United States


Frederick Turner,

The New World:

An Epic Poem

When Frederick Turner’s The New World first appeared in 1985 in the Princeton series of Contemporary Poets there was nothing quite like it in American literature. Written in unrhymed, five-stress, often alliterative lines and divided into six multi-part books, The New World was doubly iconoclastic: an epic poem in an era which favored lyric and confessional poetry, and an epic story set unconventionally in future time. In the former “Uess” of the twenty-fourth century, society has fractured into four uneasily coexisting entities: the Mad Counties controlled by fundamentalist zealots; the drugged-out Riots centered in the old inner cities; the Burbs, home to the heirs of the twentieth-century leisured and moneyed classes, now enslaved by the Rioters; and the neo-pastoral Free Counties, where democratic and aesthetic values flourish, under assault by the Mad Counties. 

The world of the poem is depleted: fossil fuels and metallic ores have been largely exhausted; populations have declined; the nation-state is a thing of the past. Some memory of the old geopolitical structures survives in the names still attached, with altered orthography and in truncated forms, to various regions and cities: Calyforny, Jorgia, Ahiah, Hattan, Cumbus, Bufflo. And beneath the ruined Grand Central Terminal the superannuated last president of the Uess lives on as an oracular seer and lord of the underworld in the abandoned subway tunnels.

“I sing of what it is to be a man and woman in our time,” the Free Countian poet of The New World declares in his invocation. The man and woman to be sung are James George Quincy, a teenaged exile returning to his home of Mohican County in Ahiah, and Ruth Jefferson McCloud, youngest daughter of Mohican’s most powerful political family. James, having spent nine formative years in the Riot of old Manhattan, faces the trials of a young hero of traditional romance: defeating a seven-foot giant named the Slob, making a night sea journey through flooded tunnels to reclaim his dead father’s sword, leading an army to victory against fundamentalist marauders in Vaniah and Wesjiniah, and relying on wit rather than physical prowess to pass three challenging tests to win the right to marry Ruth. Ruth, already self-educated in literature, biology, and mathematics, receives formal training in legal history (including the precedents of the defunct Uess Supreme Court), economics, theology, architecture, music, and the history of war—all of which groom her for the highest elected position in Mohican County, praetor. As the poem’s heroine she is a respected leader and shrewd tactician who is portrayed as alternately sober and sassy, frosty and passionate, and—in spite of her name—capable of ruthlessness.

The plot of The New World comes with all the appurtenances of old epic, though often with startlingly futuristic touches. Armored warriors go to battle on horseback with swords that have embedded microprocessors; they ride under silken banners while wearing night-vision goggles. When James loses the sight of an eye in a battle it is replaced by an electronic eye that has the power of x-ray vision. The old seer underneath Grand Central goes by the name of Kingfish—he is a version of the Fisher King of Arthurian legend but he makes his oracular pronouncements in the vernacular of Amos ‘n’ Andy. James plays naïve Parsifal to this Fisher King, but the hero also fights with the rage of Achilles, performs seemingly impossible tasks as Jason did to win the Golden Fleece, and undertakes a two-year Odyssean journey across the landscape of North America and into outer space before his homecoming in disguise. A self-conscious hero, he pursues “a path churned by history.” Participating in a millennia-old tradition, James knows that “every hero has spent something left over/ by a predecessor, whether by theft or parody, lies / or calculated humility.” Inevitably, dashes of mock-epic (most notably through a Falstaffian traveling salesman named Maury Edsel, but also in the words and actions of the hero and heroine) season the epic narrative.

Frederick Turner himself readily joins in and exploits this self-consciousness about the place of The New World in the literary canon. When Ruth reviews the troops returning in victory from the Battle of St. Clair she is unable to answer a friend’s question about the identity of the blue-eyed, golden-haired hero: “It seems that I know him, Cressie, but I can’t tell you / his name.” The friend, suddenly named, transports us to Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida where Cressida asks her uncle Pandarus the names of the soldiers marching through a Trojan street. Learning that James’s horse is called Gringolet, we feel the shadow of the fourteenth-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. When James ends up in Jorgia during his two years of wandering his dalliance with its African American queen recalls Odysseus with Circe. But the parallel with The Odyssey is only partial. “No Penelope she,” the poet wisecracks when describing Ruth’s affair with James’s rival Antony Manse while her husband has gone missing. There is no double standard for the men and women of future time. The most powerful and ominous allusion to canonical epics occurs at the opening of Book 6. After a 10-year peaceful interlude in Mohican after the apparent defeat of the fundamentalists the poem shifts with four words, “These notes to tragic”—a truncated echo of Milton’s invocation to Book IX of Paradise Lost marking the transition to the Fall: “I now must change / Those notes to tragic.”

The tragic last book of The New World culminates in the appearance of “three queens with pale faces” accompanying a “haggard king.” The scene recalls the three black-robed queens who come to escort the dying king to Avalon in “The Passing of Arthur” from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. But Turner’s queens, unlike Tennyson’s, are not attendants but assassins bent on vengeance against James’s half-brother Simon Raven. The archetype of evil in the poem, Simon is half Milton’s Satan, half Shakespeare’s Iago. He styles himself the “Messiah” the fundamentalists crave, poisons their imaginations and whips up their rage against the Free Counties, orchestrates the kidnapping of James and Ruth’s son Daniel, and ultimately induces the mass suicide of his followers with drugs laced with strychnine. The Jonestown Massacre of 1978, a mass suicide with poisoned Kool-Aid of more than 900 disciples of cult leader Jim Jones, was still fresh in the public mind when Turner was composing The New World, a reminder that his epic not only yokes the future to the past but provides a commentary on his readers’ present.

