The American Apocalyptic Sublime and the Twilight of Empire


By Ed Simon

“Thus every one before the Throne/of Christ the Judge is brought, / Both righteous and impious, / that good or ill had wrought.”

— Michael Wigglesworth, The Day of Doom (1662)

“Are you ready/For the great atomic power? /Will you rise and meet your Savior in the air? /Will you shout or will you cry/When the fire rains from on high?/Are you ready for the great atomic power?”

— Ira and Charlie Louvin, Great Atomic Power (1952)

“It’s coming to America first/the cradle of the best and of the worst.”

— Leonard Cohen, “Democracy” (1992)

“Hear the trumpets, hear the pipers. /One hundred million angels singin’. /Multitudes are marching to the big kettle drum. /Voices callin’, voices cryin’. /Some are born an’ some are dyin’. /It’s Alpha’s and Omega’s Kingdom come.”

— Johnny Cash, The Man Comes Around (2002)

Michael Wigglesworth would have heard the sobbing winds off the coast of New England; here where the very landscape seemed to conspire in rejecting his people. The minister would have laid in a creaking wooden bed, under rough wool blankets, and at the midnight hour listened to the battering of storms and Nor’easters, much more violent than anything in his placid birthplace of Yorkshire. He would have heard the imagined (or sometimes real) war cries of the Wampanoag, the Abenaki, and the Narraganset who seemed to dwell as ghosts but a few miles from the rocky coast to which the settlers huddled here on their errand into the wilderness. In the panicked mind of the minister, the country itself seemed to always be chilled through with a shivering fever dream. For the Reverend Doctor Wigglesworth, pathetic fallacy was no aesthetic deficiency, but rather a necessary interpretative aspect of the world itself, one with crucial personal implications. Clouds and shoals and weather and seasons were all equally open to being read as clearly as scripture was – and sometimes what was interpreted were terrifying aspects of a terrifying world, especially for a man naturally predisposed to nervousness. God’s providence still existed in this godless place, even here in the country of Satan’s Throne. God’s divine countenance still dwelled among every pine cone and smooth black beach rock, and it was the job of Puritan divines like Wigglesworth to read the landscape as clearly as they would parse the significance of a particular Hebrew conjugation in Daniel, or Greek declension in Revelation. And like those old books, the landscape of this New World signaled that the revealing was upon them; indeed the discovery of this fourth part of the world at the moment the true Christian remnant blasted her horn against the trumperies of the false Romish Whore of Babylon and signaled that the final seals in heaven would shortly be broken, for these were miraculous days of miraculous wonders, especially at the ends of the world where he awaited the end of the world.

And so, he wrote. As nature was but a language, he could enter into her conversations through quill and paper of his own, and as a contribution to that dialogue Rev. Wigglesworth produced the most popular book in colonial America; indeed, arguably one of the per capita most read works ever written by an American (and no doubt one which very few of you have ever heard of, much less read) – the epic apocalyptic poem The Day of Doom. So popular was The Day of Doom that virtually no complete copies of that first printing survive in their entirety, the pages worn away by the feverish repeated consultations by those who owned the books, the ink smudged off by the entropic readerly enthusiasm that is really a form of love. In colonial New England the only book held closer to the bosom would have been the Bible itself, and no other work of contemporary literature would have occupied their imaginations as fully as Wigglesworth’s apocalyptic epic. If his book were as similarly popular in the contemporary United States, adjusted for per capita population difference, then more than seventeen million Americans would own a copy of The Day of Doom. And in colonial New England libraries were not large; Harvard University’s library was founded in 1638 only a few decades before Wigglesworth penned his epic, with an initial gift of only four hundred books, less than the collection in a contemporary Harvard professor’s personal collection. Remember too, individual copies would have been shared; when the size of colonial New England families is considered, it is not unlikely that half of all homes owned a copy. The Day of Doom went through ten printings, and even in the early nineteenth-century it’s reported that New Englanders grew up hearing the jingle-jangle rhythms of Wigglesworth’s verse. From the crooked cow paths of muddy Boston to the frozen shoals of the cape and the red brick environs of Cambridge and throughout all of New England, what thundered forth from pulpits and was quoted in conversation and reflected upon in private was the deceptively simplistic rhyming doggerel of one Michael Wigglesworth. “Thus one and all, thus great and small,/the rich as well as poor,/And those of place, as the most base,/do stand their Judge before:/They are arraign’d, and there detain’d/before Christ’s judgement seat/With trembling fear their Doom to hear,/and feel his angers heat.”

