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British Association for American Studies


Issue 4, Autumn 2004, Article 2


Issue 4, Autumn 2004, Article 2

U.S. Studies Online: The BAAS Postgraduate Journal

Issue 4, Autumn 2004

The New American Jeremiad: the Writer as Apocalyptist

Elizabeth Rosen

© Elizabeth Rosen. All Rights Reserved

In his book Structural Fabulation: An Essay on the Fiction of the Future, Robert Scholes contemplates the role of the author in the foreseeable future:

If we are to break the circle of indifference and act in accordance with a structural perception of the universe, we shall have to depend upon the lonely voices of imaginative human beings to bring home to us the implications of our actions. To live well in the present, to live decently and humanely, we must see into the future.

I am not very hopeful about our ability to rise above present selfishness and direct our culture toward a decent human future. But if there is any hope at all, it will depend on the ability of our men and women of imagination to make us see and feel the reality of our situation and the consequences of our present actions. Truly, where there is no vision, the people perish. [1]

Scholes was specifically talking about science fiction, what he calls ‘fiction of the future’, but the role he describes here is equally applicable to any writer whose aim is that their work to be socially meaningful. Yet the onus laid upon writers with this pronouncement—to be visionary and cautionary—is a heavy one, for Scholes essentially urges writers to take up their place as secular prophets.

What is striking about this statement, written in 1975, is not so much what it advocates, but when. Though the call for prophetic voices to provide vision and enumerate consequences is at the heart of American letters, postmodern thought has called into question the very ability of authors to speak to and for any community comprised of more than the writer’s self. Accordingly, the seeming failure of confidence in the American prophetic voice is a relatively recent phenomenon, occurring largely in the second half of the twentieth century, and stands in stark comparison to the way the Pilgrims depended upon the prophetic voices among them for guidance in their ‘errand in the wilderness’.

That most urgent of prophetic calls, the jeremiad, was a favorite rhetorical form of Puritan preachers who feared that their constituencies were shirking their responsibilities and thereby imperiling both their individual souls and the collective destiny of the group to found a City on the Hill, the New Jerusalem. These ‘doomsday sermons’ predicted the awful punishment that lay in store for those who strayed from the path of righteousness. Indeed, the apocalyptic tenor of the settlement of America is well documented: the Puritans looked to the New World as the New Heaven on Earth and regarded their settlement as the precursor of the millennium. When the millennium was slow to arrive, the religious leaders could only suspect that the fault was theirs, and the primary means of relating this to their congregations was through jeremiads, sermons that chastised sinful behavior and lamented the events which they took to be God’s punishment. [2]

As America defined its status as a nation, such cautionary voices were gradually drowned out. Separation of church and state, manifest destiny, and the emphasis on progress all contributed to the muting of this particular prophetic note. To be sure, there were always writers—Melville, Twain, and Hawthorne to name several—who were skeptical about the glitter of the golden Progressive age and suggested that our optimism might not be warranted, but America was moving too fast to stop for nay-saying pessimists. It was becoming an economic and military giant; its founding ideas were becoming the ideals which other, less free, nations aspired to.

Over the course of two centuries, the ‘wailing in the wilderness’ faded to a mewling kitten’s cry. But the twentieth century has seen a renewal of the jeremiad form. Lamentations are being written once again, and the apocalyptic writer is no longer an endangered species. What this paper seeks to understand is why there now appears to be a resurgence in American jeremiad.

Considering that this resurgence has taken place largely during the second half of the twentieth century, is it possible to identify any events or trends unique to the time period that might have contributed to bringing jeremiad back to the fore? One thing we might point to is a confluence of certain historical events and the ideas we now associate with postmodernism. Beginning with World War One, there is a growing pessimism about the future. All of the progress seen to be made in the nineteenth century finds a terrible nexus in the Great War. It is not just the mass deaths of the battlefields that cause this gloominess. There is also a profound disappointment that human advancements have been turned toward such a deadly end; the sense of wastefulness is acute, as is the shock at the carnage. That feeling of despair is briefly offset during the early 1940’s by the need to pull together in order to fight the Axis powers, but the conclusion of World War Two, with the exposure of the Nazi death camps and the demonstration of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, seems to solidify the sense of despair about the future.

