Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Apocalypse Then and Now

John Hay

“Isn’t this your moment?” ask my friends nowadays. “You’re a scholar of the apocalypse.”

My work examines how American authors have written about the apocalypse and its aftermath, from the colonial period to the present. So I’m certainly feeling—writing this at my kitchen table during a “shelter-at-home” directive from the Governor of Nevada—that I’ve seen all this before. My colleague Aaron Mayes has captured the strangeness of the vacant Las Vegas Strip, photographing the “free-market super-scape painted with a post-apocalyptic brush.” The casinos are closed, and the desert seems closer.

If studying the history of apocalyptic thought makes anything clear, it’s that people have always thought that the world was about to end. From Michael Wigglesworth’s 1662 narrative poem The Day of Doom to Edgar Allan Poe’s 1839 short story “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion” to Jack London’s 1912 novella The Scarlet Plague, Americans especially have anticipated the End Times. The twenty-first century does not possess a monopoly on apocalyptic anxieties. And yet, as Mark O’Connell asks in his new book, Notes from an Apocalypse, “What if now it’s especially the end of the world?”

The coronavirus would seem to be the latest factor in a modern world besieged by global threats from climate change, nuclear weapons, natural disasters, and economic instability. Even before the advent of the current pandemic, we were inundated by books, movies, television programs, and websites heralding the apocalypse. In the last twenty years, the specter of civilizational collapse has moved from fringe fantasy to mainstream meditation. Doomsday prophecy has become part of day-to-day life.

While the apocalypse had long been a common theme in evangelical pamphlets, sci-fi novels, and monster movies, it has now become not only more popular but also more respectable. In 2007, Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, an accolade that opened the higher echelons of the literary world to a glut of postapocalyptic narratives. George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road was a Best Picture nominee at the 2015 Academy Awards, a similarly symbolic designation.

The college students I teach at UNLV have grown up with the apocalypse as a cultural backdrop. They listen to songs like Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive” (2012), share memes like “This Is Fine” (2013), play videogames like Fallout 4 (2015), and watch Marvel Comics movies like Avengers: Endgame (2019). The latter, which is premised upon the destruction of half of all life in the universe, is the highest grossing film of all time. As these titles might suggest, the apocalypse is pervasive across a wide range of genres, the subject of cookbooks, cosplay festivals, and stand-up comedy specials.

So a lethal pandemic was not unanticipated. And it is certainly nothing new in American literary history. In 1832, a devastating cholera pandemic hit the eastern seaboard of the United States. The poet William Cullen Bryant, who edited the New York Evening Post, wrote about working in a city that had been abandoned by those with the means to do so—“every morning witnessing the same melancholy spectacle of deserted and silent streets and forsaken dwellings, and every day looking over and sending out to the world the list of the sick and dead.”

Bryant’s words resonate powerfully today. But I also consider Katherine Anne Porter’s short, underappreciated, 1938 novel Pale Horse, Pale Rider, set during the 1918 influenza pandemic. As the suffering protagonist, Miranda, convalesces from the flu, she thinks to herself, “Now there would be time for everything.”

Pandemics are personal. But they are not permanent. The road will lead to recovery rather than apocalypse. There is still time for everything.

Postapocalyptic Fantasies in Antebellum American Literature by John Hay

About The Author

John Hay

John Hay is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where he specializes in nineteenth-century American literature. He is the recipient of a 2016 ...

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