Tuesday 28 August 2012

The Last Man

This post is about a theme which some people are surprised even existed in early nineteenth-century literature: the Last Man on earth. Quite a few Last Men have appeared in popular culture over the last decade; think Snowman/Jimmy in Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake (2003), Will Smith as Robert Neville in the 2007 film adaptation of Richard Matheson's 1954 novel I Am Legend, and the Last Man-type figures in recent post-apocalyptic works such as Cormac McCarthy's 2006 novel The Road (adapted for cinema in 2009) and the 2010 film The Book of Eli.

Responding as they do to distinctly modern issues such as the rapid advancement of science, weapons of mass destruction, and the impact of human activity on the ecosystem, these recent books and films are very much a product of twenty-first century anxieties about the fragility of humankind's existence. It might come as a shock, then, to discover that the Last Man does not have his origins in the twentieth century, or even in the late nineteenth century, but in literature written over two hundred years ago, at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

John Martin, The Last Man (1849)
In the short period between 1806 and the mid-1830s, the Last Man theme emerged, flourished, was mocked, and then died down (for seventy-odd years, at least) as quickly as it had appeared. The first Last Man text proper to appear in English was the 1806 translation of Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville's 1805 novel Le Dernier Homme. This was followed in 1816 with Lord Byron's poem 'Darkness', and in 1823 Thomas Campbell published his own poetic interpretation of the theme, 'The Last Man'.

There was some controversy when this last poem was published as to whether Campbell or Byron had thought of the Last Man theme first; this ignited the reading public's imagination, and the literary journals of the time were filled with comments and articles speculating about the origins of the theme and asking whose was the last Last Man. 1826 saw a flood of Last Man texts hit the market as the theme reached its peak in popularity: these included Mary Shelley's novel The Last Man, Thomas Hood's satirical poem 'The Last Man', the anonymous Blackwood's tale 'The Last Man', and the anonymous poem 'The City of the Dead'.

In this year, John Martin produced a study of the Last Man theme, which he later reproduced first as a watercolour, then as an oil painting (see picture above). As more 'Last Men' were produced, however, so the genre became increasingly farcical, and the Last Man texts which followed over the next few years tended to be either mocking in tone or wearily derivative.

For readers new to the Romantic Last Man theme, I would recommend Shelley's novel as a good starting point. The story opens in 1818, when two friends visiting Naples discover some fragments of writing in the hidden cave of the Cumaean Sibyl. When translated, these fragments reveal the story of the Last Man on earth, Lionel Verney, and his tale makes up the novel proper.

His story starts in the year 2073, when England is a republic and people travel by hot air balloon, although other than these developments little else appears to have changed since the nineteenth century. Lionel explains how, after growing up in poverty with his sister, Perdita, he befriends the children of the former king, Adrian and Idris, and their acquaintance Lord Raymond. Lionel and Idris marry, as do Raymond and Perdita, and the group of friends live in harmony while Raymond rules the country as Lord Protector. Their idealistic lives are soon disturbed, however, by emotional betrayal, war, and then a devastating plague which sweeps across the globe destroying all in its path. Lionel and some of his friends initially survive, travelling across Europe with a group of fellow survivors, encountering false prophets, terrifying portents, and deserted cities as they go. After most of the travellers are killed by the plague, an accident wipes out the rest, and Lionel is left alone on earth as the Last Man.

Like a lot of Last Man literature (Atwood's Oryx and Crake included) , this isn't sci fi, so you'll be disappointed if that's what you expect. It is, however, a fantastic story which, especially in the second and third volumes, will keep you on the edge of your seat. I was hugely taken aback when I first read this novel as an undergraduate; I'd loved Frankenstein, but The Last Man seemed to me stranger, full of layers and intricacies which played on my mind for weeks after I'd read it and encouraged me to seek out some other Romantic Last Man texts. Nearly ten years later, I'm now writing up my PhD on this subject, and I am as passionate about these texts as ever.

I hope that this blog post inspires you to look at Shelley's novel if you haven't read it before, or to reread it if you've come across it in the past. Morton D. Paley has produced an excellent edition for OUP, but if you can afford it I'd strongly recommend Anne McWhir's edition for Broadview, which adds several other contemporary Last Man texts within its appendices. Please do let me know what you think!

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