One of the consequences of scientific progress in the nineteenth century was a broadening of the imagined temporal scope of human history. By the end of the century writers of fiction were setting more and more stories in the distant past or distant future. Formerly, the thought of using such remote settings would have simply not occurred to writers because the pace of perceptible change was so slow. What would be the point?
As Lyle, Darwin and others offered evidence and arguments that Earth’s humanity’s past went back much further than previously thought and differed significantly from its present, interest in representing such distant tableaux naturally increased. A subgenre of prehistoric fiction arose. It focused usually on the depiction of the one or more transitions that marked the divergence of hominids from other primates. This subgenre generally made some effort at geological and zoological realism (as understood at the time).
At the other end of the timeline appeared novels and stories depicting a new divergence: the splitting off of some new humanoid species, one that was better or worse or simply different from Homo sapiens. The divergence might result either from natural selection or deliberate invention. The author’s perspective might be optimistic or pessimistic, the tone earnestly utopian or dystopian or else satirical or flippant. But such a divergence often focused (for sound dramatic reasons) on a particular individual who represented the new humanity. Within a Christian civilization the tendency to think of such characters metaphorically as a new Adam or new Eve inhabiting a new Eden is practically inevitable.
Both such types of stories were published by the dozens (and by now the hundreds), imagining that moment in the past when they became we or that moment in the future when we become they. (It should be acknowledged that a story about the emergence of a new kind of human can also take place in the present, the most notable early example probably being Frankenstein.)
But for those stories set in the past, it strikes me as curious that so few imaginings of that defining event have been set within the traditional framework of Christian mythology, however free a hand the author might take with the tradition. In other words, few writers chose to revisit Eden and tell the old story in a new way: that is, to write about our beginnings in a frankly fantastic or mythological style rather than an avowedly realistic one. Milton took up the challenge in the mid-seventeenth century, his primary innovation being the expansion of the role of Satan compared to the story as set forth briefly in Genesis. But few other writers seem to have been tempted to go back to that Garden.
The purpose of this paper is to discuss three little-known works of fiction that bucked that trend. The first is a short novel from 1887, the second a short story from 1896, the third a short novel from 1934. All are well written, delivering both thematic steak and stylistic sizzle. The authors of the second two pieces are marginally familiar to students of the fantastic while the author of the first is much less so. All succeed at that balancing act imposed on authors working within a recognized genre: namely, when to honor certain conventions of the genre and when to flout others. I believe all three of these works revisit Eden in a manner both boldly revisionist and dramatically satisfying.
Henry Curwen’s Zit and Xoe: Their Early Experiences was published anonymously in 1887 as a shilling paperback by Blackwood (and had a second printing the same year labeled as a “second edition”), having appeared in their magazine in April and May of the previous year. An unauthorized American edition was issued as a paperback by Harper in 1889. The book has not been reprinted since then, and all of these editions are now rare.
Curwen’s setting is a jungle near the seaside (presumably in Africa) inhabited by anthropomorphic primates. The foreground presents two fully humanoid characters and the story of their discovery of young love. The background presents a telescoped history of the evolution of human society. Most of the key discoveries (flint tool-making, hunting, fishing, fire making, cooking, pottery, domestication of animals, boat building, and navigation) are ascribed to this first couple. At the beginning of the novel we see a brief glimpse of their nonhumanoid primate ancestors, complete with tails and a chattering language that’s incomprehensible to the hero, who is the novel’s first-person narrator. He has been born with no tail, no fur, and no ability to walk on all fours. He also shows a restless knack for acquiring new skills such as swimming and more complex speech. He is shunned as a freak by all, even his parents, and is finally exiled at the age of 17.
But within half a day of wandering on his own, he sees that he is “lord and master” (16) of the jungle as he ambles through the forest armed with a stout stick sharpened with a flint. He keeps walking, following the river until it empties into the ocean. There he sees a female version of himself: a beautiful teenage girl with blond hair, blue eyes, dressed in a leather garment astride a horse. They strike up a conversation such as one might find in any High Victorian romance. She is a bit arch. He is flatteringly awkward. She lords it over him. He is bewildered by her mood swings. She confesses, as a liniment to his wounds, “I don’t know how to explain it but a girl never says what she thinks” (39).
Her name is Xoe. He doesn’t know what names are, so she gives him one: Zit. (We discover later this was the name of the brute she was engaged to marry before she deserted her own primitive clan.) They move in to adjacent treehouses, but relations continue to be stormy until a real thunderstorm does such damage to Zit’s house that, in an irrational rage, he sets fire to it and burns it down. When Xoe sees this the next day and hears no apology from Zit or any talk of rebuilding it, we sense her approval and understand the discreet implication. Zit will move in with Xoe, and they will begin living as man and wife.