The advent of the atomic bomb seems to be the pivotal moment in the twentieth century that encourages the re-emergence of apocalyptists, a particular kind of prophet. Whereas a prophet exhorts his people to effect a change in behavior in order to avoid God’s punishment, an apocalyptist warns of an unalterable End, which includes God’s punishment. He exhorts his people to stand fast in the face of trials even though they cannot change the future. The End is coming, says the apocalyptist, but so long as we maintain our faith, we shall be rewarded with the New Heaven on Earth. [3] As Sacvan Bercovitch puts it, this emphasis on the post-judgment phase of apocalypse is the difference between the European jeremiad, which merely castigates and laments the sinful ways of the world, and the American jeremiad which castigates but never loses sight of the world to come after God’s punishment. [4]

The first atomic test heralded a new age, but it marked the end of one, as well. In Robert Oppenheimer’s utterance after the first test’,I am become death, the destroyer of worlds’ we can already hear the acknowledgment of this change. There is the dawning sense that man has acquired the ability to utterly annihilate the planet. Additionally, there is the sense, hinted at by another of Oppenheimer’s comments’,We knew the world would not be the same’, that something has been lost in the moment of transition into an atomic age. [5]

Two perceptions result rather immediately from this mid-century turning point and both seem to have become more firmly entrenched in our worldview with succeeding historical and political events such as the Vietnam War and Watergate. The first is a pessimistic mindset that sees the present age as different from any age preceding it because of the sheer weight of atrocities which have since been perpetuated, and the second is a view of man as somehow equivalent to deity. [6] The latter view has been aided in part by the secularization of Western society, and therefore the loss of the traditional deity. [7] Combined, these two ideas form the agar in which the germ of jeremiad has been re-cultured.

If Auschwitz and Los Alamos were the birthing places of the New Apocalyptic, then the turbulent Sixties were when it came of age. Indeed, the ‘old world’ was disintegrating: World War Two had pushed women into the work place and now the Pill helped break down old attitudes about sexual conduct and gender roles; Vietnam caused a mostly generational schism in which the middle-class American dream was being challenged by those who wanted to live in communes, tune in and turn on; Watergate confirmed suspicions first hinted at in the Fifties with the Rosenberg spy trial and McCarthy hearings that once respected institutions such as the government were no longer trustworthy; and the habitual racial prejudice so long ingrained in society was under attack by the Civil Rights movement. The instability that all these changes caused in the social structure made it a particularly fertile time for lamentations.

Just as the instability and disintegration of the Assyrian empire had fostered the original wailing prophet Jeremiah, the instability of the Sixties and the disintegration of the America they knew fostered a new group of lamenting, castigating prophets: Mailer, Vonnegut, Baldwin, Heller, all of them wailing in the newly chaotic wilderness. [8]

These men—and it is remarkable how often it is men who write the apocalyptic genre—form what I consider to be the first generation of New Jeremiahs. They are born in the early 1920’s and are old enough to remember the deprivation of the Great Depression. All of them saw military service during World War Two, with the exception of Baldwin who worked in military defense at Belle Meade in New Jersey during the war and suffered the prejudice that would later give rise to his essays on racism. All these men had a firsthand knowledge of war and mass hatred.

Their jeremiads differ significantly from the ones written towards the end of the century. The great laments of the Sixties—Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night, Cat’s Cradle, and Slaughterhouse Five, and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22—were jeremiads more in tune with the European sort that castigated and criticized the times. In these works, one finds little hope for the future. No New Jerusalems are depicted, per se. The works are reprimands and little about them could be said to be optimistic. They depict humans (and institutions), as fool-hardy and unwilling or unable to correct their despicable behavior. The sense of crisis is these works is acute.

But there is a second generation of apocalyptic writers whose works tend to be written much later in the century, and their novels conform more closely to the American Jeremiad form. Men such as Don Delillo, Walter M. Miller, Jr., Russell Hoban, and Cormac McCarthy comprise what I identify as the second generation of New Jeremiahs.

