- Reclaiming Nostalgia: Longing for Nature in American Literature by Jennifer K. Ladino
Jennifer K. Ladino sets up a difficult task for herself in Reclaiming Nostalgia: Longing for Nature in American Literature. Though heavily featured in much environmentally themed writing, nostalgia as an affective and activist tool has been largely maligned by critics and scholars. Ladino acknowledges that nostalgia can be problematic; it has been used to elide complexity, mask inequality, and construct a romanticized and decontextualized past. Yet in this book she makes a compelling case that nostalgia can be and has been strategically deployed for more progressive purposes.
Ladino offers detailed analyses of several American texts spanning roughly the last one hundred years, each of which subtly reveals what she calls “counter-nostalgia”—not the opposite of nostalgia, but rather a “tactical reappropriation” of nostalgic tropes in order to contest “dominant histories and [reflect] critically on the present” (15, 16). Using a green cultural studies approach, Ladino alternates between chapters focused on literary texts and interchapters that provide historical and cultural contextualization. For example, the first paired interchapter and chapter contrast Yosemite’s “Indian Field Days” in the early twentieth century with Zitkala-Ša’s American Indian Stories. The Field Days demonstrate how nostalgia has been used to reinforce stereotypes of Indians as primitive, savage, and culturally homogeneous. Zitkala-Ša, however, inverts the civilization/savagery binary by counter-nostalgically aligning Indians with nature, humanizing and celebrating them, and thus resisting hegemonic narratives of progress and assimilation. Similarly, Ladino [End Page 134] argues in chapter 4 that N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn challenges frontier and imperialistic nostalgia, instead proposing a forward-looking counter-nostalgia for a Native-inspired land ethic. Chapter 2 places Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem (and the Harlem Renaissance generally) against the backdrops of racialized southern agrarianism, nostalgic pastoralism, and diasporic longing. McKay’s counter-nostalgia reveals real instead of imagined history and highlights rather than obscures the inequalities of the present.
In chapter 3 Ladino pairs Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold to assert that while both authors draw on well-known narratives of nostalgia for vanishing natural purity, each does so strategically, deploying anticipatory nostalgia to affectively enlarge readers’ circle of ethical consideration. Chapters 5 and 6 examine the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, when “end of nature” rhetoric sparks ironized nostalgia in Don DeLillo’s White Noise, which destabilizes boundaries between nature and culture and critiques social and environmental problems. Ruth Ozeki’s All Over Creation similarly challenges boundaries and nostalgically celebrates hybridity while critiquing modern agribusiness and the homogenizing effects of global capitalism.
Given the breadth of her study, Ladino achieves surprising depth in her analysis. Because of this breadth some early threads are not carried throughout the book, such as the idea that nostalgia should be “re-placed” into a physical rather than solely temporal conceptualization. Ultimately, she argues strongly that nostalgia is far more complex than we have thus far recognized. While some may not be convinced that the potential good that strategic nostalgia can achieve outweighs its problems, Reclaiming Nostalgia opens a long-overdue conversation about the implications of nostalgia for American environmental literature.