The mood swings abate, and in due course, a baby named Pip is born (with great expectations, indeed!). All is going swimmingly in this honeymoon utopia, aside from Xoe’s longing to visit the islands that lie offshore. Zit discovers how to build a seagoing canoe with paddles. Xoe adds an impromptu sail with her scarf. This humoring of his wife’s longing turns out to save their lives. One night, their ancestors, having fed on rancor long enough, launch a ferocious attack on Zit and Xoe and are joined by the other beasts of the forest, who are resentful of being outwitted by the two humans. The humans just barely get out by means of their canoe, taking refuge on the nearest island, one they had previously explored. From the safety of the island, they watch their attackers turn on each other after rioting among the treehouses.
The Beasts had dared to declare war on Man, and were now venting their disappointed fury on each other. (102)
The next day, before going back in his canoe to rescue their tools and supplies and horses and a shepherd dog, Zit walks about the island, aware of a new phase in his evolution. He is becoming “a husbandman instead of a wanderer, a herdsman instead of a hunter” (105). Xoe feels the gap between themselves and their ancestors more keenly and emotionally than Zit. She is disgusted by and fearful of them. She intuits that their own offspring will be even more civilized than they are. “Somewhere, Zit, we shall find a pleasant resting-place, where the past is all unknown, and where the beasts shall be as friendly and as gentle as they were at first ...” (106–7).
They sail from island to island until they find a suitable place to settle down. In a brief final section the novel jumps ahead four generations. Zit, having learned the art of writing that his descendants have developed, is putting the finishing touch on this brief memoir. Xoe wishes he would leave out all the ugly aspects of their origins, but Zit insists on the importance of truthfulness (an abstraction gently mocked by Xoe).
Seen from one perspective, the novel presents another variation on the motif of the desert island love story with its promise of escape from conventional restraints. But stepping back a little lets us see this more fully as one of the many responses to Darwin’s writings on evolution. Significantly, it does not, like most such early responses, dismiss the theory in a blasé satire or blustering philippic. And, unlike later naturalistic responses based on acceptance of the theory, it dispenses with the usual tedious verisimilitudes (Ug and Og mouthing monosyllables, using sign language, brandishing clubs). The genius of the present work lies in its compression of the story of human evolution into a single generation. Ontogeny (the familiar rebellion and alienation of the teenager) here functions as a metonymic stand-in for phylogeny. Deft touches of humor let the author exercise this poetic license so that his work comes across as both brash and self-effacing, blatantly violating the letter of the law of realism while faithfully representing its spirit.
The psychological treatment of the couple hardly strays from that of any other treatment of young love in a High Victorian romance. But the flippancy of this anachronism acts as a foil for the high stakes of the story’s theme. The real story here is the precarious birth and development of humanity. Its real scope is social, not personal. Curwen effectively conveys on the very first page the pangs of alienation resulting from human self-consciousness, and Zit’s alienation and exile from the animal kingdom carry the same kind of emotional force as the expulsion of Adam from the divine kingdom in Genesis. That separation will no doubt strike readers as an emancipation from beastliness, but the story’s hero doesn’t see it that way at the time. The fact that Curwen conveys this event so delicately should not obscure the depth of its insight. Henkin (Darwinism in the English Novel, 1940, 174–76) misreads the novel as “merely a whimsical romance”; his commentary reveals errors of fact as well as of judgment.
As the story concludes, at a distance of five generations from the vengeful monkeys who parented Zit and Xoe, we can already sense that Xoe’s vision of “a pleasant resting-place” may represent the utopian wind necessary for propelling the human experiment forward, but the vessel itself is frail. Another robbery has been reported in the village, and everyone knows the culprit. Pip is confident that his father can hold this society together but is worried about what may come after his death.
Men will turn against men, like those beasts you told me of long since, and we are so much cleverer than the beasts that the battle will be cruel indeed, and will not soon be over. (128)
Thus, even at the dawn of human development we see glimpses of dusk, of decay shadowing progress. This novel has escaped the notice of most scholars of fantastic and utopian genres. (It is cited in “An International Bibliography of Prehistoric Fiction” by Marc Angenout and Nadia Khouri in Science Fiction Studies #23, March 1981.) Zit and Xoe deserves attention for contributing an original variation on a primordial theme given new vitality in the nineteenth century. Curwen actually relates three breakdowns of harmonious society. The first is the expulsion of Zit as a teenager by his tribe because they despise his oddity. The second is the attack on Zit and Xoe’s treehouse by their ancestors and the other beasts of the jungle because they resent their success. The third is the future fracturing of human society hinted at in the novel’s conclusion: even as this human settlement gains security from the beasts without, it recognizes that it is still vulnerable to the beasts within. The lesson seems to be that Eden is always temporary, always more stable as a place existing in the past or the future.
