W.C. Spengemann

W.C. Spengemann is a professor of English at Dartmouth College. His books include Henry James: The American and The Forms of Autobiography.

Old America

W.C. Spengemann, 7 January 1988

Nostalgia – literally ‘homesickness’ – ranks high among the motives of modern historians. The genre we call history has evolved over the last four centuries as the antidote to an epidemic of homesickness in Western society, a growing feeling that radical and unprecedented changes in the shape and meaning of life were severing the present from the remembered past. And even today, when professional historians seem more concerned to compute the past than to connect it with the present, the histories that readers remember and long to reread are usually those which treat their subjects – no matter how remote – as places the writers remember and long to revisit. Historical nostalgia need not imply a desire simply to flee the bewildering present, to go back home, as Thomas Wolfe put it, ‘to the escapes of Time and Memory’: the historian’s purpose in going home is to recover something left there, some knowledge or power or psychic condition which, brought back to the present, can help us all to feel more at home in this strange place.’

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