“America is a nation of liars, for that reason science fiction has a special claim to be our national literature, as the art form best adapted to telling the lies we like to hear and to pretend we believe,” Thomas M. Disch wrote in his Hugo-winning history of the genre, The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of.
Among the lies that America has chosen to believe about itself over the past 70 years, few have had as lasting—or as pernicious—effects as those wrought by Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend.
I would argue that perhaps unwittingly, this novel—and its later imitators—present a narrative that helped America justify to itself patterns of segregation and disenfranchisement, and thus perpetuated them. Given the ongoing reckoning with global racial dynamics—many of them exacerbated by American cultural hegemony—it is vital that we re-examine these sorts of myths. Many of the book’s later imitations seem to have been written or filmed in a manner that is stripped of the book’s place, context, and ultimate subversion of the zombie metaphor.
This re-examination is important now because I Am Legend has remained in print for almost 70 years since it was published in 1954, and has been translated into more than two dozen languages. There have been at least five dramatic works adapted directly from its pages, that have grossed a combined half billion dollars. It’s tropes and assumptions are reflected in hundreds of supernatural horror stories, end-of-the-world fables, and survivalist tracts. Just this summer, one of its adaptations has inspired COVID deniers with arguments against vaccination. Iconic horror director George A. Romero names it as the main inspiration for Night Of The Living Dead. Horror writers Stephen King and Anne Rice list the novel as one of their most important influences. In 2012, I Am Legend was named the most important vampire novel of the Twentieth Century by the Horror Writers Association.
On its surface, I Am Legend is a simple story of survival. At the start of the novel, its protagonist Robert Neville is living alone in a suburban bungalow, performing say-to-day tasks of to ensure he is not caught by the hordes of mindless zombie-like vampires that prowl the night. It is an unusually structured novel, built around a combination of vignettes of Neville’s survival activities and flashbacks to the events that led him to his current state of isolation.
Crucially, the ending of the novel almost directly comments on these themes by making it clear to the reader that the erstwhile hero of the book is in fact the monster. Those willing to commit violence in order to defend some imagined notion of a purer (dare I say “whiter”) past should be condemned to the scrapheap of history.
The appeal of horror is often tied to how the genre uses the supernatural as a metaphor for the public’s shared fears. While many vampire novels use undead to explore psychosexual malaise, I Am Legend ties more into racial fears.
At its heart, I Am Legend is a book that reflects an American 1950s-era anxiety about members of the dominant white majority being displaced from their privileged enclave neighbourhoods. This is the same anxiety that drives the phenomenon of “white flight”—a form of ethnic self-segregation in which members of a privileged dominant ethno-cultural group leave urban and semi-urban areas in order to avoid living in proximity with members of a marginalized minority (Danielson 18). The global prevalence of this phenomenon could in part explain I Am Legend’s appeal to non-American audiences; white flight has been documented and studied in such varied countries as England, South Africa, Australia, and more.
There are three key elements to understanding how white flight is reflected in I Am Legend: the privileged dominant ethnic group, the marginalized minority, and the geography. An examination of how these three factors are expressed within the novel, and how they relate to white flight and the construction of an imagined white powerlessness, can help us see the novel as an articulation of these racial dynamics, and of a protagonist gripped with a fear of a Black planet.
The Privileged Dominant Group
Racism isn’t possible without the construction of a racial identity, so the text’s preoccupation with centering its protagonist within a dominant ethno-cultural heritage is a significant indicator of the racial dynamics of the book. One of the first things we learn about Neville is that his ethnicity corresponds to that of the dominant majority: “He was a tall man, thirty-six, born of English-German stock, his features undistinguished except for the long, determined mouth and the bright blue of his eyes.” (2) It is further revealed that he has blond hair and a blond beard (120). These traits align Neville as being a member of a group whose political and cultural power in Los Angeles was largely unchallenged at time the novel was written: as of the 1950 census, only 6.8 per cent of the city was classed as anything other than “white.” But ethnocultural identity is more than just heritage and looks, it’s also about adhering to a prescriptivist “high” culture (van den Haak par 20).
