In the 1970s, in central California, some high school students read Pat Frank’s novel Alas, Babylon in their sophomore English classes. I know this because my grandmother, who went to college in her forties and earned a bachelor’s degree and became a high school English teacher in one of the little farm towns of Stanislaus County, assigned this book in her classes as part of that district’s standard curriculum. In fact, I think this is one of her copies – the 30th printing, hot off the presses of Bantam Books some time in 1974 or 1975.
First published in 1959, Alas, Babylon is a post-apocalyptic novel set in “Fort Repose,” a fictional rural community in central Florida. The premise of the novel is simple enough. Soviet nuclear missiles have struck the United States, including nearby MacDill Air Base. Infrastructure, food supply, law and order – all have been obliterated. The country folk and townspeople who survived the blast must now figure out how to survive the aftermath. They have to figure out not just how to find an uncontaminated water supply, how to find food, what to do in medical emergencies, but how to rebuild the social order: how to protect themselves from lawless outsiders, how to tell friend from foe, how to foster and defend a just and democratic society.
And all the while they don’t know what is happening in the larger world. Have the Russians destroyed the United States? Is there a war on? Is anyone fighting back? Is America still standing?
One of the major motifs running through the novel concerns racism and discrimination. The basic takeaway, as you might expect, is that the white residents of “Fort Repose” – and, by analogy, white America (or, for mid-century readers, just “America”) – cannot survive without the help and knowledge of their black neighbors. In the face of an existential threat, it would be foolish, even suicidal, to cling to old prejudices. I’d say “spoiler alert” here, but is it really a spoiler to know that the plot requires that A Good Black Man Die Heroically and Selflessly in order to drive home to readers the message that We Are All Americans and We Must Defend Democracy Together?
In any case, the novel is an interesting artifact of its time; in a U.S. history survey it would pair well with a screening of Atomic Café. Indeed, despite the author’s stated intentions, outlined in a Foreword, to offer a glimpse of the “nature and extent” of the devastation that could be wrought by “the H-bomb,” the same naïve optimism that characterizes some of the Civil Defense clips featured in Atomic Café suffuses this novel too. I guess it would be hard to sell a post-apocalyptic novel whose premise was that nobody would survive the apocalypse.
Still, at first glance it strikes me as an odd reading choice for high school students in the late 1970s, in a school district in the central San Joaquin Valley, in the shadow of a Strategic Air Command base with a wing of B-52s that were taking off and landing at all hours, every day, all through the Cold War.
I was a high school student in the central San Joaquin valley in the 1980s, not the 1970s – different decade, different school district, but still well within the blast radius of whatever would have been launched against that base. And we all knew it. We all knew it. The scenario of The Day After was terrifying – but even as we watched it on TV, we knew that we were watching somebody else’s story. If the Russians attacked, there wasn’t going to be a day after for us; when the Red Dawn came, we knew we wouldn’t be around to fight back.
I guess maybe that’s precisely why you would assign a book like Alas, Babylon to a bunch of high school students in a little farm town in the middle of California (or anywhere else) at the height of the Cold War (or any other time). Being able to think about the Worst, and then somehow imagine that you would still have to face the Day After That, is an important exercise. The point of post-apocalyptic fiction is never about surviving the apocalypse; it’s always about reflecting on what kind of society we are, or want to be. Maybe if we can figure that out, we can find a way to avoid the apocalypse.
That was a worthwhile thought exercise in the 1970s in California, even in the hinterlands of the San Joaquin Valley – indeed, perhaps especially there. And though it’s not great literature by any stretch, Alas, Babylon was probably a fairly engaging and accessible read for high school students toiling through sophomore English.
I would be interested to know how this particular text fit into the larger curriculum, and if I have the chance, I’ll try to do some archival research on this question. Was Alas, Babylon understood as “dated” when the students read it? Did it serve as a stand-in for the discussion of other “apocalyptic” or Malthusian scenarios (environmental disaster, “population bomb,” etc)? Was the book taught and read in explicit relation to the Vietnam War (or as a way of desperately eliding it)?
I don’t know yet who decided that this would make a good high school text book, and I don’t know how it was taught, either in that particular school district or elsewhere in the state. I can probably guess how my grandmother taught it. Have the Russians destroyed the United States? Is there a war on? Is anyone fighting back? Is America still standing? Yes, I can well imagine what my ferociously patriotic, rock-ribbed Republican grandmother would have had to say about those plot twists.
And that’s why I’m not grieved, but truly grateful that she did not live to see this day — not this day, nor the day after.