Down Memory Lane: Nostalgia for the Old South in Post-Civil War Plantation Reminiscences
Anderson, David, The Journal of Southern History
NOSTALGIA, AS A FORM OF MEMORY, IS AN INTEGRAL PART OF OUR everyday world; its presence is indisputable. But like memory, nostalgia is an evasive concept of often-ambiguous meanings. Perhaps we should begin by asking: What exactly is nostalgia? Or maybe the first question really should be: What exactly was nostalgia? Are we nostalgic for people, places, specific points in time, or simply the past as precedent? Questions of this sort invite historical study, but they have, at best, aroused only limited interest. Such a stance is curious given that a detailed examination of nostalgia could advance understanding of the history of memory and the ways individuals have used historical material to define and understand themselves, issues that have been the vanguard of recent research in southern history.
With its Greek roots--nostos (a longing to return home) and algos (pain)--nostalgia sounds so familiar to us that we may forget that it is a relatively new word. It was used first by the Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer, who in 1688 described a lethal malady among Swiss mercenaries serving abroad. Desperate to return home, the soldiers became apathetic and weak, lost both sleep and their appetites, and then, crestfallen, died. The "emotional upheaval" of serving abroad was "related to the workings of memory" and was reckoned to be "'a disorder of the imagination."' In effect, the stricken Swiss opted out of the seventeenth century by screening out the world around them. By the nineteenth century, however, nostalgia began to shed its medical connotations and became less a bodily and more a psychological condition. (2) It also went from being a treatable illness to a terminal condition of the mind, its new meaning suggestive of a long-ago but half-remembered time as opposed to a yearning to return to a specific place. (3)
Moreover, the nostalgically remembered past stood against me present and thus invited comparison. The former was made into a spectacle that was beautiful, bearing little or no relation to the ugly latter. In effect, nostalgia makes the past feel "safe from the unexpected and the untoward"--in other words, making it so very unlike the present. (4) Rather than remembering precisely what was, we tend to make the past comprehensible in relation to the present conditions of the here and now. "Memory is the great organizer of consciousness," writes Susanne K. Langer. Memories of people, scenes, and events that were previously vague or conflicted metamorphose into obvious and consistent recollections. Memory, continues Langer, "simplifies and composes our perceptions...." (5) Essentially memory may operate to alter the past we have known and experienced into an imagined past that is a stranger to us and nothing more than a might-have-been.
For a brief theoretical formulation on this point of view we might turn to the sociologist Fred Davis. In Yearning for Yesterday: A Sociology of Nostalgia, Davis argues that nostalgia is unlike other types of recollection because of the "'special' past" that it envelops. Happy memories are placed on a pedestal whereas unhappy memories are knocked off theirs, and we think hard before picking them up, dusting them down, and putting them back again. This has, according to Davis, an insidious effect because the diversity of the past is thus suppressed. However, although nostalgia draws its strength from the past, it is unmistakably a product of the present. (6) Nostalgia, contends Davis, always appears against the backdrop of "massive identity dislocations," in periods of "'rude transitions rendered by history," in times of fear in the face of electrifying change, and at those transitional points in life when anxiety or, as Svetlana Boym calls it, a "hypochondria of the heart," is felt. (7)
Any "untoward historic events" that tear into the fabric of a society, disrupt its taken-for-granted attitudes and practices, and cut short the very "lungs of culture" in which "people . …