Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used to Be, or Maybe It Is

carThere’s bad nostalgia, such as Donald Trump’s delusional belief that the United States was once great (perhaps for a good number of affluent white males but often not for other demographics). And there’s more positive nostalgia, which will be the subject of today’s blog post. More positive nostalgia in literature, that is.

One prime example is Goodbye, Mr. Chips, in which James Hilton tells the story of English schoolteacher Mr. Chipping. The novel, like many books with a nostalgic bent, is not without bad times and tragedy — but the overall feeling is warm, especially in the description of how Mr. Chips’ brief marriage helped make him a more tolerant and less conventional person and educator.

Fannie Flagg’s World War II-themed The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion (see image above) has various nostalgic elements — including the story being told from a vantage point decades after the 1940s and the remembrance of how women briefly had more prominent work roles during WWII — including operating a gas station without men and flying important missions as WASPs (Women Airfare Service Pilots). Also, as the title indicates, some of the novel’s aged characters meet one final time.

Ray Bradbury’s semi-autobiographical 1957 novel Dandelion Wine looks at a boy’s small-town Illinois childhood through the lens of a 1928 summer. That childhood is in some ways idyllic, but there are enough painful and mysterious things going on to keep the book from getting too sentimental.

Given how many people live in suburbs and cities these days, novels set in small towns or on farms or in the wilderness can almost seem automatically nostalgic — even if the books are not anywhere close to 100% happy. Examples include L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, George Eliot’s Adam Bede, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, among many others.

Novels that time-travel into the past can also provide plenty of nostalgia. The past is far from perfect, but things at least were or seemed slower-paced/less frantic/more technologically “analog.” Jack Finney’s Time and Again and Daphne du Maurier’s The House on the Strand would be two examples.

Prequel novels also can be at least partly nostalgic by their very nature. For instance, at different points after his first Jack Reacher book was published, Lee Child wrote three Reacher novels set when Jack is younger than in that first book. Due to the usual Reacher-realm violence, The Enemy and The Affair and Night School are not very wistful, but they feel partly nostalgic because we’re seeing Jack in his earlier years — during which time he had his first romantic encounter and so on. (First love can be quite nostalgic.)

Last but not least, In Search of Lost Time is steeped in nostalgia — often of a melancholy nature. The very title of Marcel Proust’s opus, which I’ve only read part of, conveys a longing for the past.

Novels you consider very or somewhat nostalgic?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about a controversial schools superintendent resigning — is here.

55 thoughts on “Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used to Be, or Maybe It Is

  1. Eureka! I have located the most voluminous accretion of nostalgia available in the US, page after glowing page of the stuff!

    I refer, of course, to the endless catalogs emanating at intervals out of The Vermont Country Store.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Joseph Roth, born a Jewish citizen of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Galicia, became, after serving in that empire’s army, stateless, or had he wished, an occupant of uncertain status in the new nation of Poland. He emigrated, after a time in Vienna, to Berlin, becoming part of the great mass of immigrants displaced by war and politics in war’s aftermath.

    From the certainty of that empire’s political structure to the frantic mayhem of the post-war period, Roth found himself at odds with his present, and so, fond of looking back to where and whence he could never return. He made a career for himself as a newspaper writer, first, then a novelist– one of the most able and artful to write in German during his short lifetime. My favorite novels to date: “The Radetsky March”, “Flight Without End”, “The Emperor’s Tomb”, “The Tale of the 1002nd Night”.

    He wrote with fondness and detail about the superiority of the vanished empire to the several uneasy states that occupied its former territory, citing the universality of the German language, a national railway, a union of disparate parts that made for a long time a harmonious, or relatively harmonious whole– all ruled over by a well-meaning, if enfeebled Emperor by means of state visits, diplomatic ceremony and Hapsburg imperial tradition.

    But Roth in Berlin remained unreconciled, while being acutely awake, and aware of the growth and ascendance of national socialism in his adopted residence. Upon Hitler’s appointment to the post of Chancellor, Roth took himself to Paris, where he continued to turn out articles and fiction, between bar and bed, till he died.

