Academic journal article The Oral History Review

High Crimes and Fallen Factories: Nostalgic Utopianism in an Eclipsed New England Industrial Town

Academic journal article The Oral History Review

High Crimes and Fallen Factories: Nostalgic Utopianism in an Eclipsed New England Industrial Town

Article excerpt

Despite their propensity to project both narrators and readers into the future, a fixation on the moral certitudes and strengthening legacy of the past is of central importance in many American utopian formulations. Sometimes futurism and nostalgia coincide with eerie simultaneity, as they did in Ronald Reagan's 1984 "Morning in America" commercials, which offered a vision of the future's promises safely housed and protected in the neighborhoods and values of the (Eisenhower era) past. More often, however, when backward- and forward-looking impulses converge they do so in a less deliberate and more noticeably conflicted way. If, as historian Michael Kammen puts it, Americans are locked into a "relentlessly dialogic relationship between the values of tradition and progress (modernism),"(1) we should not be surprised that our informants' recollections of the good old days represent their closest approximation of the same utopia that more deliberate minds have shaped out of their projections onto the future. Since the past appears to be a world from which we have safely divided ourselves -- a bounded and self-contained realm -- our carefully framed memories of it can offer security in troubled and unpredictable times. Indeed, the desire to articulate such recollections, as oral historian Vieda Skultans observes, can be understood as part of a larger, "universal human attribute," -- the drive to "see lives as stories" which "can make sense of a disrupted past."(2) I would suggest that when this drive replaces the forward-looking impulse, an appropriate term for it is nostalgic utopianism.

In contrast to future-oriented utopias in which life gets progressively easier, ranging from Edward Bellamy's hyper-industrial Looking Backward (1888) to the neo-pastoralism of Ernest Callenbach's Ecotopia (1974), the good old days' primary redeeming value as a utopia seems to derive from their chastening legacy. Plenty of trees grew in it, but they required tending. The land was not exactly Edenic, but it produced strong and independent people, not to mention children who woke up early and worked hard for the benefit of their families. What made the good old days good was the fact that they challenged us, and we outlasted them.

Indeed, nostalgic utopianism is rarely unequivocally positive in its portrayal of bygone days. As Alan Dundes and others have pointed out, American speech patterns are acutely distinguished by their investment in futurism and progress (such as, "What do you want to be when you grow up?"); even the greatest devotees of past glories can be counted upon to name the blessings of the modern age in the context of a wistful backward glance.(3) Understood in this way, nostalgic utopianism is not only a singularly modern endeavor but a realist one as well. In most contexts, it is simply a mode of un-self-conscious and commonplace discourse, as opposed to an active ideological practice. Nostalgic utopianism allows its practitioners to "contradict themselves," to enunciate gratitude for present-day advantages as well as a longing for past comforts. Like any other utopianism, it is posited at least in part on the impossibility of actual achievement. Nostalgic utopianism, in other words, is just talk.

Oral historians and folklorists, who do much of their fieldwork among the elderly, hear this sort of talk quite frequently. As they face the prospect of their own mortality, elderly utopians shape beauty out of the only available material remaining to them -- their memories. Reliance on the past as utopian matter is also prevalent among the inhabitants of the sorts of post-industrial landscapes commonly found in New England -- the "dying milltowns" whose examples of architectural grandeur describe a 19th century glory long since ebbed. This article is about the uses of nostalgia in the oral development of one such American utopia -- North Adams, Massachusetts -- and the ways in which local residents have constructed a beautiful but fraught past out of its skeletal landscapes and their memories of an earlier, more prosperous time. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.