John Ames Mitchell’s The Last American (1889)
Images of a run-down Statue of Liberty against a backdrop of decaying New York are a staple of science fiction. So are visions of a post-apocalyptic Washington D.C. As I’ve noted before, the fascination with ruin porn dates back to at least the late 18th century. But America was a backwater at the time – the New World (or the Western presence there anyway) was too new to ruin in futuristic visions. The very first work of science fiction set against a backdrop of ruined, major U.S. cities, as far as I can find, is the brief 1889 satire, The Last American: A fragment from the journal of KHAN-LI, Prince of Dimph-yoo-chur and Admiral in the Persian Navy, by the original publisher of LIFE magazine, John Ames Mitchell.
The book, as the title indicates, is presented as an excerpt from the journal of a Persian Naval admiral, who with his crew stumbles into New York’s harbor 1000 years after America’s demise in 1990. The Persians, who have mocking names like Nofuhl , Lev-el-Hedyd, and Ad-el-pate, comment on the follies of the lost civilization, while they themselves are portrayed as superstitious primitives who make the ancient “Mehrikans” look good by comparison. The Last American reads like a very mediocre Mark Twain — A Connecticut Yankee, published the same year, leaves Mitchell’s book in the dust. Nevertheless, Mitchell, who was surely influenced by After London, made an important contribution to the genre: satire.
Like After London, The Last American provides only minimal background for its post-apocalyptic setting. America underwent some turmoil “between the massacre of the Protestants in 1907, and the overthrow of the Murfey dynasty in 1930.” The nation reached a peak population of 70 million, until the “frightful climatic changes which swept the country like a mower’s scythe” led to a “rapid conversion of a vast continent, alive with millions of pleasure-loving people, into a silent wilderness, where the sun and moon look down in turn upon hundreds of weed-grown cities.”
The whole point of this wasteland backdrop is to set up an outsider’s perspective — one made up with 19th century clichés about Americans:
Historians are astounded that a nation of more than seventy millions should vanish from the earth like a mist, and leave so little behind. But to those familiar with their lives and character surprise is impossible. There was nothing to leave. The Mehrikans possessed neither literature, art, or music of their own. Everything was borrowed. The very clothes they wore were copied with ludicrous precision from the models of other nations. They were a sharp, restless, quickwitted, greedy race, given body and soul to the gathering of riches. Their chiefest passion was to buy and sell.
And yet the 30th century Persians are awed by American technology. Their historians believed the torch held by the giant statue in New York’s harbor would once light up, but when the sailors explore it, they can’t see any evidence of the fire that provided the light.
“The very elements seem to have been their slaves,” comments a member of the expedition. “Cities were illuminated at night by artificial moons, whose radiance eclipsed the moon above. Strange devices were in use by which they conversed together when separated by a journey of many days. Some of these appliances exist to-day in Persian museums. The superstitions of our ancestors allowed their secrets to be lost during those dark centuries from which at last we are waking.”
The Persian sailors make their way down the coast to the fabled ruins of Washington D.C. There they encounter the very last three Americans alive, an old man and a younger couple, eking out a dirty living in the wreck of the “grand temple” of the U.S. Capitol. It’s a potentially momentous meeting, between the last remnant of a storied civilization and representatives of the world’s dominant society. But instead, a misunderstanding leads to a pointless confrontation that wipes out the last living Americans.
The encounter begins as one member of the Persian expedition, who speaks the ancient language of English, strikes up a conversation with the Americans. Things are going well until one Persian named Ja-khaz (sound it out) makes a pass at the woman. This of course leads to a brawl in which very last Americans are exterminated, taking six of the Persians down with them. Unlike the high drama surrounding Mary Shelley’s last man, the last Americans go down in a foolhardy and trivial battle of manly egos.
If The Last American had been written by Mark Twain, there is no doubt it would be, like Shelley’s book, one of the classic novels of the genre. As it is, the book is a slight, cliché-ridden work, but still a minor milestone as an early instance, perhaps the first, of apocalyptic satire — later practiced with more skill by Ward Moore, Aldous Huxley, Kurt Vonnegut , and Douglas Adams.
Image credits: Uncredited illustrations from The Last American, John Ames Mitchell (New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1889).