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Past and Present

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Nostalgia: A Path to the Past


Nostalgic photographs

By Evan Bennett

Delray Beach Historical Society
2015 Annual Meeting Keynote
May 20, 2015

Good evening. Thank you for your presence here tonight; I greatly appreciate the opportunity to address an audience who is so clearly interested in the past, its preservation, and its interpretation. It’s not everyday that I get to speak to people who respond positively, not bemusedly, when I tell them I’m a historian. It’s nice that we might have a conversation go further than, “Oh, that’s great. I never really liked history in school.”

Before I say much more, I’d like to offer my thanks to Winnie Edwards for inviting me to speak to you. I’ve only recently come to know Winnie, but I feel sure saying that she is a real treasure for the Delray Beach Historical Society. Of course, you probably already know this. In South Florida, where it seems the bulldozers are constantly pushing the past aside and everyone seems to be from somewhere else, the value of an institution like this cannot be overstated. We are truly blessed when people with vision, energy, and passion, people like your members and your Board of Governors, take an interest in preserving the past.

The theme of tonight’s meeting is nostalgia, and I thought I’d take the opportunity to talk about how academic historians have wrestled with the idea of nostalgia, point out some of its weaknesses, highlight some of its values, and suggest how local historical societies might use it as a tool to open paths to meaningful discussions of the past.

Nostalgia was once a disease. Johannes Hofer coined the term in 1678 to as a way “to signify the pain which the sick person feels because he is not in his native country.” Creative person that he was, Hofer put together the Greek words nostos (meaning to return to one’s native land) and algos (pain or distress) to convey the idea. In the eighteenth century, nearly-constant warfare sent young men to-and-fro across Europe; the doctors who accompanied them, armed with a new name for something soldiers had no doubt experienced for centuries, found plenty of cases. The diagnosis remained popular into the nineteenth century. According to one historian, more than 5,000 northern soldiers suffered from the disease in the first year of the Civil War. With the rise of modern psychology, the term lost whatever medical precision it carried; homesick, instead, became the popular description for those missing familiar surroundings.[1]

By the early twentieth century, the nostalgic were no longer those debilitated by longings for home, but those who looked back on the past with sentimentality. This is not to say that the meaning of nostalgia was shorn of pain, however. As the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, this newer meaning of nostalgia implies “longing” or even “regret,” making it different than reminiscence, which implies simply a recalling of former times. We may reminisce about the past, but the feelings of loss that often come as we do are nostalgia.

Nostalgia implies loss, but it seems almost universally attractive. This is not because it doesn’t deliver real pain; those who have suffered traumas may recall the past, but we wouldn’t say they are nostalgic for it (quite the opposite, in fact). Instead, like the best country music – think George Jones – nostalgia offers catharsis. However, where “The Grand Tour” will bring us to tears despite the fact that we have not experienced what the narrator describes, nostalgia allows the individual to touch his/her own memories. And where the catharsis of country music allows us to rebalance our emotions, nostalgia allows us to make some sense of our present. Historian Anthony Brandt has said that our attachments to the things of the past – pictures, letters, old movies – come from our precarious relationship with our present. “We have been set down between an ominous future and a vanished, idealized past,” he explained. “We cling therefore to the things, the objects, that arouse in us associations of purity and simplicity, the authenticity we think we have lost.”[2] Like Charles Foster Kane crying for “Rosebud”, we seek out objects of the past and plumb our memories to grasp permanence and meaning in the face of time’s inexorable passing.

Academic historians are not immune to the appeal of nostalgia. We watch old movies, enjoy familiar foods, look through old photos, and listen to old songs just like everyone else. (Talk about sewing machine cabinets.) We also reminisce with the best of them; for many of us, hearing old stories is what sparked our interest in the past. Yet, we chafe at the idealization of the past that is often at the heart of nostalgia. Our training and experiences working with the records teach us that there was nothing pure and simple about the past, and that “authenticity” is a complicated matter. For us, nostalgia is a trap that keeps us from understanding the past as it was, a place where “just-so stories” are substituted for truth. Want to annoy a historian? Talk about the “good old days.”

In no place is the tension between nostalgia and academic history more palpable than in a local historical society. Part museum and education center, part archive, part social organization, local historical societies serve a number of constituencies, not all of which immediately see eye-to-eye on the purposes of the past. In the past, some historical societies have, in the name of protecting their stories, resisted opening their holdings to academic researchers. Too often, historians have dismissed historical societies as “antiquarian” and more interested in genealogy than historiography.

This divide is no doubt narrowing, but wherever it remains, it is detrimental to our study of the past, both in academic and public settings. This region is fortunate to have historical society leaders and historians who have worked hard to build strong relationships with one another. Yet, the questions of the value of nostalgia remain unsettled. If it is such a problematic approach to the past, should we continue to use it as a way to present the past to the public? If the public expects, indeed demands, nostalgia, should we risk offending them by exploding every myth and ruining every good memory?

These questions will no doubt continue with us as long as we present the past to the public, but I want to suggest that the best answer to both is not all-or-nothing. Nostalgia is a wonderful thing, but that does not mean we must use it only in ways that it would direct us. If I may use a metaphor, it is like a chisel. Wielded in an unskilled way, you can use a chisel to break stone in a way that leaves it damaged and unusable; but in the right hands, a chisel can reveal what is deep inside a rock and extract its beauty and complexity.

