The Last Man

Last Man

In 1818, Mary Shelly simultaneously set the stage for both horror and science fiction with her debut novel, Frankenstein. Then, not content to kill off a mere handful of people with a monster, in 1826 Shelley killed of EVERYBODY in The Last Man, the grim story of a global pandemic. I didn’t deliberately read it with COVID-19 in mind—Shelley’s book has been on my “to read” list for a while—but reading it now certainly makes the experience a bit creepier.

To set the stage:

In 1826, John Quincy Adams was president. Founding fathers John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died that year. Charles X was King of France. Beethoven was still composing. And according to Wikipedia, “Cayetano Ripoll became the last person to be executed by the Spanish Inquisition at its last auto-da-fé, held in Valencia.” The Spanish Inquisition! Sounds like ancient history. The action of The Last Man takes place near the end of the 21st Century. In other words, not long from now.

Mary Shelly’s mother was philosopher/feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, her husband was poet Percy Shelley, and their companion was Lord Byron. To read her is to plunge yourself into a Romantic world of overwrought passions, where no one speaks—not even in the throes of death—without delivering a flowery oration. And why write “The sky cleared,” when instead you could write, “As Sampson with tug and strain stirred from their bases the columns that supported the Philistine temple, so did the gale shake the dense vapours propped on the horizon while the massy dome of clouds fell to the south, disclosing though the scattered web the clear empyrean, and the little stars, which were set at an immeasurable distance in the crystalline fields, showered their small rays on the glittering snow.”

If I had read this book even just a year ago, I probably would have viewed it as a quaint oddity. After all, the world Shelly paints, even though it is set more or less in our own time, is very much the world of the early 19th Century. The result is a weird sense of past, present, and future all coming together to witness the end of humankind. Here in 2020, that sounds less far-fetched than it would have in 1920 or even 2019.

Yet someone reading a newspaper today could be forgiven for not knowing that we too, like Shelley’s doomed characters, are in the midst of a global pandemic. The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, coming on the heels of two already tense months of economic shutdown and ongoing leadership problems in DC, has touched off a firestorm big enough to sweep COVID-19 from the front pages. The incident brought decades of police brutality and centuries of racism to a head, and set off a powder keg of protests, some of them violent, across the country.

But the pandemic has not gone away. Many fear that the wave of large-scale protests may in fact be providing fertile ground for spreading the virus even faster and further.

Oh yeah, and there’s still the problem of climate change.

Strange days, indeed.

 

 

History

Old Statehouse

I lived in and around Boston for several years, and one tradition I rarely missed was the annual Independence Day concert on the Esplanade by the Boston Pops. The highlight was Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, complete with cannons, church bells, and fireworks. A spectacular 4th of July celebration is appropriate for one of the few American cities that relishes its history.

In general, the United States doesn’t seem to care a lot for its history. Don’t think for a moment those MAGA people really know or care about history; what they have in mind is a short-range look through a narrow lens at a mythical golden age that never existed. They could stand to do a bit of reading.

The Oxford History of the United States is a series that covers US history is great detail. The research is impressive and the writing is erudite yet accessible. The series as it stands so far:

  • Robert Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763–1789
  • Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815
  • Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848
  • James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era
  • Richard White, The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865–1896
  • David M. Kennedy, Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945
  • James T. Patterson, Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945–1974
  • James T. Patterson, Restless Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush v. Gore
  • George C. Herring, Years of Peril and Ambition: U.S. Foreign Relations, 1776-1921
  • George C. Herring, The American Century and Beyond: U.S. Foreign Relations, 1893-2014

There are still a few gaps to fill in, most obviously the long period of time between 1492 and 1763. Oxford has been taking its time with this series, so we may have to wait a while yet.

These are all hefty books. Reading The Oxford History of the United States requires a serious time commitment. If you want something a bit less ambitious, but still of high quality, I recommend These Truths: A History of the United States by Jill Lepore. Any single-volume history of the United States, even one with nearly 1,000 pages, must be selective about what is included and what is left out. Therefore, a focus is necessary. The focus Lepore has chosen for These Truths is the question of whether or not the US has lived up to the ideals espoused in the Declaration of Independence. Her answer is a qualified “sort of.” Although there is much to love and admire about the US, it has never truly believed that “all men are created equal” or that everyone is “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”

Fair warning: Lepore does not hold back her opinions, dosing out extra helpings of opprobrium for southern pro-slavery Democrats, speech restricting liberals of the 21st century, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump. Even if you don’t agree with her on everything (I don’t), there is much to learn from this excellent book.

Happy reading, and Happy Independence Day!