Matheson depicts Neville as listening to music that reflects this ethnic identity by being “classical.” It is worth noting that the composers listed in the book are almost universally German, a fact that underscores the “whiteness” of the music Neville listens to Ludwig van Beethoven (Matheson 16), Arnold Schoenberg (Matheson 19), Roger Leie (Matheson 20), Johannes Brahms (Matheson 28), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Matheson 89), and Franz Schubert (Matheson 134). “He’d learned early in life, from his mother, to appreciate this kind of music” (Matheson 6). This preoccupation with Germanic artistic tastes thus reinforce an “Aryan” ethnocultural identity that was instilled upon him by his parentage.
Given the post-war context that this novel was written in, linking Neville’s status as a member of the dominant “white” class to a preoccupation with Germany and Germanic culture, this may in fact be one of the first clues that Matheson plans to eventually depict the monstrosity of his protagonist. The novel was published less than a decade after Americans had learned of the inhuman barbarity of the Nazi regime, a barbarity that was explicitly linked to the mythologized “Arian” identity.
Neville isn’t just a physical embodiment of an idealized “white”. His tastes hew to conservative high culture that privileges European artistic output. By accentuating Neville’s ethnic identity, Matheson positions the protagonist overtly as representative of the dominant class. It is not just assumed that he is by default part of that group, he is explicitly “Aryan.” This connects the novel to the anxieties of white homeowners of the time the novel was written—the exact nostalgic anxieties that contributed to white flight.
Because of government policies that applied differing mortgage rules depending on the ethnic makeup of a neighbourhood, areas in which there was a significant population of Black residents faced plummeting home prices. So in order to protect the market value of their homes, many white homeowners would fight any attempt to desegregate their neighbourhoods. In part due to these policies, and in part due to the effects of hundreds of years of systematic immiseration, majority Black neighbourhoods became associated with poverty and with crime. At the time this book was being written, the hold that many of these racist laws had on the country were lessening, but the cultural myths surrounding Black people still held sway over a majority of the White population.
The Marginalized Minority
There can be no tension about “racial replacement,” unless the dominant majority can perceive an opposing ethnic minority as being threatening. In I Am Legend, vampires act as a stand-in for these racialized others. We can see this framing through the use of racialized and coded language, which offers further evidence for the interpretation of I Am Legend as being about white flight. During significant sections of the novel, Neville uses only the term “they” to describe the beings he is encountering on a day-to-day basis: “Sometimes they would lob rocks over the high fence around the hothouse, and occasionally they would tear through the overhead net…” (Matheson 1) It is not until the end of the second chapter, after more than 20 references to the beings in question, that he identifies them as “vampires” (Matheson 16). This othering language mirrors that of many white racists who use a generic plural pronoun when talking about a minority. As Anjali Pandey writes in Constructing Otherness, one of the key linguistic strategies used to encode “Us vs. Them” dichotomies is the use of passive voice and of generic pronouns. (Pandey 6) So the use of “Them” by Neville is an act of othering: they are not human, they are not even beasts, they don’t even merit description. The terms “them” and “those people” were included on a 2017 New York Times list of the racialized terms that made people cringe (New York Times).
It is worth noting here that vampirism in the novel I Am Legend is caused by an infectious pathogen. As much as this is a horror novel, it is a novel about a pandemic. As we have all seen during the past two years, there is a strong correlation between transmissible diseases and racism. Racialized immigrants have been blamed for bringing venereal disease in the 1870s (Lee 55); yellow fever in the 1880s (Lee 10); leprosy in the 1890s (Lee 95); typhus, plague and smallpox in the 1930s (Lee 165). Although claims have largely been easily debunked (Principles for Responsible Investment), the myth has been persistent, and may in part explain the popularity of stories like I Am Legend. These vampires are an embodiment of a diseased group of others moving into the protagonist’s neighbourhood.
During the first quarter of the novel, few details are given about the hordes lurking outside of Neville’s house every night. With the exception of Ben Cortman, who was Neville’s friend and neighbour before the plague, none of them are described. Just as tellingly, he refers to those afflicted with the disease that causes vampirism as a “race.” “They are no invincible Race … their godforsaken existence” (Matheson 79). Matheson makes clear reference to potential racial interpretations of the vampires in his novel, describing them as a "minority element" (Matheson 21). Neville muses that: “Vampires are prejudiced against. The keynote of minority prejudice is this: they are loathed because they are feared” (Matheson 22). This racial connotation is driven home by the continual association between vampirism and blackness: “They’d beaten him, the black bastards had beaten him” (Matheson 35) “Do you want to be changed into a black unholy animal?”(Matheson 113) “Something black and of the night … something that had been consigned, fact and figure to the pages of imaginative literature. Vampires” (Matheson 27).