The use of the word generation here is not meant strictly to imply that the second group evolved from the first or that the first generation is the progenitor of the second, though in some cases that might be true. Rather, I am using the term in its looser sense to refer to wider social groups, often differentiated by age but certainly by distinct characteristics and perspectives which can be used to ‘define’ them as a group. While I recognize the oversimplification which often occurs in categorizing a group with a blanket term such as ‘The Me Generation’ or ‘The X Generation’, I find the term generation to be a useful tool here in thinking about how these two groups of writers differ from one another, as well as how they might be related in a kind of genealogy of approaches to the apocalyptic genre. The boundaries between ‘generations’ are not rigid. [9]

What I want to suggest is that the defining influence for the second generation is the Cold War experience, while the defining influence for the first is actual war. For second generation writers such as Delillo who grew up during the Cold War with the possibility of nuclear war hanging over their heads, it is the threat of war which appears to be the formative experience, rather than any actual experience of war. The nuclear confrontation threatened by the Cold War never materialized for this second group, so their apocalyptic writing is largely influenced by this sense of imminent threat, rather than any actual experience of devastation. In what appears to be a significant difference, many of the first generation of New Jeremiahs actually witnessed war first hand, and their apocalyptic writing is steeped in that experience.

These different influences make themselves apparent in the kind of jeremiads each group writes. Whereas the first generation’s jeremiad lacks for any sense of the future, the second generation’s jeremiad does tend to have a vision of the future.

As a result perhaps of the threat not actualizing, second generation writers can imagine a future where, if we don’t live happily ever after, we at least don’t experience the worst we’ve been promised. [10] But first generation writers, perhaps because they have experienced some of the worst humans have to offer, are much less hopeful about the future.

Norman Mailer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Armies of the Night is an excellent example of first generation New Jeremiad. Mailer was born in 1923. He served in the U.S. Army during World War Two from 1944-46, first as a field artillery observer and later as an infantry rifleman in the Pacific theater. In 1946, at the age of twenty-three, he published his account of that experience in the acclaimed novel The Naked and the Dead. His account of the 1967 March on the Pentagon protesting the Vietnam War, Armies of the Night, was published in 1968. Claiming both dual status as a history and a novel, Mailer’s depiction of the March and subsequent arrests is perhaps one of the most cogent analyses ever written of the domestic turmoil which gripped the United States during the Vietnam War, but what is most interesting about it is its clear engagement with the apocalyptic genre. The words ‘apocalypse’ or ‘apocalyptic’ are used six times in reference to the March, and there are numerous other eschatological references used in conjunction with the protest, as well. [11]

Mailer is self-conscious about his responsibility as a documenter of the events and he broods on his own Jeremiah-like role. He writes first about the general role of the writer:

As the power of communication grew larger, so the responsibility to educate a nation lapped at the feet, new tide of a new responsibility…. It was an old argument and he was worn with it—he had written a good essay once about the failure of any major American novelist to write a major novel which would reach out past the best-seller lists of a major part of that American audience brainwashed by Hollywood, TV, and Time….Yes, there was a dark night if you had the illusion you could do something about it, and the conviction that not enough had been done. [12]

Then he describes his own frustrations as an apocalyptic prophet:

Mailer had been going on for years about the diseases of America, its oncoming totalitarianism, its oppressiveness, its smog—he had written so much about the disease he had grown bored with his own voice, weary of his own petulance; the war in Vietnam offered therefore the grim pleasure of confirming his ideas. The disease he had written about existed now in open air… [13]

The old world which Mailer sees failing is America. Vietnam is merely a symptom of the disease killing the patient, for Mailer perceives that in the Technocratic, Capitalistic and Christian American showdown against Communism which serves as the excuse for the war, the world treads dangerously close to cataclysmic nuclear war. Mailer’s keenest apocalyptic lament is reserved for an ideal America being cannibalized by the Corporation and its technological reliance.

