Some estimates say that a species becomes extinct every ten minutes or so. Six times every hour "the last of a race" expires, the last of a particular kind of beetle, bacterium or frog. But when exactly these deaths occur is hard to know because we usually cannot say for certain that a particular individual is the last of its kind. If it is, its death is quite different from that of a dog, or a rat or a human being. Absolutely nothing follows. There is no struggle over the inheritance, no adjustment in the pecking order, no replacement pet. Because the last creature is last, it can have no successors. Its sterile isolation reveals how closely, by contrast, our lives are bound up with the lives of other people; its impotence shows our power.
Fiona Stafford's accomplished study compares how and why writers have imagined the extinction of our own species. She begins with Milton's account of Noah's Ark and ends with Peter Pan. Milton's Adam, she says, is the last as well as the first man, because in book XI of Paradise Lost he witnesses the flood, "The end of all [his] offspring, end so sad, / Depopulation." The flood is a distant consequence of the fall that epitomises Adam's future, fallen life. Stafford compares it to his hesitant entry, in the last lines of the poem, into a solitary world, a world depopulated already because the angels who kept him company have flown away. Paradise Lost becomes "essentially a poem of aftermath" - of catastrophe, blighted hopes and new beginnings. As the last of his race, Adam is required to find out whether or not he can start again, whether anything can come after the fall.
Stafford's reading of Milton connects him with Romanticism, linking Adam to the post-revolutionary last men of the 1820s. Mary Shelley's The Last Man, Byron's "Darkness", and Thomas Campbell's "The Last Man" all present variants of the isolated survivor. In turn, this fashion encouraged an enormous number of "last man" books in the 19th century. Stafford concentrates on Fenimore Cooper (The Last of the Mohicans) and Bulwer Lytton (The Last Days of Pompeii). Her separate chapters on both are arresting and original. She could, perhaps, have ranged more widely in the popular literature and analysed more closely the relation between last men and colonialism. It might turn out that Fenimore Cooper was the father of Melville's Ishmael.
From Milton's Adam, the chronological structure of the book leads Stafford to Robinson Crusoe. Like Adam's visions, Crusoe's desert island is a step on the road to salvation. His experience of himself alone, undistracted by the world, leads him to repent, to receive grace and, finally, to return to the human community. Lastness is transitional for both writers; it is a moment in the creation of an individual soul. Consequently, their solitary men are always comforted by the presence or prospect of a solitary woman. Both books could be viewed as initiation texts to establish in male readers the imperative to marry. The modern idea of extinction is not foreseen.
Since the beginning of the 19th century, however, last men have had to endure utter solitude and the looming certainty of a final end. Stafford's study is content to reveal the change and leave the reader to explore its implications. Her book is stimulating and introductory. Complex intellectual history is lucidly explained though sometimes made a little dull. Cooper and Bulwer Lytton are brought to life. New, unexpected connections appear between 18th-century sensibility and its Romantic heirs. But inevitably in such a study the gaps are obvious. Keats, for example, is ignored, even though in The Fall of Hyperion, Moneta is "The pale Omega of a wither'd race", a last person struggling amid disappointment to bring about something new.
Ralph Pite is a lecturer in English, University of Liverpool.
The Last of the Race: The Growth of a Myth from Milton to Darwin
Author - Fiona J. Stafford
ISBN - 0 19 811222 X
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £37.50
Pages - 326