Furthermore, the book is filled with racial dog whistles—coded phrases that would communicate to readers the racialization of the vampires, such as the line “would you let your sister marry one?” (Matheson 22) which draws a direct parallel to a key marginalizing experience of black Americans. To a reader in the 1950s, this phrase would carry a significant connotation. Three years prior to the novel’s publication, Harper’s Magazine had published a much-discussed article that used a variation on the phrase. (Anonymous 36-40) In the 1950s, the prospect of an interracial marriage was the cause of significant anxiety and preoccupation for a majority of the homogenized, pale-skinned dominant class.
In a clear parallel to the "white man’s burden" mentality of comfortable liberals of the 1950s, Neville muses that the vampires have “no means of support, no measures for proper education,…[nor] the voting franchise” (Matheson 32). At the time that Matheson was writing I Am Legend, the U.S. Supreme Court was engaged in the high-profile Brown v Board Of Education case, and the phrase “measures for proper education” was used in debates specifically surrounding black students. This deliberate framing of vampires as an onrushing tide of non-white residents shows that at its core the book is about white flight.
White flight is about the buildings where people of specific ethnicities reside, so it is important to look at the building in which Neville resides and his relationship with it. He only shows emotional investment in the building when it is either threatened by black-coded characters, or turned into an emotional refuge by the presence of white-coded characters.
We can see evidence of this place-attachment relationship by looking at when he chooses to use specific words to describe this building. In most instances, the bungalow is referred to with a simple non-possessive determiner: “That was why he chose to stay near the house…”, (Matheson 1) “He walked around the house…”, (Matheson 2) “He went to the house...” (Matheson 4), “He went back to the house…” (Matheson 6). This tells the reader that the protagonist’s relationship is relatively neutral in that it is just “the” house, no different from any other. But when there are threats to Neville’s dominance of his surroundings, the narration begins to use possessive language: “Robert Neville stood in the cold blackness of his house, listening to the vampires scream.” (Mathson 42). Now we see that the house is no longer just “the house”, but “his” house that Neville imbues with meaning because it belongs to him. Finally, the word “home” is used to refer to the house only when there is something living there other than Robert Neville: specifically, beings that are coded as part of his tribe. In flashbacks with his wife Virginia, he returns “home” to see her (Matheson 52). During the section of the novel where he attempts to tame a surviving stray dog, the word “home” is used repeatedly to describe the house in which Neville lives (Matheson 94-111). After the death of the dog, the word “home” does not appear in the text again.
It is also worth noting that there is significant subtext to the fact that Neville burns the houses that are adjacent to the one he lives in. “... his eyes, which moved now over the charred ruins of the houses on each side of his. He’d burned them down to prevent them from jumping on his roof from the adjacent ones” (Matheson 2). Neville deliberately targets the homes of his neighbours in order to prevent his territory being encroached upon. Between 1948 and 1953 (when Matheson was writing the book), the Los Angeles Eagle Times reported on 12 cases of arson in which the victims had been targeted because they were black Americans who had moved into what were considered “white” neighbourhoods. The policing of white enclaves has as much to do with place attachment as it does racial identity, so by clearly articulating Neville’s relationship with the place he lives, Matheson shows us that the protagonist’s motivations parallel those of majoritarian white homeowners of the 1950s who believed they were “being replaced.”
But Neville’s home is only one part of the geography that provides clues about racial connotations of I Am Legend. This aspect of the book can be further understood by looking at the specific neighbourhoods and streets in which the action takes place and what was happening on those streets as Matheson was writing the book. Neville repeatedly references the fact that his house is on Cimarron Street (Matheson 1, 6, 22, 30, 42, 64, 163). He travels to a few locations on a regular basis including Compton Boulevard (Matheson 15, 27, 35, 70, 120) and the Inglewood Cemetery (Matheson 18, 54, 133). With the exception of visits to a car dealership in Santa Monica (41) and the Los Angeles Public Library (73), all of the action takes place within four kilometers of Neville’s home. This area of Los Angeles encompasses the western edge of Compton and the east side of Gardena (Matheson 19), which was undergoing rapid demographic change in the early 1950s. The name of the street on which Neville lives has a particular connotation. “Cimarron” is derived from a Spanish word cimarrón, which means "wild" or "untamed," and entered the English lexicon as a result of a slave rebellion in Panama (Diouf 20). Thus the geography in which the action takes place in I Am Legend is directly tied through historical reference to racial conflict in which the privileged and dominant ethnicity was overthrown by a previously oppressed group.
