Nostalgia, maybe the sweetest and purest of human emotions, carries within itself its own poison. Dwelt on briefly, nostalgia can fade into a sighing sadness. It can transform into frustrated,grasping sorrow for a time or a feeling that can never come back. With the slightest shove, nostalgia can turn bitter and angry.
In Dreadful Sorry: Essays on American Nostalgia, Jennifer Niesslein explores personal and cultural nostalgia, the way it is used and abused, and the way memory shapes our lives. In a series of deceptively sly essays about seemingly slight topics — a family road trip, a favorite movie, a class reunion — Niesslein probes what it means to remember, and what it means to forget.
Niesslein starts her book diving into a family mystery: the roadside death of her great-great-grandmother, an off-the-boat Polish immigrant who, with her husband, landed in the coal country of Western Pennsylvania. There were brushes with the law, especially when it came to bootlegging, and sacrifices made for the children, and their children, and eventually Niesslein. By the time she is born, everyone is more or less “respectable,” and the girls are expected to be proper.
This is a common kind of transformation in America — although, only really possible for certain people.That transformation from outlaw to respectable, from outside to inside, or, as was for Niesslein, from “not the right kind of white” to where Poles and their descendents are today: firmly in the firmament of privileged whiteness.
That sort of transformation requires a distortion of the past, and an acceptance of a certain kind of family mythology. It’s that sort of distortion that is at the heart of nostalgia. Even from the first page, Niesslein plays with that distortion, writing:
“When I think of western Pennsylvania fondly, it’s summer that I’m remembering: the greens of the trees and grass, the bursts of neon yellow from the lightning bugs, the red tomatoes from the garden up on the windowsill. But Pennsylvania in the winter is, frankly, depressing — the grim black-and-white tableau — with the black mountains, the stark white snow, the clumps of gray frozen along the turnpike. It’s a place where coal mines have made their mark, and slate piles still stand.”
These seem contradictory — the sweet, slow-motion sepia summer, running stickily at the fuzzy margins of memory, and the harsh reality of what it looks like today — but they of course aren’t. And that’s exactly the problem with nostalgia, and one that Niesslein continually explores. There are always the dark and sharp edges around the fuzzy middle. Later on, Niesslein says she knew she’d “heard the N-word before I ever met a Black person because I can’t remember ever asking anyone what the word meant.” It was around her growing up, but she can’t remember anyone saying it, what she calls a “protective reflex to safeguard my nostalgia.”
Here we circle toward the heart of cultural, group nostalgia: what we choose to remember, and what we choose not to. We see that in the ginned-up outrage over “critical race theory,” which is cynically being used to ban books and outlaw teaching even the outlines of America’s bone-deep racial cruelties.
At one level, this is an intellectual assault of the white supremecist political movement. But the foot soldiers in this flank are often people who don’t want their nostalgia trod upon. They don’t want to remember their grandfathers or fathers or sons and daughters using the N-word. And they don’t want to feel bad that they did (cultural nostalgia requires cognitive dissonance). Even more, they don’t want anyone to talk about it or remember it, because that will require change.
Niesslein deals with the politics of nostalgia, but only sometimes directly (and those tend to be the only sort of slow parts of this breezy and charm-filled book). The best times are where you are forced to ponder the nature of memory, yours and others.
At a visit with her father, Niesslein starts to talk about when they moved from her childhood idyll to a planned Virginia community, which she remembered as stultifying and bourgeois and conformist. The loss of her more rural first home haunts most of the book. When talking about it, they trade stories, laugh, and then a devastating “Dad puffs on a cigar. ‘Moving from there was the best thing that ever happened to all of us.’”
The lesson, as always, is that everyone’s nostalgia is different. Everyone remembers things differently, takes different lessons from the same event, sees them from the perspective of their life, their prior memories, their day. A stubbed toe can turn one person’s achingly beautiful sunset, the one that will last a lifetime, into another person’s grouchy hike west.
Multiply these individual dissonances, Niesslein urges us, by an entire country. Multiply it by overlapping generations. Multiply it by the stories different families tell of themselves and other people. There, you have conflict. There, you have the desire to protect your nostalgia.
And really, protection is, as Neisslein demonstrated with her memories of family and childhood, the animating force of nostalgia.
Nostalgia in our culture is too often kitschified, made into a series of references: hey, remember Alf? Remember the 90s? Remember an America that really stood up for itself? But that’s not what nostalgia really is. While poets said it was the loss of your homeland, it goes deeper than that. It’s just loss, overall, truly irretrievable loss.
That’s why I think nostalgia is the most poignant and truly human emotion. It recognizes the past, and how it is a lost country, but also the onrushing inevitability of the future. It is that unsettling knowledge, bone deep, that what you knew is gone, and what is ahead is unknown. That you’ll never be the person — or the country — that you once were.
And while that’s fine, and usually good, it can be disquieting, even terrifying. The future brings one certainty, that of death, and the knowledge of death is what makes nostalgia so painful and scary. It makes people retreat to the past. It makes cultures invent mythologies to try to recreate, the most prominent American one being that there was a white past where we were strong, and chipping away at that brings us closer to our doom. It’s the gnashing fight against that, in the face of a few faltering gains, that drives today’s revanchist white supremacist mainstream.
Niesslein is not so bleak, and only really touches on this at the margins. She is a breezy, charming storyteller, and a disher of amiable asides. She even manages to end the book on an optimistic note, that our competing stories can actually turn into some kind of hope, which she says is the “most American thing” anyone can say.
I don’t know if I share that hope, but I love the spirit. We know memory is mutable and unfixed. And while that’s scary, the knowledge of it gives us room to accept other people’s memories. There doesn’t have to be one story. Your family may argue about its origins, but you are still you.
After all, as Niesslein says, “(e)veryone deserves to sink into the pockets of joy in their memories, no matter their race.” And why not? If we accept that no one has a monopoly even on their personal past, then no one story can control our shared future.
Dreadful Sorry: Essays on American Nostalgia
Published March 1st, 2022