In “That First Affair” by J. A. Mitchell, a popular American author and editor of the first incarnation of Life magazine, we are taken back to Eden for what seems at first the literary equivalent of a Gibson girl illustration: a sentimental but witty and expertly executed romp. Charles Dana Gibson, in fact, drew some of the illustrations for the 1896 collection (included in Bleiler’s Checklist) in which “That First Affair” appeared as the title story. We are introduced immediately to Adam, who seems to be the only creature in the Garden without a mate. All of the other animals speak English—in a blithe Nineties manner—and they commiserate with his unique loneliness. He unburdens himself to a skylark, who remarks confidentially that the world’s creation has not gone quite as smoothly as one might have hoped for. The bird flies off, sympathetically broadcasting the man’s woe over and over as it climbs into the sky, “Not a woman in the world” (13).
The next day Adam wakes up to find a woman peering down at him. Well, he figures that out eventually. At first she is just another version of himself, but, with her blue eyes and long blonde hair, a much prettier one. He immediately throws himself at her feet and is confused when his joy at finding a companion is not reciprocated. She wants to know where the other men are. What else is there to do around there? And where is that pool where he saw his own reflection? On the way to the pool, Adam points out the forbidden apple tree. While she is gazing at herself in the pool, trying her hair this way and that, she toys with his affections. He tolerates it for a while but eventually storms off. Having left his heart with her, he can only take his hurt with him. He is foolish in a typically masculine way. She is foolish in a typically feminine way.
The next day she wakes up to find a young but very bold boy making love to her. The scene adroitly mirrors Adam’s discovery of Eve. But what Eve has discovered is her tempter. On being asked whether he is a man, he replies,
A man? No, I am the essence of all men,—of the millions yet unborn. I am the sap and soul of human life, the realization of lovers’ dreams. I am the absorbing and resistless passion; the one undying thing; the everlasting joy and torture. That’s what I am! (28)
Mitchell brilliantly conflates the figure of Satan with the figure of Cupid. As we watch this boy-devil hooking and gradually reeling in his catch, she protests that she suspects he is there for mischief. He responds that he is there “for love and trouble.”
“Must they go together?”
“Well, yes; I suppose they must.” (31)
She eats the apple even though she knows it will mean having to leave the garden. Cupid merrily skips off. She is already beginning to feel the intoxicating juice of Knowledge in her veins when Adam comes along. She makes quicker work of him with her tempting sophistries than Cupid had with her.
Their expulsion from the garden is handled in a particularly original and thought-provoking manner. After their apple party, Eve’s vanity is even more unbearable. She refuses Adam’s marriage proposal, wishing to see first who else may come along. He finally retorts with the same hesitation. She stalks off in a huff. He pursues. She runs. He chases. Faster and faster. And so they chase each other right out of The Garden.
Gradually she finds the bucolic scenery changing into a landscape that lacks not only charm and comfort but safety. She knows fear for the first time. Then Adam enters, and she runs gratefully into his arms. That’s when she knows love for the first time.
Love leads to trouble. Trouble leads to love. Mitchell suggests that not only does love entail trouble; it requires it as a precondition. Pain is the seed needed for that man-made Garden, the garden of Love.
And what about the loss of Eden? The author concludes his story thus:
As for that loveless garden, nobody knows where it is.
And nobody cares. (49)
A first reading of this might encourage the sentimental interpretation that we are to regard Eden as a symbol of the prehuman nature from which we have risen, something to be regarded with contempt or condescension. But I think the door is left open for a theological (though not necessarily orthodox) interpretation: that trouble came into Eden not with the eating of the apple or the arrival of the tempter or even with the arrival of Eve but with the arrival of Adam. Trouble in paradise was guaranteed by the introduction of a creature fundamentally different from the others. We don’t really fit in. We don’t belong in Eden and never did.
Eden River (1934) is a short novel by Gerald Bullett that provides another radical revision of the Eden myth. The novel is not cited in Sargent or other fantasy references, but its fantastic elements should be self-evident including its relevance to utopian literature. Bullett’s version omits the serpent, the apple, and God. Instead, Adam is presented as a given, his origin unexplained. He conjures Eve in a dream, made from one of his ribs plus “moonlight and shadow, the milk of the doe, the scent of many flowers, and as much earth as may be held in the cup of my two hands” (9)—or at least he thinks that’s where she came from when he meets her some time later. Eve finds that “a lovely story!” (18) even though she walked from another part of the woods. In any event, they are glad to find each other.