One of the key tactics used by white supremacists in the 20th century to maintain their ethno-cultural enclaves was to form homeowner compacts, and to have banks deny loans to black homebuyers seeking a mortgage to buy houses in certain neighbourhoods (Avila 31). This tactic, known as red-lining is alluded to by Neville in the text. “Why, then, this thoughtless bias? Why cannot the vampire live where he chooses? Why must he seek out hiding places where none can find him out?” (Matheson 32) Although Neville never flees the neighbourhood, the prospect of abandoning the house is never far from the story. He muses that he does not need to leave: “I don’t have to escape from anything.” (Matheson 118) But in the final quarter of the book, an antagonist urges Neville to accept that he will be displaced. “Get away from your house, go into the mountains and save yourself … For God’s sake, Robert, go now, while you can!” (Matheson 162) But Neville finds himself unable to leave. “I couldn’t … go. I was too used to the … the house. It was a habit, just … just like the habit of living.” (Matheson 172) The way that Neville’s fight to stay in his home, and the way his relationship to his neighbourhood parallels the racial policing of residential neighbourhoods in Los Angeles in the 1950s, puts into focus the fact that I Am Legend is a book about white flight.
This subtext is driven home repeatedly throughout the novel, but nowhere does it become more explicit in the final pages. Neville, finally confronted by the people whose homes he has been burning, and whose neighbours he’s been slaughtering, realizes in his final moments that he is the monster that future generations will be warned about. Matheson’s challenge to the reader is in asking them after a full book of othering the vampires, to attempt to put themselves in the vampires’ shoes. Unfortunately, this bit of context is what has been stripped from the book’s many imitators and copies. It is worth noting that in the three major movie adaptations of this work, that contextual cue has been either been softened significantly, or stripped out entirely. Without that ending, readers and viewers are left with nothing but the extreme xenophobia of a man fighting hordes of diseased subhumans.
Grappling with the canonical status of the novel, Danish horror specialist Matias Clasen suggests that I Am Legend resonates because it “extrapolates from ordinary, realistic anxieties and fantasies or presents them in metaphoric guise.” The ordinary anxieties that Clasen refers to are often ugly, and sometimes racist. With the historical context of the novel and the significant amount of coded language laced throughout the text, I Am Legend amply reflects the racial anxieties of white flight.
Anonymous. "My Daughter Married a Negro" Harper's Magazine July 1951
Avila, Eric. Popular Culture In The Age Of White Flight University of California Press (2004)
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954)
Danielson, Michael. The Politics Of Exclusion. Columbia UP, 1976
Diouf, Sylviane A. Slavery's Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons, New York: NYU Press (2014)
Flood, Alison “I Am Legend Is Named Vampire Novel Of The Century.” The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/apr/03/i-am-legend-vampire-novel-century accessed July 23, 2020
Lee, Erika America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States Basic Books (2019)
Matheson, Richard. I Am Legend. Millennium Press, 1999 (first published 1954)
Pandey, Anjali. “Constructing Otherness: A Linguistic Analysis of the Politics of
Representation and Exclusion in Freshmen Writing” Issues in Applied Linguistics Vol 14, Issue 2 2004
United Nations Principles For Responsible Investment Report “For centuries, migrants have been said to pose public health risks. They don’t.” https://www.pri.org/stories/2019-05-23/centuries-migrants-have-been-said-pose-public-health-risks-they-don-t accessed Sept. 28, 2021
Van den Haak, Marcel. “High culture unravelled: a historical and empirical analysis of contrasting logics of cultural hierarchy” Human Figurations, Vol 7, Issue 1 2018
 The lone outlier among the composers listed in the novel is Leonard Bernstein (Matheson 21), an American of Ukranian Jewish heritage. The piece of music cited, “The Age Of Anxiety” is possibly included specifically to make a point about racial anxieties. It is worth noting that the protagonist’s musing about this particular musical composition leads directly into the most overtly racialized passages of the novel: “Friends, I come before you to discuss the vampire; a minority element if ever there was one … would you let your sister marry one?” (Matheson 21-22)