Once Upon a Time, When Original Works Were Still Original…
Or a brief reflection on Mary Shelley’s “The Last Man” reception in 1826.
On January the 23rd, 1826, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley published The Last Man, a novel that did not have the initial critical reception that such a piece of work deserved.
One can speculate about the reasons behind the cruel attacks that novel and writer had to endure following its publication, and will sure come up with different possible answers. We have to take into account that Mary Shelley wrote in a time when women writers were not well seen by literally critics. Besides, Mary was the daughter of such radical figures as Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, fact that would not probably help Shelley with critics such as John Wilson Croker, who started his review of Frankenstein with an open attack to Godwin and his followers.
Regardless these irrelevant approaches to criticism, we can still look at the mixed reviews of Frankenstein at the time, and find a common point made by both favorable and not so favorable reviews. Apparently, no other writer before had written a novel with such “marvelous incidents” (Walter Scott) or with “passages which appall the mind and make the flesh creep” (John Wilson Croker). Even if Croker believed that the novel presented “a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity”, he could not help but agreeing on the fact that bringing to life a creature made from corpses was something never seen in a piece of writing before. That incredible story with only the Promethean myth as a background was in fact, original.
On the contrary, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man was presented to the critics in 1826, nearly ten years after Byron had written his famous poem Darkness, and about three years after Thomas Campbell had in turn written his counterpart The Last Man. A famous (or rather infamous) discussion about who had first came up with the idea that would later become the “last man” motif started between several authors and critics, including Thomas Campbell, Francis Jeffrey and Thomas Lovell Beddoes among others. The debate itself seemed ridiculous when taking into account that back in 1806 Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville had already published the first “last man” work under the obvious title of Le dernier homme. This was definitely not the ideal scenario for the publication of Shelley’s novel, and I am quite sure that its critical reception was directly affected by these events.
My point here is that the question of originality may have been not the only reason behind Mary Shelley’s “The Last Man” poor reception, but a crucial one indeed. It is very difficult to take originality seriously nowadays, in a time when Hollywood commits barbarities like Vanilla sky (2001) remake from Spanish Abre los ojos (1996), Dark Water (2005) remake from Japanese Honogurai mizu no soko kara (2002), or Let Me In (2010) remake from Swedish Låt den rätte komma in (2008). The list is endless, as endless are the profits from American film producers, and shameless the total acceptance/indifference of the vast majority of consumers in general. These are definitely no times for originality, but that was not always the case.
Once upon a time, in the 19th Century, originality and copyright were terms very much associated with respect and dignity. The number of works published per year was ridiculously smaller in comparison with today’s mass publication, and not even a major novel by a consolidated author such as Mary Shelley could avoid being disregarded as not “original enough”. As a result, the novel was last published in America in 1833, remaining forgotten for almost a century, until its next edition appeared in 1969.
It comes without saying that this novel requires the attention that it originally deserved. A new generation of critics have offered new readings of the novel during the past decades, but there is still a lot to be done. The richness of the philosophical and political content in Mary Shelley’s the Last Man gives way to an enormous range of interpretations that need to be drawn by today’s scholars and generations to come.