He came at last to the saddest conclusion of them all for it went beyond the war in Vietnam. He had come to decide that the center of America might be insane. The country had been living with a controlled, even fiercely controlled, schizophrenia which had been deepening with the years. Perhaps the point had now been passed. Any man or woman who was devoutly Christian and worked for the American Corporation, had been caught in an unseen vise whose pressure could split their mind from their soul. For the center of Christianity was a mystery, a son of God, and the center of the corporation was a detestation of mystery, a worship of technology. Nothing was more intrinsically opposed to technology than the bleeding heart of Christ. The average American, striving to do his duty, drove further every day into working for Christ, and drove equally further each day in the opposite direction—into working for the absolute computer of the corporation. Yes and no, 1 and 0. Every day the average American drove himself further into schizophrenia; the average American believed in two opposites more profoundly apart than any previous schism in the Christian soul. Christians had been able to keep some kind of sanity for centuries while countenancing love against honor, desire versus duty, even charity opposed in the same heart to the lust for power—that was difficult to balance but not impossible. The love of the Mystery of Christ, however, and the love of no Mystery whatsoever, had brought the country to a state of suppressed schizophrenia so deep that the foul brutalities of the war in Vietnam were the only temporary cure possible for the condition—since the expression of brutality offers a definite if temporary relief to the schizophrenic. [14]

Armies of the Night is a dirge for a country and ideal being destroyed. Mailer has an acute dread of what will follow upon this destruction, and the novel cannot even clearly envision that something will follow when the old America is finally subsumed. He ends his account with a two-pronged image, neither of which is terribly comforting. The first part of this image is of the pacifist Quaker Marchers, naked and dehydrated, in solitary prison cells. Mailer poses the question of whether they, in their delirium and piousness, prayed to God to forgive the nation and whether the nation might not be the tiniest bit redeemed by these ‘saints’ and their suffering. But Mailer ends this image with the words ‘and no one will know if [the prayers] were ever made, for the men who might have made them were perhaps too far out on fever and shivering and thirst to recollect, and there are places no history can reach’. [15] The reader cannot even be certain the prayers were said, and, in fact, Mailer’s description of the Quakers’ circumstances suggests exactly the opposite.

The second part of the image is in the novel’s final section, headed ‘The Metaphor Delivered’. Mailer does not specify what the metaphor is, but there is a pun on the word ‘delivered’ in the final image of a failing America about to give birth to some potentially monstrous offspring.

Brood on that country who expresses our will. She is America, once a beauty of magnificence unparalleled, now a beauty with a leprous skin. She is heavy with child—no one knows if legitimate—and languishes in a dungeon whose walls are never seen. Now the first contractions of her fearsome labor begin—it will go on: no doctor exists to tell the hour. It is only known that false labor is not likely on her now, no, she will probably give birth, and to what?—the most fearsome totalitarianism the world has ever known? Or can she, poor giant, tormented lovely girl, deliver a babe of a new world brave and tender, artful and wild? Rush to the locks. God writhes in his bonds. Rush to the locks. Deliver us from our curse. For we must end on the road to that mystery where courage, death, and the dream of love give promise of sleep. [16]

It would seem that the metaphor which is about to be delivered is apocalypse. Mailer’s wording suggests that God is bound and suffering, unable to deliver Americans from their own affliction. The future doesn’t look good, and if, as Mailer notes, we are on a road that ends with death, the future is possibly nonexistent.

Mailer’s contemporary, Kurt Vonnegut, has also written a number of New Jeremiads. Vonnegut has made a career out of his Jeremiah-like complaints. No author has sounded the alarm so loudly and consistently as he has. Of the three novels he published during the Sixties that could be considered apocalyptic, the best known are Cat’s Cradle (1965) and Slaughterhouse Five (1969), with the other being Mother Night (1961). But in 1985 Vonnegut wrote another apocalyptic novel, Galapagos, and so he is unusual in having written on both sides of the intervening Cold War. His work pre-Cold War shows the characteristic pessimism of a first generation New Jeremiad, while the post-Cold War novel shows the more optimistic tendencies of the second generation. Vonnegut, then, is both rule and exception, spanning both generations.

Born in 1922, and serving in the Army Infantry from 1942 to 1945, Vonnegut was taken prisoner and witnessed the firebombing of Dresden, an experience which formed the basis of Slaughterhouse Five. But it was a comment overheard in his civilian life when he worked in public relations for General Electric laboratories which gave him the kernel for Cat’s Cradle. At a cocktail party one evening, Vonnegut overheard two men discussing whether it would be possible to create a substance that would freeze all the water molecules it came into contact with. This imaginary substance became Ice-9 in his novel.

