If the prevalence and commonality of death has had any positive side effect on Louisiana—which has one of the lowest life expectancies in the U.S.—it’s that residents have attuned themselves to its context.
“Early on, I got some sense of history and how ages compare, and how one of the responsibilities we face in this age is to be conscious of what’s unique to it,” says author Anne Rice, one of New Orleans’s most famous daughters. “If you’re aware that in 1850 people starved to death in the middle of New Orleans or New York, that’s a dramatic difference between past and future.”
Rice’s classic novels—Interview with the Vampire, The Vampire Lestat, Queen of the Damned, and many more—predate the current vampire craze. Her oeuvre still stands above most of the genre, however, because it represents a unique approach not replicated even decades after many of the books first appeared: New Orleans framed Rice’s perspective as she grew up there.
Modern metropolises have transformed their environs into finely tuned systems of order, but the Crescent City teems with a charmingly antiquated natural chaos. The city offers a living, breathing reminder of the past—and, therefore, of how far humanity has come.
“The failure of most vampire literature is that the authors can’t successfully imagine what it’s like to be 300 years old. I try really hard to get it right,” Rice says. “I really love taking Lestat”—her most famous character—“into an all-night drugstore and having him talk about how he remembers in 1789 that not a single product there existed in any form that was available to him as a young man in Paris. He marvels at the affluence and the wealth of the modern world.”
To a caveman, modern humans might appear not unlike Lestat and his vampire kin. We don’t necessarily consume blood to live, nor can we transform into bats, wolves, or mist, but we do have a host of seemingly superhuman powers. Chief among those, to the primitive human, would be our ability to live long lives.
If a caveman were exceptionally lucky, he might have made it to his 40s, but he more than likely would have succumbed to pneumonia, starvation, or injury before his early 20s—if he survived infancy in the first place, that is.
Life expectancy for humans more than 10,000 years ago was short and didn’t improve much for a long time. In ancient Rome, the average citizen lived to only about age 24. But most counted themselves fortunate to get even that far; more than a third of children died before their first birthday. A thousand years later, expectations looked much the same.
Over the course of the next 800 years, people in the more advanced parts of the world added only 15 years to their life expectancy. An average American in 1820 could expect to see 39. Lifespans started to pick up in the early 19th century—around the same time that vampire myths were proliferating in Europe—and really sped up in the 20th thanks to a decline in infant mortality and improvements to health in general.
By 2010, the average U.S. life expectancy had nearly doubled from two centuries prior, at 78 years, with similar results in other developed countries. To a caveman, or an average Roman, that would seem like an eternity.
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