- Novel Nostalgias: The Aesthetics of Antagonism in Nineteenth-Century U.S. Literature by John Funchion
We are living in a time of political nostalgia. On the right, nostalgia defined the politics of Trump's promise to "make America great again" by reversing the political progressivism of the last eight years. Those of us on the left also feel steeped in nostalgia, not for a mythical time when America was great, but for just a few years ago when Obama, despite his flaws, worked to "bend the arc of the moral universe towards justice." Nostalgia is the grace note of today, even if it has been marshaled by competing political camps and directed towards painfully different ends.
For this reason, John Funchion's book Novel Nostalgias is a timely intervention in this vexed moment we all share, for it provides a lively, detailed prehistory of the way that nostalgia was constructed for diverse political ends throughout the nineteenth century. Nostalgic longing, rather than nationalistic belonging, helped imagine "new [End Page 303] affiliations among people," affiliations that were used to "advance an array of different political possibilities" (4). Leaning on Jacques Rancìere's political theory, Funchion suggests that the nostalgia evoked by nineteenth-century writers was "antagonistic." That is, the nineteenth-century novel did not simply register its political disagreements with hegemonic notions of American nationalism, but also opened a space to "recast the aesthetic regime as one that enables a wider range of political rivalries" (19).
To see this clearly, Funchion offers a roughly chronological set of readings of a number of nineteenth-century narratives in chapters that set texts in opposition to one another. In the first chapter, for instance, William Wells Brown's Clotel (1853) reveals how blacks used nostalgia to imagine a counter-nationalism that includes them, while Herman Melville's Israel Potter (1855) reveals how the American citizenship is always a kind of enslavement by showing how Potter's nostalgia consigns him to a life of misery. A chapter devoted to the sense of community derived from regionalism explores Augusta Jane Evans's St. Elmo (1866), a novel that nostalgically longs for the South to rise again, in counterpoint to María Amparo Ruiz de Burton's Who Would Have Thought It (1872), which shows how sectional nostalgia creates "exile" as a permanent feature of US cultural and political life. Taking up this thread, the next chapter shows how Hamlin Garland's narratives from the late nineteenth century nostalgically revitalize Jeffersonian agrarianism as a way of crafting a populism that challenges the "economic and literary supremacy of the metropolitan Northeast" (112). Funchion then uses Pauline Hopkins's understudied Contending Forces: Romance of Negro Life North and South (1899) to critique Garland's populism as a kind of nostalgic whitewashing of American culture even as he shows how Hopkins's work uses nostalgia to conjure into being a supranational, global sense of black identity.
The next chapter modulates the argument slightly, investigating what Funchion calls the "left nostalgia" of the turn of the century. Opposing Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906) to Frank Harris's The Bomb (1908), he suggests the way that both texts nostalgically long for a kind of socialism that had been blunted by the rise of industrial capitalism. Yet, as Funchion nicely shows, while Sinclair pushed for a productive restoration of this socialist political community, Harris underscored how violent revolution was the only viable answer to the injustices engendered by the ideology of the Gilded Age.
His final chapter offers a compelling reading of an odd couple—L. Frank Baum and Henry James. In Funchion's reading, both writers tackle the notion of what he calls "cosmopolitan nostalgia." Baum's famous work, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), becomes a political allegory, with Dorothy's nostalgia for Kansas becoming a justification for her "fantastical acts of imperial intervention" (175) in the land of Oz. In a prescient way, James's works, such as The American Scene (1905-06; 1907...