The narrator of Cat’s Cradle sets out to research the first atomic bomb, but is soon involved instead in the pursuit of information about an alternative weapon: Ice-9. The substance eventually falls into the wrong hands, but the world ends through folly rather than malevolence when a crystal of Ice-9 tumbles by mistake into the ocean and freezes all the world’s water. Since the human body is mostly water, most of the human race is soon frozen solid, too, and the novel ends with the narrator watching the one messianic character of the story, Bokonon, deliberately ingesting a crystal of the substance to be frozen forever. As in Armies of the Night, there is a striking lack of hope about the future. It is made clear that eventually the ice age will claim all life, and there is no redeeming vision of a world beyond for those who, like the narrator, kept some kind of faith. [17]

Compare this to the apocalyptic novel Vonnegut wrote in 1985, Galapagos. As before, Vonnegut demolishes the world, this time with a virus that causes sterility, but in this case, he not only leaves survivors who avoid the virus by a chance marooning on the isolated Galapagos islands, but also creates a kinder, gentler world for them, albeit an eon into the future. Narrator Leon Trout reveals that a million years on, the descendents of these castaways have evolved to be more like seals and that, because of it, war, famine, and economic deprivation have also become extinct. [18]

By 1985 Vonnegut can not only imagine a future for his characters, but his vision comes close to being a vision of a New Heaven on Earth. What has changed for the author in the intervening twenty-five years? It’s certainly not that the world itself has become less-bloodthirsty. One possible explanation is that the threat of human extinction that was so keenly expected during the Cold War never materialized, and that, given the worst did not occur, optimism begins to creep back into Vonnegut’s work.

There are two other notable exceptions to the generational schema. Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker is one of the most celebrated apocalyptic novels of the 1980s. Born in 1925, Hoban also served in the Army infantry between 1943-1945, so he shares biographical details with other first generation New Jeremiad writers. Yet Riddley Walker is clearly a second generation jeremiad. Set in a post-nuclear world in which all technology and history has been lost, the young narrator struggles to discover how the world came to be as it is. The novel ends on a hopeful note, however, with a new world order being built, if still mostly in ignorance of the technological past, and Riddley having taken on the role of a ‘teller’, a traveling story-teller who vows to keep interrogating the status quo and spreading the new word. [19] This isn’t the happy New Heaven on Earth of Vonnegut’s Galapagos, but it is a future world at least, and it is not unhappy.

Why, if Hoban shares the first generation’s war experience, is Riddley Walker not a first generation jeremiad? In the decades preceding this novel, Hoban was writing mostly children’s fiction, and he didn’t try his hand at apocalyptic fiction until 1980 with Riddley, so he is, by then, decades past his own war experience and an observer of not only Cold War fears, but also of their continuing imminence.

Walter M. Miller, Jr. presents another interesting exception. Born in 1923 and an infantryman during the war, Miller published A Canticle for Leibowitz in 1960. Canticle is widely considered one of the most inspired works of apocalyptic fiction ever written, but because it is a science fiction novel, few people who work outside the genre are aware of it. The novel is clearly informed by the devout Miller’s Catholicism, and I would suggest it is this devotion that allows Miller to pen a second generation jeremiad during the time period dominated by eschatological visions so bereft of hope for the future. The Christian promise of New Jerusalem seems to have influenced the pious author to end his novel—set in another post-nuclear world of ignorance and fear—with the promise of a new and better world to be established on Alpha Centuri. [20] Unlike his peers, perhaps, who cannot throw off the awfulness they have observed, Miller’s faith in the Christian eschatological vision of hope seems to override his own personal experience of war and makes his novel one of the only hopeful visions of the future during the turbulent decade in which he writes.

Other second generation jeremiads are more ambiguous than Miller’s. Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is one example. McCarthy was born in 1933, and while he served a four-year stint in the U.S. Air Force, his service began in 1953, the year the Korean War ended, and he spent two of the four years stationed in Alaska. [21] A virtual catalogue of massacre and mayhem, his 1985 novel Blood Meridian follows the adventures of ‘the kid’, a feral boy who joins up with one of the most infamous groups of Indian Scalp Hunters of the American West, John Glanton’s gang. The novel gives an account of the gang’s progress across Mexican deserts in pursuit of Indian scalps, a pursuit that gets progressively bloodier and murderous as it continues, until all but two of the main characters, the kid and the judge, are left alive. While the bulk of McCarthy’s story is occupied with the hellish bloodletting set in Mexico, it is the end of the novel, set many years later in the nascent American West of 1868, which puts it squarely into the second generation of New Jeremiads.

