Nostalgia as Amnesia
I have the recurrent fantasy of stopping off at a historical marker in the middle of nowhere and reading on the corroded plate: Site of the First Historical Marker. Our content-free regard for the past is perhaps not always this self-referential; but the parks and pageants seem to be heavier on the local color than the contemporary relevance. Going to Gettysburg can and should be a numinous and frightening experience, an encounter with guardian spirits and vengeful ghosts. For most of the tourists, the trip is more like visiting a foreign country and staying at a Radisson the whole time. Last year’s word of the year was truthiness. Perhaps we can speak of pastiness in the same spirit.
Against this grumpy and not very original complaint, it might be urged that the last few years have seen the publication and considerable commercial success of a remarkable number of serious historical works about the founding of the country. I agree that these books reflect a genuine desire on the part of at least some Americans to come to terms with their own history. David McCullough’s 1776, David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing, and Gary Wills’ book on Henry Adams; a whole series of new biographies of the founding fathers; and, above all, the more than magisterial Rise of American Democracy by Sean Wilentz all testify to a renewed commitment to history. But even the Wilentz book only covers political history to the advent of Lincoln. What strikes me as interesting and perhaps symptomatic is the absence of notable books about the whole era from Lincoln to Teddy Roosevelt—the bona fide American historians I’ve consulted can’t come up with any recommendations. Now I suppose it is possible that the only Jeopardy contestants need to know about Rutherford B. Hayes and Grover Cleveland, but I wonder if the lack of focus on this period doesn’t have another meaning. Between 1865 and 1898, America became a world power and underwent profound social transformations in the process. It is hard to believe that nothing interesting happened in the inflation phase of our national cosmogony. I don’t dispute that the debates over the Constitution remain relevant to current concerns, but maybe they are less relevant to us than the regional and class struggles of the 70s and 80s. The Bush administration, after all, a lot more like Grant’s gang of thieves than Washington’s cabinet.
Obsessives aren’t really interested in their obsessions. The whole point of the ritual is to avoid thinking about that other thing. Let us therefore endlessly refight the Battle of Brooklyn rather than notice that the country is once again being sold to the highest bidder as it was in the times of McKinley.