But what did it feel like to be alive back then, when everything or nothing seemed possible? When you lay awake listening to train whistles that weren’t so much noise as a heightening of your bedroom silence? When you smelled woodsmoke, walking home in the early dark?
—Henry Allen, Introduction, What It Felt Like
If this is an Age of Cyberspace, it’s also, perversely, an Age of Nostalgia, which is very different from, perhaps antithetical to, an age in which the study of history is revered. Nostalgia is of all preoccupations the easiest, for it’s a litany of impressions, not a record of fact; it’s under no obligation to be faithful to reality. The recent millennium was a celebration ad nauseam of the twentieth century but the impulse is always with us: nostalgia is a luxurious emotion we feel, after a certain age, for a mostly imagined and highly edited past that seems to us more innocent, therefore more worthy, than the present. It’s the most bittersweet of emotions, predicated upon loss. In an affluent, rapidly changing society, nostalgia is a highly marketable commodity. It’s a pleasant sort of pseudo-pain, or pang; it feels like yearning, like unrequited puppy love, yet with an undercurrent of rage. (For an overvaluing of the past means a devaluing of the present and, very likely, a resistance to contemplating any future at all.) The Greek root of “nostalgia” suggests “homesickness,” but we can assume that the “home” for which we’re sick has been ameliorated by amnesia, like Polaroids that, as they fade, allow us to appear more attractive than we were.
The first ninety-four pages of this palm-sized book by the Washington Post feature writer and editor Henry Allen, encompassing the first six decades of the twentieth century, are a valentine to this vanished, sepia-tinted world, which can be evoked only through a self-conscious act of memory. In his effort to tell us “what it felt like” Henry Allen recalls a younger, more energetic, more naively optimistic America than the one we currently inhabit, in a tour de force of style reminiscent of such diversely inspired works as E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, Paul West’s Portable People, Robert Taylor Jr.’s Loving Belle Starr, those surreal tales of Donald Barthelme that revere, even as they gently mock, bygone days; and Michael Flanagan’s Stations: An Imagined Journey, surely one of the most beautiful of idiosyncratic homages to the American past. Especially, one is reminded of the opening of Doctorow’s bravura novel in Allen’s opening chapter, “1900-1910: Good Years”:
Back when health, wealth, and happiness seemed not possible but inevitable, and there were Gibson girls with their confident, lifted hair and their hands in fur muffs…photographs of families lined up from tallest to shortest, like organ pipes…the whistle of stiff bristle brushes on porch floors…wiseacres saying, “Make like a hoop and roll out of here”…grimy children crippled in textile mills …
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