After the kid’s extreme and arbitrary violence throughout the novel, two separate incidences confirm that something has changed for him in his adulthood: his offer of aid to what he believes is the solitary survivor of a massacre, and his initial refusal to kill a boy who calls him a liar. Neither incident could have occurred in the cold-blooded indifference of the first part of the novel, and so both signal a changed state of mind for the character. Yet, in spite of this change, the kid meets his death at the hands of the judge at the end of the novel. But it is exactly this death which confirms an old world ending and its replacement by a new one.

As a representative of the Old West, with its murderous, racist overtones, the kid cannot be allowed to survive the transition to what is clearly civilization. This is first hinted at when McCarthy writes that, as an adult, the kid always rides away from cities and other signs of civilization and returns to the wilderness. The dying away of the Old West is made explicit in the story told to the kid by an old buffalo hunter.

…the hunter shared tobacco with him and told him of the buffalo and the stands he’d made against them, laid up in a sag on some rise with the dead animals scattered over the grounds and the herd beginning to mill and the riflebarrel so hot the wiping patches sizzled in the bore and the animals by the thousands and tens of thousands and the hides pegged out over actual square miles of ground and the teams of skinners spelling one another around the clock and the shooting and shooting weeks and months till the bore shot slick and the stock shot loose at the tang and their shoulders were yellow and blue to the elbow and the tandem wagons groaned away over the prairie twenty and twenty-two ox teams and the flint hides by the tone and hundred ton and the meat rotting on the ground and the air whining with flies and the buzzards and ravens and the night a horror of snarling and feeding with the wolves half crazed and wallowing in the carrion.

I seen Studebaker wagons with six and eight ox teams headed out for the grounds not hauling a thing but lead. Just pure galena. Tons of it. On this ground alone between the Arkansas River and the Concho there was eight million carcasses for that’s how many hides reached the railhead. Two year ago we pulled out from Griffin for a last hunt. We ransacked the country. Six weeks. Finally found a herd of eight animals and we killed them and come in. They’re gone. Ever one of them that God ever made is gone as if they’d never been at all. [22]

No clearer intimation of the coming of civilization exists than the dancing bear that provides the entertainment in the saloon in Griffin where the kid loses his life. The fierce grizzly bear had been the terror of the West, but McCarthy here dresses the beast in a crinoline skirt and has it dancing to a barrel organ on stage. When, moments later, it is shot and killed, its death elicits more tears and mourning than any of the massacres that have previously occurred.

The little girl had unbuckled herself out of the barrel organ and it clattered wheezing to the floor. She ran forward and knelt and gathered the great shaggy head up in her arms and began to rock back and forth sobbing. Most of the men in the room had risen and they stood in the smoky yellow space with their hands on their sidearms. Whole flocks of whores were scuttling toward the rear and a woman mounted to the boards and stepped past the bear and held out her hands.

It’s all over, she said. It’s all over. [23]

The New World of McCarthy’s novel is the coming civilization, but the future it depicts is not a purely hopeful one. Left dancing in the saloon, the master of the men around him, is the judge who has killed the kid in the jakes and has been the author of some of the worst and most arbitrary violence of the novel. This figure, about whom McCarthy writes, he ‘never sleeps…He says he’ll never die’, haunts the New World just as he has haunted the Old World. [24] So while, as a second generation jeremiad writer, McCarthy can envisage a future, that vision is not an easy or redemptive one and the City on the Hill which civilization is bringing is portrayed ambivalently.