Time in Bullett’s Eden puddles into an everlasting present. Past and future are fuzzy notions. Life in Eden is indeed a paradise, set off by the lake into which its river flows. The young first couple are healthy, vibrant, vegetarian, untroubled by ambition or deprivation. Life is easy, and the animals are docile, having no reason to fear them. When Eve gives birth to Cain, Adam feels pushed to one side (not understanding his own role in the child’s conception), just as Cain feels pushed aside when Abel comes along soon afterwards with his own need for the mother’s breast. Here we begin to sense some of the first stirrings of trouble in paradise.
The most innovative aspect of Bullett’s revisionary take on Genesis is making the expulsion feel gradual and inevitable rather than sudden and willful. The tragic fall comes slowly, accelerated by a few sudden dips. The key mistake is Cain’s killing of Abel. The two brothers had gone off some distance from their parents and lived peaceably enough in a primitive tree house near the edge of the lake—until Eve’s daughters got old enough to stir their mating instincts. The arrival of Zildah and Larian are accommodated without too much conflict. They come to live with the two brothers (and proceed with some immediate remodeling of the tree house). Childbirths follow, as the night follows the day. It’s plain that the two brothers feel a bit put out by the arrival of the babies. In addition, Abel has also always had one eye on the horizon. He spends more and more time by himself, brooding on the thought of building a boat to escape the confines of crowded domesticity.
But when he sees his younger sister, Kirith, for the first time, Cupid’s arrow pins them together. He will go off with her. When Cain sees them together, he assumes Kirith will join the commune and be shared like the other two sisters, but Abel says no. Kirith says no. Cain, stung by this rejection, becomes angry and, without thinking, strikes Abel down with his flint axe and kills him. Death is not much better understood by them than birth, and Cain is immediately overcome by grief. Why won’t Abel wake up?
Cain feels a curse upon him and leaves Eden voluntarily. The sisters go with him, crossing the lake by dugout canoe. They start a new settlement called Enoch. Eventually Cain assuages his guilt by establishing what is in effect the world’s first religion, turning the Holy Blood of Abel into a deity that communicates its demands to Cain as High Priest. Cain creates laws, rituals, and taboos, including one against nudity, prompting the invention of clothing. He becomes dark and sullen. Enoch is the setting for other stages in the descent from innocence. They take to hunting and to farming barley. That in turn leads to the accidental discovery of alcohol when some grain is fermented by rainwater. Cain drinks it and feels a joyful, godlike freedom for the first time since he killed Abel, even as his children laugh at him when he stumbles and falls.
Sibling incest is one thing (a matter of no concern, apparently, as they know no alternative), but parental incest is another. After the death of Abel, Kirith had become one of Cain’s mates. Some years later, when she discovers that their 14-year-old daughter Kelimuth has been impregnated by her father, she senses the approach of danger. Cain commands his tribe to pack up and head for a distant mountain where, as we gradually learn, he plans to sacrifice the infant son of Kelimuth to expiate his own sin. As murder leads to guilt and guilt to punishment—of the innocent in this case—so the prospect of punishment leads to evasion and deceit. When they arrive at the distant mountain, Kirith tricks Cain into forgoing the killing of the infant. She suggests he leave it out in the open. If a wild beast takes the infant, that will be a sign that the Holy Blood has been appeased by the sacrifice. If the child survives, then some other sacrifice will obviously be needed.
As Cain sleeps and Kirith keeps watch over the infant in its bundle of clothing on the makeshift altar, the story comes to another climax. A lioness approaches the infant. But instead of eating it, the lioness picks up the bundle, lays it down on the ground, and lies down beside it, offering its own milk to the hungry infant. Then it picks up the bundle and carries it back to Eden. Kirith stealthily follows. The lioness offers the bundled infant to Eve, who gladly accepts the gift. Back in Eden, Kirith finds that Adam and Eve look younger than herself. Neither of her parents even recognize her. She returns to Cain. It’s obvious that the children and grandchildren of the first couple have already left behind the innocence of childhood and the immortality of paradise.
As usual with Bullett, Eden River is an expertly crafted piece of work. The author modulates his usually crisp style here to evoke the heavy mythic rhythm of a dewy world with misty boundaries between waking and sleeping; between words that are thought, spoken or heard; between mine and thine. To help convey this effect, passages of dialogue in the story are not set off within quotation marks. Here is another fresh take on the oldest eutopia in Western literature and a new explanation of how we came to depart from it.
Robert Eldridge lives in Elizabethtown, New York.