End of the World 1843: The Disease of Civilization

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The New Adam and Eve” (1843)

Before we move on to the 20th century works of what Josh has aptly named the “post-apocalyptome,” let’s recap what happened in the 19th. Basically, early writers of post-apocalyptic fiction came up with just about all of the major themes, plots, characters, and settings of the genre that we know and love today (the zombie apocalypse excepted). Plagues, comets, environmental catastrophes, or a dying sun lead to ruined cities, collapsed civilizations, and roving bands of marauders; there is the next evolutionary step, a reversion to barbarism and superstition, and the lonely Last Man.

It all pretty much started in 1805 with de Grainville’s The Last Man, a Miltonian, futuristic religious fantasy authored by a French priest. At first this book seems to have little to do with science fiction — it’s an inversion of Genesis, featuring a Last Couple that has to choose whether to obey God and fulfill his plan or pursue their own desires. But despite the heavy Gothic atmosphere, The Last Man is one of very first futuristic romances of the century: there are airships, great engineering projects, and scientific discoveries of unlimited sources of power. It’s as much a vision of scientific progress as it is one of religion, and is the first solid entry in the Dying Earth sub-genre. Humans, through their technology, control nature until God decides to wrap it all up.

The Romantics mourned our separation from nature, and they returned again and again to themes of ruins and human extinction — see Byron’s “Darkness”. Mary Shelly wrote the greatest post-apocalyptic novel before H.G. Wells. Transforming her personal tragedy into the death of the entire human species, her plague novel The Last Man describes the collapse of civilization as the whole world quickly succumbs. There is panic, armed skirmishing, and religious fanaticism, and it ends with the sole survivor, hopeless and cursing his fate as he sets out to travel an empty world. A decade later, Edgar Allen Poe imagined the world destroyed by comet, an event that easily upends all confidence in the scientific predictability of nature.

During the middle of the century writers seemed to lose interest in the distant future or the fictional end of the world. But by the 1880’s, a new wave of futuristic fiction was building, and science fiction as we know it today was born. Richard Jeffries, in his 1885 After London invented the post-apocalyptic coming-of-age story. A dissatisfied young man lives in a medieval world, created when a catastrophe left modern civilization in ruins and London a toxic swamp. He does what post-apocalyptic youths have done ever since: sets out to discover himself and his world, and also to impress his true love. John Mitchell invented the post-apocalyptic satire with The Last American, the first story to feature the now-familiar image of a decrepit Statue of Liberty overlooking the ruins of New York. (It was published in 1889 – the Stature of Liberty had only opened three years earlier.) In his End of the World novel Omega (1893), the popular French astronomer Camille Flammarion explored almost every End of the World scenario that’s been covered since (again, zombie apocalypse excepted). His countryman Gabriel Tarde envisioned the first underground post-apocalyptic society, a scenario that would be taken up later by many others, including Philip Dick and Jeanne DuPrau.

And then along came H.G. Wells — the earliest author of SF whose work reads like it could have been written today. Wells was the first person since Shelley and Frankenstein to figure out how to work scientific themes into genuinely compelling fiction. In a move that Jules Verne couldn’t stand, Wells ditched the restraints of detailed scientific plausibility and focused on the bigger picture. He gave his stories a veneer of scientific realism — a mechanical time machine or a Martian space ship described in vivid detail — but the underlying science wasn’t necessarily credible. That didn’t matter, because Wells used his technological props to explore bigger scientific themes: our evolutionary future, the earth’s natural end, or our place in a universe with other intelligent life. He worked these themes into trenchant social critiques, demonstrating that science fiction is as much about the present as it is about the future. With works like The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, Wells made science fiction ready for the 20th century.

But before we go there, let’s turn to a final 19th century post-apocalyptic story, a product American Romanticism: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The New Adam and Eve” (1843).

It’s a “half-sportive and half-thoughtful” tale about a new first couple who come into being, naked and innocent, not in a garden, but in downtown Boston. Only the day before, the “Day of Doom” swept the world clean of the human species. God reboots the human species with a new Adam and Eve, a first couple that is also a last couple, alone among the remains of civilization. The story describes their confusion as they explore the various streets, parks, and buildings.

Hawthorne wrote this story to do what hundreds of other writers of post-apocalyptic fiction of done since — to contrast human civilization with the natural world:

We, who are born into the world’s artificial system, can never adequately know how little in our present state and circumstances is natural, and how much is merely the interpolation of the perverted mind and heart of man. Art has become a second and stronger Nature; she is a step-mother, whose crafty tenderness has taught us to despise the bountiful and wholesome ministrations of our true parent.

To make ourselves “even partially sensible to what prisoners we are,” Hawthorne says we have to turn to the imagination, loosening “those iron fetters, which we call truth and reality.” He suggests a thought experiment: imagine that the millennialist Millerites are correct and the End comes, emptying the earth of all life. The next Adam and Eve show up, and try to make sense of the remains of civilization. “Such a pair would at once distinguish between art and nature,” Hawthorne’s narrator suggests. They would recognize nature’s “wisdom and simplicity,” compared with the “elaborate perversities” of civilization.

It sounds like a simple Romantic morality tale about why civilization is bad and nature is good. There is some of that here — and plenty of it in later post-apocalyptic works. But Hawthorne is much more subtle, and time and again, his Adam and Eve undercut this theme. It turns out that, while they certainly appreciate the purity of nature, they are instinctually drawn to the “witchery” of clothing, the possibilities of books, and grandeur of human monuments.

The story ends in the cemetery, where Adam and Eve sense their mortality and “the soul’s incongruity with its circumstances.” Death puts the accomplishments of human civilization in perspective — they will, when the world ends, be “thrown aside.”

Next week: the first post-apocalyptic novel of the 20th century.

Read more entries in my post-apocalyptic science fiction series, and my other science fiction reviews.

Image credit: “Adam and Eve,” Lucas Cranach the Elder (1538-39), via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Mike White

Genomes, Books, and Science Fiction

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