Old America

W.C. Spengemann

  • Look homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe by David Herbert Donald
    Bloomsbury, 579 pp, £16.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 7475 0004 5
  • From this moment on: America in 1940 by Jeffrey Hart
    Crown, 352 pp, $19.95, February 1987, ISBN 0 517 55741 X

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.

Nostalgic historians may be classified according to the times and places in which they locate their homes. Some, like Henry Adams, seem to discover that far country through study and then begin to remember it as their own birthplace. Others, like David Donald and Jeffrey Hart, remember it first and then study it up in order to flesh out their memories with circumstantial detail. In either case, historiography is given the task that Wordsworth assigned to poetry: to reconcile the seemingly unrelated worlds of perceived present and remembered past.

For Donald and Hart alike, home lies in America at the end of the Depression: Donald’s in Goodman, Mississippi, where he first read Wolfe’s novels as a schoolboy; Hart’s in New York City, where he glimpsed through ten-year-old eyes the political events, sporting contests, entertainments and books of 1940 which, plumped out with later reading, fill the pages of the present book. For both, that home stands within view, but on the far side of an impassable rift opened in the historical landscape by the shocks of time and change. In 1940, Donald left ‘rural Mississippi for ever to take up residence in the strange and terrifying North’; a year later, World War Two ended the ‘lazy summers and provincial slumbers’ of Hart’s ‘old America’, so that from that moment on ‘things would never be the same again.’

Apparently feeling themselves psychically wounded by this interruption in their lives, both Donald and Hart have set out to rescue the disconnected past and give it a new presence. Donald hopes that his biography ‘will spur persons who are not familiar with Wolfe’s work to read his novels’ and even persuade readers who dislike them to ‘read his books afresh’. Hart’s book ‘is intended not as a history of the year 1940 but rather as an evocation’ of that time for the benefit of readers who may misremember it as well as those who are too young to remember it for themselves.

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