There is sometimes a certain cringe among us who study early American colonial poetry, a sense that the literature of the time is deficient when compared to the richness of what would come in the nineteenth and twentieth-centuries. Anthologies will include the immaculate verse of Anne Bradstreet, thicker collections will often see fit to include the metaphysical speculations of Edward Taylor, but Wigglesworth, when he endures, is mainly seen as a subject for specialists. And while the best of colonial American poetry can stand next to the canonical usual suspects of seventeenth-century English verse, it would take a special type of critical sophist to argue that Wigglesworth can compare to the triumphs of the decade in which he wrote, remembering that John Milton published Paradise Lost only five years after The Day of Doom is written. Part of me sometimes likes to defend Wigglesworth; and though no doubt he wouldn’t consent with this particular reading of his work, I detect a gothic sensibility in his Puritan plain style, the proto-Augustan rhyming couplets giving the overall tenor of the poem not just a sort of wry and ironical singsong quality, but also a feeling of supreme unease, as if we’re reading a particularly long, uncanny, and creepy nursery rhyme. His broad ballad meter makes his verse simple, but in that simplicity there is terror. Imagine a choir monotonously repeating, “For day and night, in their despight, /their torments smoak ascendeth:/Their pain and grief have no relief, /their anguish never endeth. /There must they lye, and never dye; /though dying every day; /There must they dying ever lye; and not consume away.” The Day of Doom was unequivocally the first contemporary best-seller in American history, and though you have never heard of it, its legacy is profound for the moment it both initiated and also embodied. What The Day of Doom announced as clearly as the trumpets that heralded the breaking of the seals in Patmos’ Revelation is that American civilization would not just be an apocalyptically obsessed one, but perhaps the most eschatologically inclined culture ever, and that this desire for a collective Thanatos would define what it means to be an American, for sometimes better and oftentimes for worse, across religion, ideology, and culture.

A fragmentary copy of the first edition of The Day of Doom, held at Houghton Library, Harvard University

A fragmentary copy of the first edition of The Day of Doom, held at Houghton Library, Harvard University

So, the aesthetic qualities of his poetry are less important than the sort of unseen, and uncommented on, fiery thread of what could be called eschatomania which link his moment to ours. Here in the United States of Apocalypse we’ve always been obsessed with a particular aesthetic that might as well be termed the “American apocalyptic sublime,” and though Wigglesworth inherited his chiliasm from older sources he made it distinctly American and traces of it are everywhere in our culture, both religious and secular. Many colonial Puritans thought that the New World held a certain eschatological promise, and that belief still defines our civil religion.

That the United States is a particularly apocalyptic-minded culture should not be a controversial claim. We have always perversely taken our own destruction as our own birthright. In the centuries since Wigglesworth, apocalypticism, and specifically a type of premillennial dispensationalism (which can often enough be secularized), has thrilled Americans across religious and ideological lines. We take an eroticized thrill in considering our own demise. How many times have we seen the skyline of Manhattan or the great monuments of Washington DC destroyed by invading armies, terrorists, natural disaster, asteroids, or space aliens? The actual destruction of some of those buildings, which people commonly remarked “looked like it was from a movie,” could scarcely quench our insatiable thirst for tales of our own destruction.

In language eerily prescient of a nuclear attack, Wigglesworth wrote, “For at midnight broke forth a light, /which turn’d the night to day:/And speedily an hideous cry/did all the world dismay.” Which puts me in mind of the passage from Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 masterpiece of post-apocalyptic literary genre fiction The Road, where speaking of the unspecified calamity which ends civilization the nameless narrator explains that, “The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions.” Paul Boyar, a scholar of millenarian movements, writes that Wigglesworth “memorably pictured the Second Coming and Last Judgement as lightning-bolt eschatological events, with no reassuring hint of gradual betterment or an intervening Millennium.” There has always been this tension in American culture between millennium and apocalypse, or perhaps more accurately between pre-millennialism and post-millennialism.

