In her essay “Echoes of Dracula: Racial Politics and the Failure of Segregated Spaces in Richard Matheson’s I am Legend”, Dr. Kathy Davis Patterson argues that the vampires in I am Legend coincide with segregation and the Civil Rights movement in America. Dr. Patterson contends that “the dramatic structure of Matheson’s novel contains a very clear, racially charged subtext that reflects the cultural anxieties of a white America newly confronted with the fact that it can no longer segregate itself from those whom it has labeled Other” (Patterson 20), or in this case, an “’Africanist’ presence” (Patterson 20).
Patterson reminds the reader that “[t]he link between literary vampires and racialized constructions of monstrosity is nothing new. Numerous studies of Dracula, in particular, have explored the characterization of Bram Stoker’s infamous Count as an allegorical representation of late nineteenth-century British anxieties regarding the influx of large numbers of Eastern European Jewish immigrants onto English soil” (Patterson 19). Dracula, Carmilla, and even Polidori’s The Vampyre have all used Orientalist oppositions to suggest white cultural dominance over Eastern cultures that had relocated to central Europe. “Orientalism”, a term made famous by Edward Said in his book of the same name, is a term used to describe the ways in which the Western world views the East, or the Orient. John McLeod, author of Beginning Postcolonialism, writes that “Said’s Orientalism is a study of how the Western colonial powers of Britain and France represented North African and Middle Eastern lands in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries” (McLeod 39). It is partly through Orientalism in European literature that Britain and France maintained cultural hegemony over colonized nations and Eastern immigrants.
Patterson argues that such Orientalism is present in Matheson’s I am Legend upon examining the relationship between Robert Neville, the story’s protagonist, and the vampires that surround his house in post-outbreak America. Works by authors Toni Morrison, Jules Zanger, Judith Halberstam, and Gwendolyn Whitehead are quoted by Patterson in her argument. According to Patterson, author Toni Morrison “defines ‘Africanism’ as ‘the denotative and connotative blackness that African peoples have come to signify, as well as the entire range of views, assumptions, readings, and misreadings that accompany Eurocentric learning about these people’” (Patterson 20). This mention of “blackness” (Patterson 20) and black characteristics are found throughout Matheson’s I am Legend, Patterson points this out by stating that “Halberstam’s mention of black Africans as ‘threatening Others’ is especially worth noting in the context of this study” (Patterson 19), as evidenced by Neville’s constant connection of the vampires to “blackness” (Patterson 20). Patterson observes that “Neville recalls the Black Plague and thinks to himself that ‘Something black and of the night had come crawling out of the Middle Ages’ (Matheson 28)” (Patterson 20). She relates this to a passage later on in the story in which a preacher compares the vampires to “a black unholy animal” (Matheson 113).
According to Patterson, “Neville’s feelings towards the vampires in explicitly xenophobic terms and creates a subtext within the novel that makes racial difference and vampirism synonymous” (Patterson 21). She examines a section of the story in which Neville is drunk and rambles to himself about the vampires being a “minority element” (Matheson 32), ending when Neville sarcastically asks himself “would you let your sister marry one?” (Matheson 32). This inner-dialogue that Neville has is one of the best examples of possible racial overtones in I am Legend, as it relays his hatred towards the vampires to the reader while giving the impression that Neville could be talking about racial issues.
Patterson makes note of the fact that Matheson is quick to describe Neville as “a tall man, thirty-six, born of English-German stock” (Matheson 14), yet “the vampires have no obvious racial attributes per se.” (Patterson 21). It is thus that she describes Neville as “a white man who barricades himself in his house and spends most of his energy trying to keep the monsters out” (Patterson 21). She remarks that “[h]e has established a segregated space that he fights to keep exclusively for himself, a small bastion of civilization in the midst of a suburban wilderness decimated by the effects of the plague. His character parallels, in many ways, the ‘self-conscious but highly problematic construction of the American as a new white man’” (Patterson 21). It is interesting to think of Neville in this way, as in I am Legend, the roles have truly been reversed: Neville, the human, is the minority in a world inhabited by undead vampires.
Kathy Davis Patterson also relates Neville’s protection of his wife’s corpse to white society’s attempts to keep African Americans’ bloodlines out of their race. Patterson contends that “[i]n Neville’s worldview, hybrid blood equals contaminated blood.” (Patterson 23). But this protection not only relates to racial issues, as Neville‘s protection of his wife correlates with the male predisposition to look at women as a possession. Patterson declares that:
I think that Kathy Davis Patterson provides a fascinating insight into Matheson’s story, as much of her argument is sound and based in past literary criticism. At some times, however, her theory seems a bit far-fetched, especially when concerned with “blackness” (Patterson 20) and Neville’s “protection” (Patterson 23) of his wife. Yet Patterson backs up her claims with enough evidence that I have certainly looked at I am Legend in a while different manner. I especially like that Patterson points out how at the end of the story, “it is Neville who has become stagnant, ‘passé’, a persistent stereotype that refuses to die” (Patterson 27). This criticism brings to mind many issues concerning race and the modern vampire novel. I find it interesting to wonder if Matheson actually intended his story to reflect so much of the racial situation of 1950’s America, or if it truly is “coincidence” (Patterson 19). The criticism also makes me wonder how the connotations regarding “black” and “blackness” actually found their way into literature -- was it because of religion, superstitions, or Orientalism? Patterson notes that at the end of the story, Neville realizes that he is also a “monster” (Patterson 26) and also part of a dying breed. But with Patterson’s racial issues in mind, it is interesting to examine whether or not Neville’s relationship with Ruth led to this understanding, and whether or not Neville himself feels corrupted and therefore must end his life. This criticism has made me think of I am Legend in a different way. Even if Matheson’s intention was not to base his story on race, past vampire novels and the stereotypes presented have made Patterson’s criticism of I am Legend valid and interesting to contemplate.
Matheson, Richard. I Am Legend. New York: Tom Doherty Associates LLC. 1995.
McLeod, John. Beginning Postcolonialism. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Patterson, Kathy Davis. Echoes of Dracula: Racial Politics and the Failure of
Segregated Spaces in Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend.