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The Postapocalyptic American Frontier: Uncanny Historicism in the Nineteenth Century

Hay, John Andrew

This dissertation reveals a hitherto unrecognized thread of speculative postapocalyptic fantasies underlying nineteenth-century accounts of the American frontier. Many critics have exposed the latent imperialism behind popular myths of primeval wilderness and virgin land; bringing together fictional tales, travel writings, and scientific texts, I show that U.S. authors who enthusiastically celebrated these myths distorted rather than escaped the bounds of history. Their literature results in an uncanny historicism that unsettles narratives of material progress by conflating ancient territorial rupture with a potentially disastrous future. The Illinois prairie of the 1840s thus appeared to Margaret Fuller as a country that has been carefully cultivated by a civilized people, who had been suddenly removed from the earth, with all the works of their hands, and the land given again into nature's keeping. Fuller's notion of hidden destruction behind a vision of natural tranquility was not uncommon. Striving to reconcile their projection of an empty continent with the myriad traces of both Native Americans and prior European settlers, writers such as William Cullen Bryant, James Fenimore Cooper, Henry David Thoreau, and Jack London crafted historical narratives that imagined the swift annihilation of entire populations. For them, the blank slate of the American continent was simultaneously a ruined wasteland, and the mythical American Adam was really an American Noah - a patriarch of a new world built on the violent dissolution of the old. U.S. frontier literature between the War of 1812 and the First World War contains postapocalyptic themes like the last man on earth, the lapse into barbarism, and ruin-strewn landscapes. As a key example, I read Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans (1826) as a narrative of biological extinction that foreshadows his later national apocalyptic allegory The Crater (1847). Similarly, I contend that the industrial ruins a young Thoreau discovered in the Maine woods spurred him to imagine a suddenly depopulated Massachusetts in his journal. These postapocalyptic fantasies often attempted to deny the ongoing presence and property claims of Native Americans by relegating the original inhabitants of American soil to a separate past, yet they also suggested that the United States itself might be subject to imminent catastrophe.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Posnock, Ross
Degree
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 14, 2013
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