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Chapter 19 - The Empty Cities of Urban Apocalypse

from Part III - Varieties of Apocalyptic Experience

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 December 2020

John Hay
Affiliation:
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
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Summary

This chapter explores a mise-en-scène familiar to us from postapocalyptic movies and video games: that of a future American city emptied of human life and activity. After tracing this chronotope back to early nineteenth-century European romantic fantasies of the “last man,” the essay considers how it came to be applied, with variations, to American cities between the mid-nineteenth century and the mid-twentieth. Examples include works by Nathaniel Hawthorne, H. G. Wells, Upton Sinclair, and W. E. B. Du Bois as well as those by largely forgotten authors, and encompass utopian and apocalyptic fiction as well as dystopian and postapocalyptic. Critics have largely characterized such visions of urban desolation as a negative, cathartic expression of some fear, whether of ethnic others, natural disaster, or nuclear warfare. This chapter, however, recovers the productive possibilities they offered. Vacated cityscapes empowered readers to reflect critically upon modern urban life, in particular new phenomena such as skyscraper architecture, technological infrastructure, the experience of surging crowds and webs of social interdependency, the suppression of nature, the impermanence of urban space, and racial segregation.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2020

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