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Southerners, unite. It's time we put a stop to pernicious innovations. Even nostalgia is not what it used to be. In the good old days, I'll have you know, "nostalgia" was just a fancy term for homesickness. Nowadays, in an unforgivable neologism, linguistic barbarians define it as sentimental longing for times past. How dare they tamper with nostalgia? If you don't believe me, check the Oxford English Dictionary. O tempora! O mores!
While we fight that rearguard action, however, we might as well admit that nostalgia by either definition has long been a standard option on southern sensibilities. Before the "late unpleasantness," for example, popular romances portrayed the plantation as a fond anachronism that was sadly doomed to fade against the pressure of modernity. Decades ago, critic William Taylor aptly pegged these images [End Page 1] as efforts to soothe the sting of booming northern capitalism by contrasting it with a kinder, gentler South. Nostalgia of place and time also suffused the nineteenth-century minstrel show, especially in famous tunes like "Carry Me Back to Ol' Virginny," "Old Folks at Home," and "My Old Kentucky Home." And we all remember that pensive line from the most famous minstrel tune of all: "Old times there are not forgotten." Fed by sentiments like these, some people could ignore the plantation's real brutality and start feeling nostalgic for the Old South before it was even old.
Both as homesickness and as longing for the good old days, nostalgia is still a powerful force in southern culture. The minstrel show is gone, but southern singers still "wanta go home," as Flatt and Scruggs put it. For while southerners are famously attached to place, migration and dispersal have been central to their modern experience, from the African American Great Migration to the lesser known journeys that took whites to outposts like Bakersfield, California. The resulting regrets transcend the usual racial barriers—compare the passenger on the "Midnight Train to Georgia," who is "goin' back to find the simpler place and time," to "The Man of Constant Sorrow," whose troubles started when he "bid farewell to old Kentucky, the place where [he] was born and raised."
Nostalgia isn't necessarily a bad thing. Some of it's just plain inevitable, as when parents try to pass along memories to baffled children. Bland Simpson starts this issue off with a beautiful example of that kind of nostalgia, as he tells the story of Machelhe Island, located in the Pasquotank River near Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Simpson grew up on that river, and in this excerpt from his latest book, he reflects on his memories of the place and the many barriers between those memories and the perceptions of his son. Simpson's admiration for times past is palpable but realistic, as he reviews the human procession of Indians, slaves, boatmen, and industrialists who have passed along the Pasquotank for centuries. He does not seem to want to return to past time so much as to honor the people who struggled then by holding them in memory. Simpson struggles with the difficulty of conveying all these fading memories to his boy, but I think he will succeed. After all, Simpson learned these stories from others before him, and with his help, we and his son can do the same.
Nostalgia has an innate affinity for the natural world. Beloved memories always seem to lean toward times when things were cleaner, greener, and purer than they are in the world of industry and pollution. But industry has now been around the South for a pretty long time, and if you look at Bland Simpson's memories closely, the Pasquotank's industrial past seems more prominent than its older wildness. Whether it's the exhausted oyster beds or the bankrupt lumber mill or the vanished boat traffic, Simpson keeps evoking the people who tried to get rich off his river, some succeeding for a time...