Other second generation writers approach their jeremiad from a theoretical, rather than literal, perspective. Don Delillo’s 1997 novel Underworld is such a work. Delillo was born in 1936, so his experience of World War Two is relatively limited and he never served in the armed forces at all. Instead, he grew up under the shadow of the Cold War, an experience that Underworld makes clear was a seminal one for an entire generation. Yet the Cuban Missile Crisis was averted, and the Berlin Wall eventually crumbled. The result is that, like much second generation apocalyptic fiction, Underworld becomes a meditation on jeremiads; it is one level removed from the apocalyptic vision of its character Lenny Bruce with his repeated cry ‘We’re all gonna die!’ Instead, the novel examines the place of jeremiad in our lives. Its inquiry is into how our lives are affected when Bruce’s lament is changed to ‘We’re NOT gonna die!’

Delillo’s novel suggests that without the threat of the End, we have a tendency to lapse into the crippling sort of nostalgia that his character Marvin Lundy does, pottering in a basement filled with the old memorabilia he collects, obsessively chasing the lineage of baseballs and ruminating on better times. Delillo’s apocalyptic prophet Lenny Bruce predicts that once the threat is gone, the only option that will be left for us will be a commercialization of the End.

And all this cold war junk is gonna be worth plenty, as quaint memorabilia. Those yellow and black signs you’ve been seeing everywhere but never really noticed until six days ago—Fallout Shelter. Collector’s items. All the stuff that’s stashed in the storage rooms and laundry rooms that are designated shelters. Drums of drinking water. Saltines. Chapstick, for the flash. Cardboard toilets that double as salad bowls. [25]

Bruce understands that it is the threat of the End which allows us to make sense of and categorize our life experiences. It is the Ending which allows us to delineate beginnings and middles, to organize our experiences in a meaningful way. That such an organization might be teleological and therefore flawed is irrelevant, because, as Bruce has foreseen, without that anchor of meaning we will have to find a new organizing principle for our lives and that anchor will likely be consumerism.

Marvin Lundy is proof of Bruce’s vision; he is a salesman of memorabilia. He recognizes that people aren’t satisfied with the ambiguity of modern life; they feel lost without ‘the two great powers to hang a threat over the planet’. [26] They yearn for the time when all the boundaries—beginning/end, good/evil—seemed clearer. He recognizes the value of memorabilia that taps into that time: ‘There’s men in the coming years they’ll pay fortunes for these objects. They’ll pay unbelievable. Because this is desperation speaking’. [27]

Delillo’s Cold War experience of unfulfilled prophecies of the End leads him to a meta-inquiry into the nature of eschatological prophecy and its role in our lives. His novel falls into the category of second generation New Jeremiad because it makes clear there is a future after the near-apocalyptic moment engendered by the Cuban Missile Crisis. But it also suggests that this future—our world—is bereft of some deeper meaning which is available when the End is in sight. Delillo’s novel is a lamentation over the loss of lamentations, an irony that paradoxically turns it into a jeremiad. It reflects the kind of postmodernist and intellectual approach to the genre which might be the result of a lack of real crisis to inform it.

However, the terrorist attacks in New York on September 11, 2001 may very well provide current American jeremiad writers with the experience of crisis that first generation New Jeremiad authors inherited with their World War Two experience. One would expect to see another surge in jeremiad as a result of September 11th. What remains to be seen is whether these lamentations will be able to dredge up any optimistic hope of the future, or whether, like first generation New Jeremiad writers, the experience of actual catastrophe will muffle the expectation of a future New World entirely.

University College London



[1] Robert Scholes, Structural Fabulation: An Essay on the Fiction of the Future (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975), 74-5.

[2] There is some debate—notably between Perry Miller and Sacvan Bercovitch—as to whether the jeremiad is ultimately a pessimistic or optimistic rhetorical form. Miller argues that it is a doom-saying form, a rhetorical sign of disappointment and dismay. Bercovitch, however, sees it as a ‘corrective, not destructive’ form, arguing that the Puritans re-interpreted the traditionally gloomy and castigating European jeremiad into a new, celebratory form which confirmed their status as a chosen people and whose ‘function it was to create a climate of anxiety that helped release the restless ‘progressivist’ energies required for the success of the venture’. See Sacvan Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad (Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1978), 8 and 23. See Perry Miller’s works Errand into the Wilderness (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1956) and The New England Mind: From Colony to Province (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1953) for more on his position.