On the one hand there is the utopian allure of progress, think of John Winthrop’s contention aboard the Arbela in 1630 that we shall be as a “city on a hill,” or Martin Luther King’s oft-quoted contention that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it tends towards justice.” But there are also our ever-present apocalyptic nightmares, which pulse like an ominous metronome implicitly and sometimes explicitly in our politics and culture. Wigglesworth writes, “God began to pour/Destruction the world upon, /in a tempestuous shower.” The colonial Puritans were not just fearful but excited, just as we are when we read and consume our apocalyptic literature, television, and film. This is neither a liberal nor a conservative predilection, but rather an American one. This should not be read as condemnation, nor God forbid celebration, but rather simply as observation.

The American apocalyptic sublime is evident in all the usual places, from the jeremiads of the seventeenth-century to your A.M. radio dial. And of course it has long been a vestige of popular culture, a common theme in genre fiction and film. From Stephen Vincent Benet’s 1937 pre-nuclear era post-apocalyptic fable “By the Waters of Babylon” through the entire oeuvre of director Roland Emmerich, Americans have been enmeshed in a type of secular eschatology, the aforementioned eschatomania. The last decade and a half has seen the American apocalyptic sublime move from the genre ghettos of science fiction and horror to the esteemed shelves of literary fiction. In part a reaction to the apocalyptic traumas of 9/11, the Great Recession, and ecological collapse, and perhaps a manifestation of the writer’s ever prescient ability to pick up on those historic frequencies that can only be heard with one’s creative ear to the ground, literary fiction has seen a flowering of the American apocalyptic sublime. Critically acclaimed and often award winning, we’ve entered the renaissance of literary manifestations of the apocalyptic, of works that embody the unveiling inherent in Wigglesworth’s moment when “Skies are rent asunder, /With mighty voice and hideous noise, /more terrible then Thunder.” As exemplified by Cormac McCarthy’s relentlessly dark post-apocalyptic travelogue The Road (2006), a reading list of this moment in contemporary literary history could include Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse (2008), Kevin Brockmeir’s The Illumination (2012), Ben Marcus’ The Flame Alphabet (2012), Lauren Groff’s Arcadia (2012), Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars (2013), Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles (2013), Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers (2014), Greg Hrbek’s Not on Fire, But Burning (2015), Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2015), Edan Lepucki’s California (2015), and Alexis M. Smith’s Marrow Island (2016).

The works are divergent – from Lepucki’s frighteningly realistic description of an incredibly divided nation with a rapidly fraying social contract to Marcus’ depiction of language itself turning into a type of virus, or Groff’s long-sweep Great American Novel beginning in a 1960’s intentional community and ending in pandemic in our own near future to Crace’s rewriting and reversing of the perennial American myth of westward expansion transposed onto a far primitive future where Americans await the arrival of a god named Abraham who they find evidence for on copper medallions dispersed across the ruined North American landscape. But for all their variety, they share literary fiction’s tone, style, and rhetoric. In language, narrative, pacing, and characterization they owe more to The New Yorker than Amazing Tales. The emergence of this movement, or collection, or trend, or whatever you want to call it is important for several reasons. As I mentioned earlier, these works are in part a direct reaction to the disastrous events of the twenty-first century: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the economic collapse, impending environmental cataclysm, and so on. With their descriptions of how the world can change irrevocably in one moment, they reenact the traumas of epoch-altering historical events. And they are all consummately American, especially in their evocation of capitalism’s relation to Armageddon. Consider the passage in The Road where McCarthy’s characters, a nameless boy and his father traipsing across a scarred wasteland, find that “On the outskirts of the city they came to a supermarket… By the door were two softdrink machines that had been tilted over into the floor and opened with a prybar. Coins everywhere in the ash. He sat and ran his hand around the works of the gutted machines and in the second one it closed over a cold metal cylinder. He withdrew it slowly and sat looking at a Coca-Cola.” What could be more American than that? Everyone is dead, the world is extinguished, but somehow that most American of products still endures. Even after the blasting of the trumpets you can still buy the world a Coke. Philosopher Frederic Jameson anticipated scenes just like this, writing that “Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.”