    It is an especially poignant sort of nostalgist that knows the old ways and old days cannot return, though they were better days indeed, and cannot abide the present uninebriated.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Eloquent/informative/poignant essay, jhNY, about Roth’s brand of nostalgia and more. Thank you! I read some of Roth a few months ago — not any of his most famous works, just what my local library had, but I was still very impressed. The last paragraph of your comment was especially powerful and sad.

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  3. Perhaps a quibble:

    Elizabeth Gaskell’s “Cranford” is, if it can be called nostalgic, a special case of the condition, in that it is written in the present about the present, but very much with an eye on changes to come that will have an obliterating effect on that small town society– but have yet to arrive in compelling force.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Among books written here, the Laura Ingalls Wilder “Little House” series is perhaps foremost in its recreation, sometimes out of whole cloth, of a mythical and mythologized American past. Plucky, warm-hearted family folk living in sod houses, braving storms and heat and Native Americans, on whose land the family squatted in its earliest attempt to farm. Behind this golden light on yesteryear is a thorny issue or two regarding authorship between daughter Rose Wilder Lane and Laura, though Lane herself never claimed to have done so much as it is now documented she did, perhaps because she felt it would have diluted the authenticity of the first-person POV of the books.

    Nostalgia takes a practical, if bitter turn: Lane is also known as a founder of American libertarianism, and wrote much polemic against FDR , the New Deal and social security. Her adopted grandson ran for president on the Libertarian ticket in 1976.

    Nostalgia, whatever its virtues in print, is a disaster when visited on politics. For example: Too much of current British politics, both leftish and right, and GB’s latest PM, Boris Johnson, the Planless Brexiteer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jhNY! I’ve never read the “Little House” books, but, from what you just wrote and from what I’ve read about those books, the series trades in a certain American West/”pioneers” nostalgia that works only from the perspective of the white settlers themselves. Native Americans, African-American cowboys, etc., need not apply.

      And interesting info about the Laura Ingalls Wilder family tree I had known nothing about.

      I agree that when politicians include nostalgia in their toolkit, the results are often negative or even toxic.

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      • My mother read us the series, and at the time, I enjoyed them very much, being at most ten.

        Given what had been imparted to me by my elders, I had then a photograph of Robert E. Lee on my wall, and believed him to be among the most flawless persons to have ever lived, only slightly less perfect than Jesus. But that’s another story of another pernicious and dangerous nostalgia, one which managed to separate and obscure the actual motivations of the Confederate States from the glorification of its commanders in battle. The civil rights movement, becoming ever more central to the politics that roiled my youth, forced me to see things in a colder, harsher light.

        Glad, such as I did, to have growed up.

        Liked by 1 person

        • A randomish thought: There are a great many public schools, and not only in the South, that bear Robert E. Lee’s name. Some of the schools, rather than change the name outright, have cast about for other Lees to so honor, according to a teevee news report I saw. I think Harper would be best. Even better: if those casting about for a Lee alternative had settled on it by themselves.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Most of us had views as kids — naive or otherwise — that we don’t have anymore as adults. In my case, I was enamored with U.S. presidents — memorizing their names, when they were in office, etc., and thinking they must have virtually all been great men in order to become president. I later learned, of course, that many of them were political hacks, spineless, racist, slaveholders (some of the early ones), and so on.

            Yes, nothing should be named after someone who accepted leadership of the forces defending slavery, but many (and not just southerners) feel otherwise. Harper Lee as a namesake sounds good to me!

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  5. What a lovely topic, Dave. And I’m so glad that a book I recently fell in love with will hopefully fit this perfectly. Miles Franklin is a kind of famous name in Australian literature. There are Miles Franklin awards, and I knew there were movies linked to the name, but until recently, I’d never read her. In fact, I’m embarrassed to say I’d assumed it was a man. But then I read My Brilliant Career and was absolutely blown away. It’s not nostalgic in the strictest sense, but is set in that small town that you mentioned which is automatically nostalgic. Written by a single woman in the late nineteenth century, Miles (or Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin, which was her actual name) was definitely ahead of her time. Said to be autobiographical, My Brilliant Career is mostly a love story, though Miles Franklin would disagree with that. It’s also a story of loneliness, and not quite knowing where you fit in the world. It reminded me of both Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice and I was going to mention it to both you and Kat Lit if it wasn’t an appropriate title for this week’s blog. But as usual, it’s like you’re reading over my shoulder and creating a topic that’s perfect just for me!