The New World has all the spectacle one expects of an epic: violent battle sequences and single combats, the capture of the hero by pirates on the Great Lakes, a stunning act of arson that accompanies the murder of the patriarch Shaker McCloud, the heroine’s father. It also has didactic passages—familiar to readers of epic from Milton’s disquisitions on predestination and free will and on the Copernican and Ptolemaic models of the solar system. Turner’s narrative is punctuated, for instance, by provocative discussions of beauty and racial difference and of the imperatives of honor and sacrifice. But it is his sonic power, Turner’s masterful handling of language, that is the most indispensable feature of his epic. Brief similes are fresh and pungent. Hand-held missiles “spring like athletes from their tubes.” Doubt burrows into a mind “like an ol’ crayfish / in de mud, like piss in de snow.” There are also virtuosic similes of grand proportions, such as one that likens the initial impact of battle, first to a piece of phosphorus dropped sizzling into water, then to an erotic slap in the act of love, then to lightning burning through a black cloud.

As in traditional epics The New World provides catalogues of trees, of wildflowers, even of the authors who most influence Turner, from Dante to Murasaki, from Thomas the Rhymer to James Merrill. Somewhat less traditional is Turner’s refusal to adopt a consistently lofty rhetorical voice as suitable to epic. That ideal is, in fact, rendered ludicrous at one point in the narrative when Ruth accuses James of overdoing his story about his wanderings:

                         anyone as eloquent as you,
my love, has half his mind on nouns and verbs
and half upon his own sweet sentiments
and none left for his lover. Heroes are,
alas, notoriously prone to words.

Turner is committed, as he insists in the introduction to the original 1985 edition, to a “broad range of diction,” including abrupt switches from the register of heroic “high style” to comic “low style,” from lyrical, Keatsian lushness to plain speech. In this way, he says, epic is capable of “presenting a whole world in all its rich differences.”

A distinctive feature of Turner’s epic is the variation he runs on the familiar, formulaic scenes in The Iliad where the Greeks consume ceremonial meals of choice cuts of roasted meats and beakers of wine. There are many such meals in The New World—but there are no repeated formulas. Each meal is distinctive: a simple fundamentalist lunch of bean soup, braided bread, and sausage; an elegant restaurant supper of crayfish, peppered asparagus, and wild turkey soup accompanied by a fine local wine; a prisoner of war’s breakfast basket of fruit and bread, strong cheeses, and a jug of milk warm from the cow; a picnic of cold chicken, crusty bread, Amish cheese, and fresh-picked, sun-warmed raspberries. Most musical of all is the account of the funeral feast for Shaker McCloud. The catalogue of foods is enhanced by bold verbal flourishes: “nap,” a word usually applied to fabrics, to suggest the texture of the sauced meats; “shellacked” to capture the glossy finish of those meats; and “suave,” from the lexicon of fashion and manners, for the refined citrusy puddings that conclude the meal. These shrewdly calibrated words emphasize the high degree of art in both the cookery and the poetry. At the same time, these mostly enjambed lines, with sound chimes bridging the caesuras, reproduce the alliterative pulsation of medieval masterpieces like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:

                                                                 Great swine
and beeves have been slaughtered, and sauces of corn and cream
tempered to nap their brilliant shellacked flanks;
bass and bream are borne in, smoking with butter
and winey steam; salads of endive and radish
and cress, and suave custards and caramels with lemons
and oranges shipped up the river from fantastic Floridy.

Such passages call forth one of Turner’s most idiosyncratic propensities as an epic poet. He loves a good menu.

Not everyone among the first readers of The New World appreciated the ways in which Turner adorned the oldest of literary forms with futurist accessories. “Must the dim past return as science fiction? Must the narrative poem of epic length be resurrected as pulp?” one reviewer asked querulously (Jarman). “An entertainment in verse and not a great epic,” complained another (Corn). Undeterred by this resistance to his epic experiment, Turner has embraced his affiliation with science fiction—and authors like Kim Stanley Robinson and David Brin have in turn embraced Turner (see Plotz). In place of a community of fellow epic poets he enjoys the support of a community of futurist novelists. In his study of global epics, Epic: Form, Content, and History, Turner explains the natural affinity he finds between his work and science fiction: “The science fiction genre is lavishly epic in scope, inspiration, and action, taking on the ancient themes of world-creation, sacrificial heroism, death and immortality, nature and human nature, without embarrassment.” In a 1993 interview he argued, “To do epic these days is very much like restoring a classic landscape” (O’Sullivan and Pletsch). But for Turner restoration isn’t simply a matter of preserving a relic; a recovered landscape—or a recovered genre—is inevitably also changed in the process. The New World, like his two later epic poems Genesis (1988) and Apocalypse (2016), is a hybrid that acknowledges and refurbishes an old literary form while inventing new elements that ensure that epic remains a living genre.

Robert Crossley
University of Massachusetts Boston

Works Cited

Corn, Alfred. “Post-Armageddon Romance.” The New Republic, 25 November 1985, pp. 38-40.

Jarman, Mark. “Poetry Chronicle: Singers and Storytellers.” The Hudson Review 39 (Summer 1986), pp. 344-349.

O’Sullivan, Gerry and Carl Pletsch. “Inventing Arcadia: An Interview with Frederick Turner.” The Humanist 53 (November-December 1993), pp. 9-18.

Plotz, John. “The Realism of Our Times: Kim Stanley Robinson on How Science Fiction Works.” Public Books (www.publicbooks.org, September 23, 2020.

Turner, Frederick. Epic: Form, Content, and History. New Brunswick: Transaction, 2012, p. 16.

—. The New World: An Epic Poem. 1985; rpt. Spokane: Ilium Press, 2011.



Frederick Turner, The New World: An Epic Poem. Revised ed. edition, The Ilium Press, 2011.