And the thing is, no matter how shackled or oppressed our monotonous lives may feel, we would still love a Coke. Who wouldn’t? We simultaneously yearn to be liberated by the systems which constrain us as we still nestle into their comforts, and paradoxically apocalypse provides us a means to do both. In Mandel’s achingly beautiful Station Eleven, which follows the almost medieval and carnivalesque Great Lakes meanderings of a group of Shakespearean actors in the decades after an extinction level epidemic has decimated the world, she pauses to reflect on all of the daily assumptions of life in late capitalism that have disappeared from her new world. Listing chlorinated swimming pools, baseball games, and airplanes, she finally ends with a description of something we all often claim to hate (or at least to have extreme annoyance with) while thrilling over its addictive hold on us: the internet and social media. She writes that after the end there shall be:

No more internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons whole or broken, plans to meet up later, please, complaints, desires, pictures of babies dressed as bears or peppers for Halloween. No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room. No more avatars.

Part of what is so striking about the new eschatomania, this new manifestation of the American apocalyptic sublime, is how eerily familiar it seems. As Wigglesworth wrote in the language of his dominant faith, so to do our new authors write in the vocabulary of our totalizing religion. And as his readers simultaneously feared and desired apocalypse, so do ours.

Wigglesworth’s audiences got a thrill out of Christ appearing in the sky to inaugurate the millennium as surely as modern audiences derived a strange pleasure from McCarthy’s similarly world-ending nocturnal luminescence in his novel. In the promised land of America, apocalypse is not something just for Holy Roller sermons and Hal Lindsey screeds, for evangelicals clutching Left Behind books or viewers of The 700 Club. We’re all Wigglesworth’s children, and the secular can match Tim LaHaye with The Stand, or The Hunger Games, or wondering who Negan is going to club to death this Sunday night on AMC. We get off on this stuff, always have, always will (that is at least until the apocalypse actually comes, and worrying prophecies always have had a way of being self-fulfilling). While we’re certainly not the first civilization to view ourselves as an apocalyptic “redeemer nation,” to borrow the historian Ernest Tuveson’s memorable phrase, we’re certainly the only one to achieve the status of superpower, and furthermore the first to actually invent the mechanism by which apocalypse could actually be literally and materially be made manifest though human hands in the form of nuclear weapons. British philosopher John Gray wrote in his book Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (the one indispensible book on political theology in the last decade) that American culture is defined by “a current of the millenarian ferment that passed from medieval chiliasm through the English Revolution. The sense of universal mission that is such a prominent feature of American politics is an outflow from this ancient stream.” And central to this sense of mission is that apocalypse must itself mean the dissolution of America, that the two possibilities are intimately intertwined. Americans find it impossible to envision a world without us, so it is easier to simply envision there not being a world at all. The fear that we must all have is what happens when a nation that sees itself as the one indispensable empire in world history, against all evidence, perceives itself to be minimized? How dangerous is a snake in its death throes? And how terrifying is the country that invented the means of destruction which Patmos could only hallucinate? We’ve never been the land of the free and the home of the brave so much as the land of utopian and millennial dreams and apocalyptic nightmares, a complementary if paradoxical pair. What finally may draw us to the American apocalyptic sublime are not just the vagaries of aesthetics, but the anxious sour stomach of prophecy. What the new apocalyptic authors of the twenty-first century offer us are not just reflections of what has already happened, but horrifyingly they may also offer us transcriptions of that which they heard when they placed their ear to the ground – the increasingly loud frequencies of those four sets of horse hooves galloping towards us from those arid deserts in the direction of dusk.


Ed Simon Ed Simon is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Lehigh University, where he researches the religion, literature, and culture of the seventeenth-century. He has been widely published at a variety of sites, and can be followed on twitter @WithEdSimon, or at his website.


Published with support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion in International Affairs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *