I have always been a very nostalgic person. If you read this blog you may have recognized this character trait. I regularly get nostalgic about 1970s and 1980s Mets baseball or my childhood in the Catholic working-class world of Northern New Jersey. My kids get sick of me constantly rebuking their lifestyles with the phrase “back in my day….” But as a historian, I also realize that nostalgia can be a dangerous thing.
For example, I have written that nostalgia for a time when America was a “Christian nation” can be problematic for moral, political, and historical reasons. The longing for a golden age of Christianity in America often overlooks the fact that Christians often stood on the sidelines in the fight for justice. This same longing is historically problematic because one could also make a pretty good argument, based on the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, or the beliefs of the founding fathers, that America was not founded as a Christian nation . Politically, nostalgia for a Christian America has often been used to shape public policy, particularly on social issues.
Nostalgia can often get in the way of good history and sound moral and political thinking.
Yet I have always thought about whether or not there was anything redeemable about nostalgia. Rarely do you hear historians, or anyone else for that matter, talk about it in a positive way. In my book The Way of Improvement Leads Home (2008), I wrote a bit about the power of nostalgia in eighteenth-century America. I tried to call attention to the early American tensions between cosmopolitan pursuits of ambition or progress or learning and the longing for place, roots, and home. For me, this book was an exercise in how to bring these things together. In some ways, it has been a life project–thus the name of this blog.
I think this is why I was immediately attracted to Michael Chabon‘s recent piece at The New Yorker titled “The True Meaning of Nostalgia.” I have never read one of Chabon’s novels, but I hope to get to one of them soon. (Any recommendations?) In the meantime, here is a snippet of his essay that resonated with me:
My work has at times been criticized for being overly nostalgic, or too much about nostalgia. That is partly my fault, because I actually have written a lot about the theme of nostalgia; and partly the fault of political and economic systems that abuse nostalgia to foment violence and to move units. But it is not nostalgia’s fault, if fault is to be found. Nostalgia is a valid, honorable, ancient human emotion, so nuanced that its sub-variants have names in other languages—German’s sehnsucht, Portuguese’s saudade—that are generally held to be untranslatable. The nostalgia that arouses such scorn and contempt in American culture—predicated on some imagined greatness of the past or inability to accept the present—is the one that interests me least. The nostalgia that I write about, that I study, that I feel, is the ache that arises from the consciousness of lost connection…
Nostalgia, to me, is not the emotion that follows a longing for something you lost, or for something you never had to begin with, or that never really existed at all. It’s not even, not really, the feeling that arises when you realize that you missed out on a chance to see something, to know someone, to be a part of some adventure or enterprise or milieu that will never come again. Nostalgia, most truly and most meaningfully, is the emotional experience—always momentary, always fragile—of having what you lost or never had, of seeing what you missed seeing, of meeting the people you missed knowing, of sipping coffee in the storied cafés that are now hot-yoga studios. It’s the feeling that overcomes you when some minor vanished beauty of the world is momentarily restored, whether summoned by art or by the accidental enchantment of a painted advertisement for Sen-Sen, say, or Bromo-Seltzer, hidden for decades, then suddenly revealed on a brick wall when a neighboring building is torn down. In that moment, you are connected; you have placed a phone call directly into the past and heard an answering voice.
Read the entire piece here.