a tale of city building with depictions of the city, its citizens and their agency in the face of increasing social and political precarity.

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This item is under embargo until December 31, 2999.