[3] Other major differences between apocalyptic and prophetic eschatologies are that apocalyptic eschatology imagines the End as an abrupt disruption of History in which the old corrupt order is overthrown entirely and replaced, while prophetic eschatology imagines the End as a period of transition within History. Accordingly, in prophetic eschatology it is expected that evil will by won over and absorbed into the good, while in apocalyptic prophecy the forces of good and evil are always opposed to one another and evil is destroyed and vanquished rather than brought into line. For more on the differences between apocalyptic and prophetic eschatology see John Wiley Nelson’,The Apocalyptic Vision in American Popular Culture’ in The Apocalyptic Vision in America: Interdisciplinary Essays on Myth and Culture. Ed. Lois Parkinson Zamora. (Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1982), 154-182.

[4] Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad, 23.

[5] National Atomic Museum website. <> Qtd. from Richard Rhodes’ ‘The Making of the Atomic Bomb(10/10/03)

[6] As Frank Kermode points out in his seminal The Sense of an Ending, however, all ages tend to regard themselves as a degeneration of the previous one. Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966. Rpt. 2000).

[7] What this term ‘secularization’ actually means is the center of a debate among scholars. See for example Steve Bruce, God is Dead: Secularization in the West (Blackwell Publishers: Oxford, 2002) or Nicolas Lash, The Beginning and the End of Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). Nonetheless, many scholars and artists, from Joseph Campbell to the authors whose novels are referred to in this paper, have perceived a movement from a religious society (or at least one in which religion played an important part) to one in which science and technology have pushed aside faith. Some of Norman Mailer’s most stunning analysis in Armies of the Night has to do with what he perceives as the schizophrenic nature of America resulting from the conflict between its dual fidelity to both God and Technology.

[8] The perception of crisis often plays a part in the blossoming of the apocalyptic genre. Bercovitch notes how American jeremiad bloomed with ‘every major crisis of seventeenth-century New England: doctrinal controversy, the Indian Wars, the witchcraft trials, the charter negotiations. From the start the Puritan Jeremiahs had drawn their inspiration from insecurity…Crisis became both form and substance of their appeals’. Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad, 62.

[9] As with any categorization, there are exceptions. For instance, Vonnegut manages to span both generations since the tone and dates of his apocalyptic novels vary significantly. I also examine two other notable exceptions, Walter M. Miller, Jr. and Russell Hoban, whose work do not appear to fit comfortably into the generational schema.

[10] This is in keeping with Bercovitch’s assessment that American jeremiad revises the European form into a celebratory one: The Puritans ‘revised the message of the jeremiad….They qualified [the threat of divine retribution] in a way that turned threat into celebration. In their case, they believed, God’s punishments were corrective, not destructive. Here, as nowhere else, His vengeance was a sign of love, a father’s rod used to improve the errant child. In short, their punishments confirmed their promise’. Bercovitch, 8.

[11] See, for example, the final two paragraphs which reference Book of Revelation imagery such as the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Norman Mailer, Armies of the Night (London: Plume, a division of Penguin Books, Ltd., 1994), 288.

[12] Mailer, Armies of the Night, 157-8.

[13] Mailer, Armies of the Night, 188. Mailer’s book is divided into two sections, the first called History As a Novel in which Mailer writes about his personal experience in the March and about himself in the third person, and the second called The Novel as History in which he reverts to a more historically objective form, reportage, using other journalistic sources and research to try to report on the March from a larger perspective. One might argue that in blurring the line between these two types of writing, Mailer is the author of a kind of literary apocalypse.

[14] Mailer, Armies of the Night, 188.

[15] Mailer, Armies of the Night, 287.

[16] Mailer, Armies of the Night, 288.

[17] Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle (London: Penguin, 1965).

[18] Kurt Vonnegut, Galapagos (London: Jonathan Cape, 1985).

[19] Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker (London: Picador/Pan Books Ltd., 1980).

[20] Walter M. Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz (London: Orbit, 1993). Originally published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson,1960.

[21] I was unable to verify whether or not McCarthy had actually participated in any of the fighting during the Korean War.

[22] Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian (London: Picador, 1989), 316-7.

[23] McCarthy, Blood Meridian, 326.

[24] McCarthy, Blood Meridian, 335.

[25] Don Delillo, Underworld (London: Picador, 1999), 593.

[26] Delillo, Underworld, 182.

[27] Delillo, Underworld, 182.