    You mentioned prequels which got me thinking about Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Again, maybe not exactly nostalgic, but seeing our favourite Potter characters all grown up made me a bit wistful. And there were lots of mentions of events that had happened in the seven books, as well as same filling in on the nineteen years in between the two stories. I thought it was all really well done.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Sue! Excellent/evocative description of “My Brilliant Career,” which I just put on my to-read list. 🙂 Heady company for the novel to be mentioned in the same paragraph with “Jane Eyre” and “Pride and Prejudice”!

      Definitely a number of female authors with male-sounding or ambiguous names.

      The “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” play indeed makes one nostalgic for the seven “Harry Potter” novels. I found Harry, Hermione, and Ron more appealing/compelling when they were young than when they were adults — and more appealing/compelling than “the next generation” of children spotlighted in “Cursed Child.” Others might feel differently. 🙂

      And — ooh! — more italics! Nice!

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      • I completely agree with your take on the Harry Potter characters. But Cursed Child was still really enjoyable, even if not quite as good as Order of the Phoenix.

        I’m quite pleased with myself that I remembered that simple coding from my programming course many years ago. I can message you about how I’m doing it if you’d like? I’d explain here, but I think that would just put everything in italics, and wouldn’t be at all helpful!

        Liked by 1 person

        • I did enjoy “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” on a certain level, but it was obvious to me that J.K. Rowling didn’t write it (I think she basically suggested the story). It didn’t quite have her magic touch. I love everything Rowling did write — the seven “Harry Potter” books, “The Casual Vacancy,” and the four Cormoran Strike crime thrillers.

          Thanks for the italics-teaching offer, but I think I’ll continue to admire and wonder how you do it. 🙂 🙂

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          • I enjoyed The Cuckoo’s Calling, but not enough to continue with the others. I LOVED The Casual Vacancy.

            “It didn’t quite have her magic touch.” Nicely said ❤

            Liked by 1 person

            • Thank you, Sue! 🙂

              I think “The Cuckoo’s Calling” was the best of the four Strike books, though I did like the next three a lot — varying degrees of a lot. 🙂

              “The Casual Vacancy” really captured small-town interactions and small-town politics.

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  6. I just recently finished a read of Tom Sawyer (I think I actually only read some fragments from it in grade school). Gosh what a book. Yes, we all remember the tricks we got into as youths and that is always nostalgic, but certainly not all of Sawyer’s exploits were very funny! That little twerp! Huckleberry Finn is up next, as I also only read fragments of that in grade school. Anne of Green Gables will always hold a special place for me, as I adored it as a middle-school girl, both the books and the Megan Follows movies. Anne and her imagination (and mind wondering) reminds me so much of my younger self as well. The WWII-themed book you mentioned put me in mind of a recent read of mine called “Code Girls.” It’s a historical work about the many women who were trained and worked in encryption and decoding here in the US during the war. The last few chapters visit the women in the modern day as they are very aged. Many of them have been friends all that time, and they all talked about the many changes they have seen over the years. It made me tear up a bit, both the thought of having friendships that lasted 70+ years on letter writing and occasional visits only, and the many changes those women have seen throughout their lives. As a history enthusiast who often looks back, I very much enjoyed this post, Dave! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for that excellent, wide-ranging comment, M.B.!

      “Tom Sawyer” is indeed a great book — so readable and exciting, of its time yet universal across time. I agree that Tom is often not particularly likable, and he becomes even more annoying when he makes a late appearance in “Huckleberry Finn” — which, except for Tom, is a sublime novel.

      Totally agree about “Anne of Green Gables” and its 1980s screen version. Wonderful!

      And “Code Girls” sounds REALLY good.

