(An edited and condensed version of this interview appears in the October issue of Desert Companion.)
The notion of apocalypse is having a moment — another one. Whether it’s political division or nuclear weapons in the wrong hands or Elon Musk’s fears of runaway AI, a definite end-times fever veins our culture. You can feel its electric current. One might think this bad vibe traces back to Hiroshima. Beginning his study of apocalyptic literature, UNLV professor John Hay certainly did: “My initial thought was that people started writing this after World War II, after the bomb.” In fact, it goes back much farther, as he demonstrates in Postapocalyptic Fantasies in Antebellum American Literature, out in October from Cambridge University Press. He examines works by 19th-century figures like James Fenimore Cooper, Henry David Thoreau, and a cast of now-forgotten writers as they tried to forge a new American literature, while grappling with the reality of the U.S. rising as an empire — and the implications of its eventual fall.
When you talk about the apocalypse, are we talking about the end of the world, or the end of civilization?
I have in mind the end of civilization, some sort of “99 percent are gone” situation. But with that remnant left over. And it’s interesting to me, because, as far as I can tell, the Christian apocalypse has been really prominent for 2,000 years — the complete ending of the world, total, this is it. But the idea that there’d be some kind of disaster, and a few people would be left over, but it wouldn’t be clear what it means. Why are we here? It’s a more modern idea in the West, expecting that would happen some day.
How early does it go in American literature?
I was going back to the War of 1812. When the war ended in 1815, suddenly you see a lot of magazine articles about, okay, we’re a real country — but where is our literature, and what will it be? Right around that time, that’s when it starts to come together, Washington Irving and Rip Van Winkle, James Fenimore Cooper and the frontier novels. I was starting there, and I started to see a lot of postapocalyptic themes at the same time.
What did “postapocalyptic” look like in those days?
A lot of it had to do with Native American history — the numbers for Native American populations shrinking (then) is horrifying. It’s clearly not just there were wars and battles, it was disease ... it was catastrophic. A lot of the writers back then didn’t understand that. They just saw, Oh, the natives are leaving, this must be God’s plan. There was a growing understanding that you could see monuments from the past, where clearly there were not just a dozen Native Americans living here, but hundreds of thousands. And there was a lot of speculation about what happened. They didn’t know. There were a lot of stories about, well, these Aztec empires were flourishing in Ohio, and then there must’ve been some kind of war, some kind of famine, some kind of mythical monster that destroyed them, God’s wrath, who knows, but a small remnant became Squanto, you know, those where were still in New England. There were a lot of stories like that that were being told.
James Fenimore Cooper was interested in that kind of stuff when he was writing things like The Last of the Mohicans. He was seeing that endgame, and thinking, I’m watching a people go extinct. What’ll be left? What does that mean, to think about extinction? Which was a kind of new idea at the time, that genetic populations could go extinct. That was all happening in the late 18-teens and early 20s.
Was this happening as part of a concerted effort to create a distinctively American literature, or was it individual writers happening on this motif coincidentally?
A little bit of both. What I put out in my book is that there are two really important components. One is that natural history as a science was really flourishing in the early 1800s. You see it with both what we might call archaeology, looking at Native American origins, digging up burial mounds, what were they finding, hypothesizing about what empire flourished here. But also geology, which would have included paleontology, looking at animal bones — extinction had just been established as a scientific truth. So that’s one side of it.
But to me, that’s coupled with this early American kind of nationalism that’s always forward-looking. We are the nation of futurity. We have a destiny, a manifest destiny. The empire is passing west, into our zone. So the idea that America was sitting on top of this extinct empire, but was also destined to be the next great empire, you suddenly get these writers thinking about, well, what about after America is the next great empire?
That combination of scientific-historical thinking and sort of idle fantasizing about the growth and future of the United States creates this sort of science-fiction “what will happen next?”
Also, the growth of the U.S was enormous between 1775 and the early 1800s. Incredible population growth pouring west over the Allegheny Mountains. And there was a clear suspicion among a lot of writers that such rapid growth is unsustainable — when you mature too quickly you just hasten into old age and death, and that’s gonna happen to us now.
Even then were there references to the fall of the Roman empire?
Oh, yes. Gibbons’ Fall and Decline of the Roman Empire was the biggest work of history to come out of the late 1700s, there were constantly allusions to Rome, comparisons, are we the next Roman empire, and if so, is that good? Where are we going? It didn’t ultimately work out for Rome ...
To me, that’s actually one of the interesting aspects of all this. We still ask these questions today. I see books with titles like Are We Rome. It’s unclear to me whether that’s good or bad. To be the Roman Empire!
It had its upsides. They built some damn fine roads.
Right. It’s not clear to me that that’s a negative in all ways. Even though there’s certainly an element of anxiety there — we remember the Romans as much for their fall as for their rise.
You’ve mentioned Cooper; who were some of the other writers?
The biggest names people would know would be James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans, and Henry David Thoreau. There was a New Yorker article a year or so ago that painted him as a kind of doomsday prepper. Then I get into a few authors who aren’t quite as well known. There’s a guy named James Kirke Paulding, who was a big deal in the 1830s, then kinda fell off the map. He was really interested in the Noah mythology, having your ark as everything else goes to hell. A poet, William Cullen Bryant; he was very interested in the Native American mythology about flourishing empires, and he was concerned about where the U.S. was heading, he was pessimistic about the way people were treating the environment.
