U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Lobo-ed in the USA: Zombies and the Jeremiad

World War zThe following post comes from regular guest and RIAH blogger Mark Edwards.  He is author of The Right of the Protestant Left: God’s Totalitarianism (Palgrave, 2012) and co-chair (with Cara Burnidge) of the 2014 S-USIH conference committee.

I saw World War Z and I liked it.  Well, I liked the Muse score, the movie was alright.  I realized why it was just alright when I read Kelly Baker’s wonderful post about the film at the Christian Century‘s new “Then and Now” blog (see also Baker’s new e-book on the general subject, The Zombies are Coming!).  Baker’s main point was that the “Nordic-saves-world” narrative of the film really has nothing to do with the Max Brooks novel it was inspired by, which was really about what the war against “zack” ended up costing those who survived.  I decided it was time to do something I hadn’t done in decades: read fiction.  I know, criminal for an ex-English major.  And, strange choice to get me back into reading, but, then again, I became an English major in the first place because of Stephen King.  Overall, I loved Brooks’s several reversals of literal fortune and misfortune, but I won’t give any away just in case I’m not the LaMOE to finish the book.  I will say, though, that the “Good-byes” left me wondering what tropes Brooks was trying to say hello to.

Near the very end, Mrs. Miller from Troy, Montana (pp. 410-411) muses:

I wonder what future generations will say about us.  My grandparents suffered through the Depression, World War II, then came home to build the greatest middle class in human history.  Lord knows they weren’t perfect, but they sure came close to the American dream.  Then my parents’ generation came along and fucked it all up–the baby boomers, the “me” generation.  And then you got us.  Yeah, we stopped the zombie menace, but we’re the ones who let it become a menace in the first place.  At least we’re cleaning up our own mess, and maybe that’s the best epitaph to hope for.  “Generation Z, they cleaned up their own mess.”

I hadn’t thought about World War Z as a jeremiad, a cautionary tale, until this point.  However, is that what Brooks is trying to tell us through Mrs. Miller: “Let’s clean up our mess NOW, America, before the zombie apocalypse (or, something far worse, sitting though Elysium) causes a Great Panic!”  Or, is Greatest-Generation-Ever-Spokesperson Mrs. Miller just one voice among many when trying to assess the damage of the war?

A few pages later (pp. 412-13), Joe Muhammad picks up where Mrs. Miller left off:

I’m not going to say the war was a good thing . . . but you’ve got to admit that it did bring people together . . . Anywhere around the world, anyone you talk to, all of us have this powerful shared experience . . . I’m sure that as things really get back to “normal,” once our kids or grandkids grow up in a peaceful and comfortable world, they’ll probably go right back to being as selfish and narrow-minded and generally shitty to one another as we were.

Suddenly, Joe took me back to Teddy Roosevelt and the “Strenuous Life” critique of over-civilization.  Is the kind of zombie preparedness Baker writes about in her book the new “Moral Equivalent of War” so badly needed to break us of our feeble Ikea existence?

Perhaps I need to read Brooks’s “survival guides” to answer better these questions, but first I need to survive a weekly onslaught of freshman discussion papers–and buy property in Cuba.  In the meantime, I’m wondering what others make of Max Brooks, World War Z, or Zombie fever in general?

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Mark,

    This bit was interesting:

    “A few pages later (pp. 412-13), Joe Muhammad picks up where Mrs. Miller left off:
    I’m not going to say the war was a good thing . . . but you’ve got to admit that it did bring people together . . . Anywhere around the world, anyone you talk to, all of us have this powerful shared experience . . . .”

    I’m wondering if this notion of “secular apocalypticism” that the Baker piece you referenced discusses is partially a yearning for the “grand narrative” that once highlighted past sensibilities.

    As I was reading your post, I was reminded of James Livingston’s discussion regarding the competing narratives of the United States during the culture wars after the Sixties:

    “[Lynne] Cheney was outraged by ‘oversimple versions of the American past that focus on the negative and singled out the [National History] Standards as ‘the most egregious example to date’ of this ‘hypercritical’ tendency. But she couldn’t pose as the Pangloss for the late twentieth century, not after the great transformation of higher education. ‘We should not, of course retreat into the old myths,’ she declared, and insisted that ‘No one is suggesting that we hide our flaws or neglect the achievements of others.’ Even so, she had two serious concerns about the political implications of the new, hypercritical curriculum. First, it sponsored fundamental change, or at least deviation from the received tradition: ‘For those intent on political and social transformation, a bleak version of history is better than a balanced one. The grimmer the picture, the more heavily underscored is the need for the reforms they have in mind.”*

    I haven’t read Max Brooks’s book (or seen the movie adaptation), but I’m wondering if these “end-of-the-world” destructive scenarios in novels and movies are explicit (or implicit) endorsements by the authors for a different kind of reform (economic or social)—contrasted from the familiar religious themes found in, say, the Left Behind series?

    Does envisioning this kind of zombie chaos—despite the bleakness of the outcome—allow people to have the kind of “shared experience” that Brooks writes about? I’m also thinking of FDR’s desire to bring the country together against the foreign “enemy” of depression. I don’t know if that’s where you were headed with the jeremiad reference?

    By the way, I hope to get around to your book someday before I finish my graduate career here at UT-Dallas. It’s definitely a “must-read” for me since the “religious experiences” of Americans is one of my interests.

    *James Livingston, The World Turned Inside Out: American Thought and Culture at the End of the Twentieth Century (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010), 35.

  2. Excellent thoughts here, Mark (Thompson, not myself).

    Initially, I was thinking that Mrs. Miller and Joe were one more in a long line of critics of “American narcissism.” Yet Miller seems to suggest that Americans in her day had fallen from the graces of the “greatest generation ever,” the WWII generation, and the so-called Great Panic that ensued in response to the world’s big zack (zombie) attack was confirmation–much like how Metacom and his forces exposed Puritan declension from the founding New England generation. In this instance, Mrs. Miller becomes Cotton Mather, cataloguing American sins and in some way thankful for the blessing bestowed by zack, the ultimate other.

    That’s my assessment of Mrs. Miller. I don’t know how fair it is, though, to make her a mouthpiece for Brooks and other zombie survivalists–I don’t want to go that far yet. It’s fair to ask too how much zombie preparedness is one manifestation of survivalist traditions at work in America’s past and present in general (No doubt, for some today, Democrats are much worse than zombies).

    Your connection of World War Z and Left Behind is an interesting one, though. In many ways, the LB novels are “preparedness” literature as well. And the “free-will-versus-fate” theme runs through both Brooks and LaHaye.

    • Mark,

      Yes, I hope I didn’t leave the impression that I consider Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye “reform” literature. Although, for some premillennial dispensationalists, their conception of the potential future might see zombie attacks as “reform” of a certain kind.

      I’m still not sure if I’m going to spend $8 on “World War Z,” but your posting might induce the final push into the theater. . . .

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