J.A. Mitchell’s The Last American

In this fictional future history, written by John Ames Mitchell, the co-founder of Life magazine, the Persian prince and admiral Khan-Li records his astonishing journey through the ruins of “Nhu-Yok,” the famed city of the extinct “Mehrikan” people. Khan-Li and his crew enter an “ancient street, the pavements covered with weeds, grass and flowers, all crowding together in wild neglect. Huge trees of great antiquity thrust their limbs through windows and roofs and produced a mournful effect.”

One of the city’s most marvelous technological feats, the Brooklyn Bridge, now stands broken in the East River. The Persians are baffled: “We sailed close under one of the great monuments in the river, and are at a loss to divine its meaning. Many iron rods still dangle from the tops of each of the structures.” What caused the decline of “Mehrikan” civilization? Like other “future historians” of the late nineteenth century, Mitchell used apocalyptic as a pretext for cautioning the nation against looming crises. Mitchell’s view of the United States’ most troubling tendencies is a curious blend of xenophobia, Darwinism, anti-modernism, and climatology:

The Mehrikans themselves were of English origin, but people from all parts of Europe came here in vast numbers. Although the original comers were vigorous and hardy the effect of climate upon succeeding generations was fatal. They became flat-chested and thin, with scanty hair, fragile teeth, and weak digestions. Nervous diseases unknown to us wrought deadly havoc. […] Climatic changes, the like of which no other land ever experienced, began at that period, and finished in less than ten years a work made easy by nervous natures and rapid lives. The temperature would skip in a single day from burning heat to winter’s cold. No constitution could withstand it, and this vast continent became once more an empty wilderness.

Looking back on Mitchell’s work today, we can see that his major concern was not really the future, but his own present. He was worried about the great waves of Germans, Russians, Irish, and Italians emigrating to US metropolises; he was distressed by what George Miller Beard had dubbed “American nervousness” and the impact of modernity; and, perhaps most surprisingly of all, he was concerned about climate change. Read The Last American here. (Reblogged from my article on the Rachel Carson Center’s Environment and Society portal.)

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