One more, a guy named John Lloyd Stevens. In the 1840s, he was one of the most popular writers in the United States. He wrote travel narratives. He went to Mexico and Central America — some of the first descriptions of Mayan ruins in English. And, again, he sees these things and thinks, what’s next for us back in New York City?
Was there something uniquely American about their view of the apocalypse?
Yes and no. Which is to say, there were things going on in England. The historian McCauley came up with this figure of the New Zealander who sits and sketches London in ruins, however many hundreds of years in the future. So there were tropes like that in England. There were some similar French novels.
I think that what’s a bit more unique about the United States is that that element of the postapocalyptic figure or future is built a little more into the core of the literary nationalism. Which is to say, a lot of the places where I found these little fantasies — where people go, Imagine 500 years from now, when they’re looking at New York in ruins — it would be in essays about U.S. literature, about who we are and how our writing works. My sense is that where the apocalypse is a bit more peripheral in British or French or Continental literature, it’s more of a core element in American literature in the 1800s.
Is it a percolating theme in American literature?
Yeah, it never goes away. Where my initial thought was that people started writing this after World War II, after the bomb. And then I go and find a couple stories from the 19-teens, and I’d go, Oh, after World War I, and I’d go back, Oh, after the Civil War, and I’d keep going back, after the War of 1812 ...
Does this theme change over time?
My sense is that the two big ways it changes — and my book more or less ends at the Civil War — is that after the Civil War, one thing that changes is that you get futuristic fiction. Prior to 1865, you could count on one hand the number of stories that were set in the future, where things would be different, and it was a complete story on its own, a short story or a novel. Futuristic fiction wasn’t a thing — it tends to be little asides, a little paragraph in which you go, what if?
The other thing that I think is more interesting is that in a lot of stuff I was reading from the early 1800s, the postapocalyptic fantasy wasn’t negative. There was a lot of stuff, for example, when they built the Erie Canal, where people would go, Imagine a thousand years from now, when some savage pulls back a tree and sees the crumbling locks, they’re going to imagine, These guys were giants! Americans were amazing! So there’s this weird national pride about it.
When you start reading this stuff from the late 1800s, it was more negative. Oh, that place went to hell in a handbasket.
There’s something about that positive element of pride in the early stuff that tends to go away a hundred years later, and I find that really appealing.
Did the Civil War — massive carnage, obvious social and political convulsions —play a role in that?
I think it played a role, though the more I looked into it the more surprised I was. I thought I was going to find a ton of Reconstruction (stories), the South as a postapocalyptic environment. I found a little bit. Clearly there were some Southern writers who thought, my home has been destroyed, this is a catastrophic wasteland. But not as much as I suspected I might.
Having immersed yourself in this subject, what’s your take on the apocalypse now?
I think the two takeaways for me are, one — and this is important — people have thought this way for 200 years, at least. So it’s not new. It’s not because we have nuclear weapons that we think this way; it’s not because we have a lot of political tension that we think this way; or because of global warming or the environment. There are certainly things to worry about. But people had worries 200 years ago, some of which seem really valid to us. They really should have worried about slavery. That was a huge national problem. And other things it seems maybe they shouldn’t have worried about so much. America’s population in the early 1800s wasn’t that bad; they had room to grow.
So when I see the kind of doomsday, “are we living in the postapocalypse” stuff now — no. We’re not. Take it with a grain of salt.
But I also think about that idea that a lot of people fantasized about a postapocalyptic scenario as a way of kinda being proud of where they are. For me, the coolest thing that happened with this project was, when I finished the dissertation and started thinking about it as a book, and I moved out here to take this job at UNLV, one of the first things I did was go to Hoover Dam. And when they took me on the tour, I can’t verbatim remember the guy’s words, but he basically said, If all human beings were to suddenly die today, this would be one of the last standing human structures after 10,000 years. So if everyone died today, and 10,000 years from now, aliens visited the Earth, most of it would be like some Martian landscape, you’d never know humans were around. But the Hoover Dam would still be there — at least enough of it that you could tell, someone built that. And that was exactly my thinking — yeah, you should be proud of that! People will look back 10,000 years from now and go, Those Americans really knew how to build a dam.
Is there some seductive aspect to the apocalypse?
The two I see the most, neither of which seem that admirable: One is individual wish fulfillment. If 99 percent of the people just disappeared, I could just hop in a Maserati, do 100 miles an hour down the road, I can put all kinds of luxury items into wherever I’m living. There’s clearly an element of that.
The other thing, I think, is that when people think beyond the individual stuff, and start thinking socially, like, how could I create a utopian society ... it would help if I could just get rid of most people. And I’ll just start from a small group and organically we can make everything work much better. Which is a perverse way to think about utopia, that you have to kill most people first.
Also, statistically, if 99 percent of the world is dead, you’re dead. You are almost certainly part of this 99 percent. I don’t know what you think it is about you that would not be, but genetically, you will get the disease, geographically, you will blow up — whatever this ending is.