And has been for a long time, as this UNLV prof’s examination of apocalyptic visions in 1800s American literature shows
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 this month 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.
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 (through war, disease, etc.) were horrifying. It was catastrophic. And 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. There was a lot of speculation about what had happened (to them). 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, a famine, who knows, but a small remnant became Squanto — you know, those who were still in New England. There were a lot of stories like that.
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 will be left? What does that mean, to think about extinction?
What factors influenced this way of thinking?
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 what we might call archaeology, looking at Native American origins, digging up burial mounds, hypothesizing about what empire flourished here. Also geology, which would have included paleontology, looking at animal bones — extinction had just been established as a scientific truth.
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. So the idea that America was sitting on top of this extinct empire, but was also destined to be the next great empire, you get these writers thinking about, well, what about after America is the next great empire?
One thing I think is interesting is that in a lot of stuff I was reading, 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 sees the crumbling locks, they’re going to imagine, These guys were giants! Americans were amazing!
What’s your take on our sense of apocalypse now?
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 because we have nuclear weapons that we think this way; it’s not because we have a lot of political tension; or because of global warming. There are certainly things to worry about. But people had worries 200 years ago. So when I see “Are we living in the postapocalypse” stuff — no. We’re not. Take it with a grain of salt.
But I also think about that idea that people fantasized about a postapocalyptic scenario as a way of being proud of where they are. When I moved out here, one of the first things I did was go to Hoover Dam. When they took me on the tour, (the guide) basically said, If all humans were to die today, this would be one of the last standing human structures after 10,000 years. So if 10,000 years from now, aliens visited 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. 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.