To show how one might do this, let me give a brief example of using a simple object that’s central to the society’s current exhibit on agriculture: the orange. For native Floridians, especially those of us who grew up before the massive 1985 freeze that pushed citrus line south of Tampa, oranges elicit wonderful memories. I remember the smell of orange blossoms wafting through the car window, the taste of a freshly plucked fruit. I can still hear the whirr of my parents’ white juicer and feel the orange as I pushed it down on the spinning extractor. I still know the branches to climb to get up into the tree and can still gauge the weight of grocery bags full of oranges (and grapefruits) loaded into the car to share with the folks at church. I can still hear my mother telling me this would be the “last time” she would peel an orange for me since I was old enough to know how to do it myself. I remember learning the hard way that my neighbor’s tree had sour oranges. I can even hear the chunking sound of a mower rolling over a fallen orange and smell the sweet mixture of cut grass and citrus. These are powerful memories that root me to my past. And there is a little sadness, a little nostalgia, when I go home and see the empty spaces where my parents’ orange and grapefruit trees used to stand.

Yet, as a historian, I know that the orange’s history is far more complex. I know that oranges and orange agriculture are rooted in specific historical moments. I know, for example, that oranges are not native to Florida, and the fact that nearly every tract home in Florida once had one was not a result of natural ubiquity, but of slick developers selling the “Florida Dream.” I know, too, that my experiences with oranges are not universal. What may elicit happy, if maudlin memories in me, may, in fact, elicit quite different responses in those who have experienced citrus differently. To a farmer, the smell of orange blossoms may signal the time to start watching his groves, the time to worry if there are enough bees, the time to worry that spring storms don’t blow them all off, the time to start calculating if the season is likely to bring enough fruit to bring a profit. To the farmworker, climbing one tree is just like the next, and the weight of the fruit is not a trivial thing, but a source of constant strain. Where I measured my family’s neighborliness in bags shared, the farmworker measures her family’s wages in buckets picked. I know, too, that not everyone could enjoy oranges equally, that for poor people and people of color, taking an orange from a neighbor’s tree could result in harsher punishments than having to suck a sour orange. And I know that making orange juice for the nation is far more complex than my Saturdays at my parents’ table.

I hold tightly to my nostalgia. However, it is tempered by my understanding of context and difference. My memories are not the whole story; neither are they everyone’s story. To demand that my nostalgia is either would be using my chisel too roughly, doing a disservice not only to the past but to the present as well, for if we are not honest about the past, it is a poor guide to our future.

But if I use my nostalgia to start a discussion about the past, to explore the connections between past and present, then I wield it more skillfully. And this, it seems to be me, is the true greatness of the local historical society.

The Delray Beach Historical Society is a place where we can bring our memories together, a place where we can share them with each other, see where they match up, learn where they diverge, and talk openly about our shared pasts. Winnie has asked all of you to bring nostalgic photos tonight as a way to share your memories with each other. Where else could you do that? Where else could you learn of others’ memories and see where they connect with our own?

The Delray Beach Historical Society is also the place where we can see and handle the actual relics of the past – the documents, the pictures, the artifacts, the things our forebears have left us as clues about their lives and times. It is the place where some small thing may jog our memories and open a thousand questions. And it is the place where a single document can make us rethink everything we thought we knew. Where else can you do that but at a local historical society? Archives and historical collections are central to the work of maintaining society, even civilization, because they hold our stories. Where else but the local historical society can that be done in a way that makes the past accessible to all?

Indeed, the Delray Beach Historical Society is also a place where those memories are not just piled away, but put on display so that we, and our children, may learn from them. The past is valuable in many ways. I tell my students that if they remember nothing of the “facts” of history, there are two things I wish for them to learn in my classes. The first is humility. I tell them my number one rule is “You are not smarter just because you came later.” The second is humanity: we are all equally human. Across time, we all share some commonality of experiences, even as we experience them in culturally and historically specific ways, and knowing this should open our eyes to the humanity of those around us. These are lessons we learn best not in the histories of faraway places but in the histories of those places that are most familiar. Where else but the local historical society will those histories be told?

History’s worth is also in what it can teach the living, how it can shape the future. Mark Twain famously said that history does not repeat, but it does rhyme. History’s lessons, then, are about meter and rhythm. When we enter the Delray Beach Historical Society, the poetry of the past surrounds us. As we listen, we learn, both about the past and about the present. And we gain wisdom to face the future.

As you are all too aware, Delray Beach is undergoing massive changes. When I moved to FAU in 2008, I lived for a year in West Delray, and the changes are apparent to even me. The Avenue is changing, so are the neighborhoods. These changes are exciting, but no doubt painful. My wife and I went to Mercer Wenzel’s “End of an Era” closeout a few weeks before the Atlantic Avenue landmark closed, and even we, non-natives who had never set foot in the store before then, felt the sting of something being lost.

Florida – South Florida, in particular – has perfected the worship of newness; the bulldozer, it seems, should be on the state flag. There are those who would question the value of looking back, especially when it gets in the way of progress. They are wrong, of course, dead wrong. At no time is the past more valuable than when it seems the future is swallowing up all that is familiar. What you are doing here at the Delray Beach Historical Society is invaluable, critical work.

It may seem a small thing to bring out your pictures, to share your memories with each other, to become nostalgic with each other. But by sharing, you are speaking for the past against a present that would erase it. CONTINUE SPEAKING LOUDLY! It is important for us all that you are heard.

Thank you.

[1] Damien Reid, “Nostalgia,” BMJ: British Medical Journal 323 (1 Sept. 2001): 496

[2] Quoted in “Nostalgia vs. History,” History News 36 (December 1981): 9.[/expand]

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