Srikanth “Chicu” Reddy is a professor in English Language and Literature and Creative Writing. His book Underworld Lit (Wave Books, 2020) is a long narrative poem cast partly in the form of lecture notes for an imaginary course in the humanities.

I feel like my inadequacies are epic. So I’d always intended to write an epic in the least heroic possible way, which was part of the fun and the challenge and the excitement of writing a book that was framed by my reading and teaching of epics in the Readings in World Literature College Core course.

I started writing Underworld Lit in 2012, right after my last book came out [Voyager, University of California Press, 2011], and a few years after I had a cancer diagnosis and my daughter was born. Life and death, right on top of each other.

What ended up happening was I wrote an epic turned inside out. At the center of so many of the epic poems that we read in that class, there is a descent to the underworld, where the world that characters thought they inhabited turns out not to be the world they thought it was. They get sucked into this black hole: the world of the dead. With this book, it’s all underworld, because I felt sucked into a bit of an underworld at that point in the middle of my life. The underworlds of all these epic traditions became my world.

Even though it was really challenging and overwhelming to parent a small child through my treatment, in some ways that child—my daughter, Mira—became a figure who led me out of that dark place, in a way that lots of epics’ descents to the underworld involve being guided (though usually not by a three-year-old who’s just learning language).

When I was first writing the book, some people were advising me to try to sell it as a novel. In some ways novels replaced epics, but I don’t know if people even read novels today. Today it’d be long-form television. We have a TV show called The Vikings. Game of Thrones is an epic. You could say that epic begins with poetry, then moves into the novel, and then into film and television and digital.

That large scale, for me, was always there in epic: generations, relationships, society—which are not things that we think about much when we think of a lyric poem like a sonnet. So as a writer, it felt like an opportunity to explore everything. But that’s also a challenge, because the epic can feel like an overstuffed piece of furniture that you just sink into and can’t quite get comfortable in. In some ways, I still feel that way about this book—I’m not sure where I sit in it. But it was fun to do.

One thing we try to do in Readings in World Literature is to think about the epic as the expression of a culture or a people. I never really thought of the academy as a people because it’s so diverse. But it’s also a very specific group of people. So if there’s “a people” who I hope would feel addressed in my epic, it wouldn’t necessarily be college professors so much as our students, who are the future of many different peoples.

Patrice Rankine is a professor in Classics. He studies ancient Greco-Roman works and their afterlife, particularly as they pertain to literature, theater, and the history and performance of race.

When I was in graduate school and found very few other people of color around, I became really interested in where else people of color—Black people in particular—had engaged with the classics. And I found in Ralph Ellison a deep engagement with classics and the classical tradition, not only in his novel Invisible Man, but also in the way he talks about myth and epic. Ellison became interested in how, as he puts it, epic and myth could enlarge everyday life—could give us insight into what it meant to be a human being living in a particular time and place. Novels were, for him, the modern genre for epic action, where everyday heroes are made.

He looked to the Russian novelists for inspiration. He looked to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and began to find ways of crafting this kind of heroism in the American context. So he makes his character in Invisible Man an Everyman—he doesn’t even have a name—and yet he is distilled in such a way that he becomes larger than life. Ellison riffs on mythological tropes as if they were chords in a musical motif. And he takes pieces of the Odyssey, and he weaves them into his narrative of this invisible man, making the epic his own story.

One writer who interrogates the idea of epic as a European tradition is Wole Soyinka. He says that when we think about epic and tragedy, we say: “Tragedy begins in the sixth century BCE on the outskirts of Athens. It’s a Western tradition. Philosophy is a Western tradition.” Soyinka says, wait a minute. We had ritual and dance in the Yoruba tradition that told similar stories, for example, well into the past. The only difference is the Western ritual traditions were written down. Ellison, Soyinka, Toni Morrison, and other writers demystify this Western material.

Epic is often considered a masculine genre, but Jane Harrison and others around the same time as Ellison—the middle of the twentieth century—began to ask questions about what it means to be a woman on such a journey. There’s a shift to, for example, myths of Demeter, myths of Persephone. Right here in Chicago we have Gwendolyn Brooks writing an “Anniad” that sets her hero as a kind of Persephone in the middle of an urban center.

Whether it’s in crafting a collective ethos of a group or a people or a nation, epic is seen as a kind of cultural artifact. People talk about writing the great American novel in the mid-twentieth century—that’s an attempt to craft a collective story that readers across the country could identify with and find meaning in. And that’s where I think film sometimes works today. Its epic pretense is why a film like Black Panther has such resonance for the country as a whole, but particularly for African Americans.

I’m working on a book on American theater, and one thing I’ve been thinking about is how we lack a collective epic in the United States now. We’re still trying to come to terms with an American epic that unites us. What would that do for us? Because myth is not only a thing in the past, but a creative process that works in the present toward the future.

Photo Creds: 
“Odysseus and Polyphemus” (detail) (1896) by Arnold Böcklin, Courtesy Sotheby’s London