      Yes, in your blog you have done many terrific historical pieces and poems.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. The first book that came to mind was, “Winter Wheat” by Mildred Walker. I don’t recall how I discovered this author, but I’ve loved her books, especially this one about a young girl who lived on a dry-land wheat farm in Montana the 1940’s. Her parents married during WWI and came from different worlds. Her father was a wounded vet from VT and her mother was from Russia. They were a mystery to her until she went off to college and had a rude awakening about the true meaning of love. She understood that love survives much like the winter wheat that grew under the harsh conditions. I feel nostalgic just writing about this book!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. The elephant in the room is “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Nell Harper Lee! Oh my! The yearning for the simple and not so simple times when we were children as told retrospectively from the viewpoint of our beloved Scout. “Lady” by Thomas Tryon is evocative in the same way – simple but not so simple.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. I loved the novels “Anne of Green Gables,” “Little Women” and “Dandelion Wine,” as well as the TV production based on the novel “Cranford.”

    The novel that came first to my mind not mentioned in your column is “Cold Sassy Tree,” by Olive Ann Burns. It’s set in the fictional town of Cold Sassy, Georgia, in 1906. The narrator is a 14 year old boy (Will Tweedy), and as per Wikipedia, “it explores themes such as religion, death and social taboos.” I love the line in the plot summary that Will really liked the main female character, Miss Love, because she was nice and pretty, although she was from Baltimore and therefore practically a Yankee. 🙂 Having lived in Atlanta for about four years in three different suburbs, I know what it’s like being considered a Yankee!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Kat Lit! Those ARE excellent novels — and I didn’t realize there was a “Cranford” TV production!

      “Cold Sassy Tree” sounds great. I’ve looked for it in my local library, but haven’t gotten my hands on it yet.

      Glad you got a chance to live in the Atlanta area! During my many trips to the South, I also sometimes experienced that Yankee designation. But I’ve never been called a New York Met…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ha, Dave! It took a few moments for that to sink in! The place I was most considered a Yankee was at the University of Texas at Austin, especially in my course on the Civil War. I was the only one in the class that was from the northern states. Actually, my somewhat quirky girlfriend called me Nanook of the North, which I admit I liked a lot.

        Btw, I saw John Oliver on The Late Show the other night and learned he is doing the voiceover of Zazu in the movie “The Lion King.” I love him and am glad he’ll be in that movie, which looks like it will be quite good. Speaking of Zazu, it is pouring rain here and thundering, so will hopefully cool things off!.

        Liked by 1 person

        • When a person is the only northerner in a southern-college class, that person can indeed stick out! And I agree — “Nanook of the North” is kind of a nice nickname. 🙂

          Great voice role for John Oliver!

          Yes, hopefully that rain will cool things off after a beastly hot weekend. We’re supposed to get that welcome rain later this afternoon.

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  10. Hi Dave! Another great list of books. I thought I’d throw in some nostalgic Russian works. The “village prose” of the 1970s was set in small villages and harkened back to an earlier, and in the authors’ eyes, simpler era, describing life in small villages. That might sound innocuous, but in the context of the Soviet glorification of urban life, technology, and industry, it was actually pretty radical.

    Nowadays there’s a lot of nostalgia for the Soviet Union and this appears in books and movies as well as official celebrations and the like. The examples that immediately come to mind are all movies: “Legend no. 17,” about a Soviet hockey player, for example, or “Battle for Sevastopol,” about the celebrated WWII sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Elena, for the Russian-literature perspective! There can certainly be plenty of nostalgia for a village way of life on our increasingly crowded/increasingly urbanized planet, and it’s not surprising that there’s some nostalgia for the Soviet Union among some people — even though the former USSR was obviously a very mixed bag. Perhaps, among other things, some people miss living in more of a superpower than Russia is now — though Putin of course throws his weight around quite a bit.

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      • Putin’s clear (and largely effective) efforts to keep Russia as a superpower (I’d say the idea that Russia ever lost its superpower status is one of those misapprehensions by Westerners that have caused a lot of problems) is a big part of his popularity.

        Liked by 1 person

        • You’re right, Elena, that Russia is still a superpower. I think slightly less so than in the Soviet Union days up until the 1980s, but perhaps as much so. Putin certainly has a huge amount of worldwide influence, for better or for worse.

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