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Stumblebums and Princes: A Brief Observation about Nostalgia

I have, in some form or another, been encountering nostalgia for most of my professional and academic life.

For many years, I was a heritage/historical interpreter at a living history museum, which not only meant I spent a great deal of my time in period costume discussing (and, perhaps arrogantly, correcting) visitors’ impressions, recollections, and nostalgias about the “good old days,” but that, over time, I also developed a nostalgia for those years spent interpreting the past, forgetting that my dreams then were very much centred on having the career I do now.

In entering my doctoral studies, and later as a tenure-track faculty member with a keen interest in the sporting past, I spent many of my research hours learning about, dissecting, and confronting nostalgia.  Indeed, some of my earliest published pieces – and, it would seem, my most cited – deal with nostalgia and its shortcomings, particularly in sport.  I will admit, nostalgia and I have had a fractured relationship of sorts – I often time rail against it’s sepia-toneness, while also realizing (see: grudgingly acknowledging) that it may actually serve a purpose beyond its commercial exploitation.  As a middle-aged sports fan, with a limited athletic career well behind me and support for a vast array of teams that possess incredible pasts but woeful presents, I often become unwillingly nostalgic despite myself.  Indeed, having moved to several different places in my life, with my current locale feeling ever more permanent by the year, I do often get wistful for the simpler days of yore, even though I know my recollection is frequently misguided.

In any event, every so often I come across a quote or description about nostalgia that seems to encapsulate its essence; that gets to its heart, exposing both its fallacies and possibilities.  The other night, I began to read a book called The Stolen Season by David Lamb.  It was one of those “you might like to read” Amazon recommendations based on my previous purchases, and is a memoir of a former war correspondent – who required time, space, and some peace following his assignments – who travels across America watching minor league baseball games.  The Kindle price was $1.99, and the dozen or so reviews often referred to it as a baseball version of Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, so I figured it was worth a look.  I’m not that far into it at this point – only a couple of chapters – but it is fantastic thus far.  Nevertheless, the prologue opens with the following observation about nostalgia:

Nostalgia is a dangerous obsession. It turns stumblebums into princes and dunghills into shining mountain peaks. It makes yesterday sweeter than tomorrow can ever be. But nostalgia is an expression of faith, because inherent in our embrace of the past is the belief that rediscovering the lost values of our youth will return us to simpler, more innocent days.

Beyond the fact that I find this quote infuriating, not because I disagree with it but rather because I am jealous of its simplicity and eloquence, it confirms that nostalgia is a mug’s game – one we know we can’t win, but are all too willing to play anyway.  Nostalgia is dangerous, because we can get lost in it, and it can dangerously skew our perspective about the present.  It can also be palliative, and help us to rediscover something about ourselves we thought lost.  Being nostalgic is also a sign of privilege; in that we have the leisure to remember, and we have a past we want to rediscover. And, nostalgia is complex and powerful, despite our (and, often, my) desire to pejoratively dismiss it.


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