As many previous stories and essays prove, I appreciate and even love living in Kansas, in the American Heartland. Earlier, I wrote 36 enthusiast chapters about the history of, and present day life in, the Flint Hills, this last remaining of the original tallgrass prairies on the American continent. After five years of jubilation I think it’s appropriate to let hear a more critical voice. As many previous stories and essays prove, I appreciate and even love living in Kansas, in the American Heartland. Earlier, I wrote 36 enthusiast chapters about the history of, and present day life in, the Flint Hills, this last remaining of the original tallgrass prairies on the American continent. After five years of jubilation I think it’s appropriate to let hear a more critical voice. This episode is accompanied by a “prairie piece” created by Hilary Lorenz, a New York painter and printmaker I met in Kansas while she was on her way to, surprise, my previous hide-out, Abiquiu, New Mexico, where she’d recently established her second home and studio. The work is called ‘Lizard’.
The new N-word and Bubba-ville
I don’t look back in anger. I tend to look back with joy. I am an essentially nostalgic guy who is not at all afraid of living, if only for a short moment, in the past. The mood arises unexpectedly; suddenly there is an overwhelming sense of something from long ago, something that is part of my personal experience, something important, or maybe not really. A situation, an event, a location. An atmosphere. A memory triggered by—what? A sound, a smell, a color, a texture. And there I am, a clear sufferer of nostalgia and enjoying every second of it, for as long as it lasts. Wrong word: I am not a sufferer, for nostalgia isn’t a disease, or is it, this mental state “central to human experience”? * I want to include you in a little bit of my own nostalgia as an introduction to a wider approach of the subject. The following is one of my favorites among the memories I call exclusively mine.
Nostalgia takes me back to the days of the early 1960s, before the beginning of the youth culture, when most Dutch people still went to bed at ten and all trams in my hometown, The Hague, stopped riding just before midnight. After midnight the streets were deserted. If my friends and I had planned what, then, we considered to be a “wild” evening, we would spend it in The Hague’s beach town Scheveningen where one jazz café and one small dance hall had for those days late closing hours, at one and two a.m. respectively. Afterwards, we went to the beach first and then, with all public transport at a standstill, we had to walk home (our little group was averse to bicycling). Those lazy walks at dawn, with five, six miles to go along deserted avenues and streets with no one else around and only two or three cars passing us at that hour (car ownership in Holland still not being common)—those lazy walks were magical experiences. I can still see the sun rise, I can smell the salt lingering in the air and intensifying the stillness through which we were glad to walk undisturbed–we, the only ones in town, “alive”… Maybe this is why today I prefer to rise late: to avoid any spectacular sunrise that would reactivate my nostalgia.
Nostalgia can be funny. Even cigarette smoke can cause it. I recently learned of someone who, as a teenager working part time in a supermarket, fell in love with a somewhat older girl who worked full time and who did not reject his attentions. To hide their workplace romance, he took up smoking so they could take a break together. They let their young hearts run free in the sole environments offering privacy at the job, the toilet and, sometimes, the freezer where the meats were kept. He found this romantic until he thought he’d caught arthritis in his immobile knuckles. He stopped smoking after the affair had ended but, of course, couldn’t prevent being exposed to the tobacco aromas puffed into the air by the persisting nicotine addicts of his acquaintance. And then…
Nostalgia is essentially an individual experience. Everyone has at least one nostalgic memory to cherish that can repeatedly be reproduced, one vivid autobiographical recall. Nostalgic memories can last a lifetime, which is good because, as the psychologists say, nostalgia can also act as an “inbuilt neurological defense mechanism … to protect us against negative thoughts and situations.”
Today I am living in Matfield Green, Kansas. It has been almost six years already since I landed and settled here, in the heart of the Flint Hills, practically in the geographic center of the United States. I have found that in the Heartland nostalgia is king. It is as if many of the people living in its predominantly rural areas cannot escape from reliving the past. Strangely enough, quite often, as I have found, it is not about remembering something from their own lives’ history. No, there is more going on. In the Heartland, in states such as Kansas, Nebraska, eastern Colorado, Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle, nostalgia is foremost fired by old family history, by tales repeatedly told by grandparents, by lingering dreams, by romances and melancholies built up over generations—by factual or invented deeds of ancestors that have grown to mythical proportions. The great-grandchildren of the settlers and many of their children as well are proud of these ancestors, whose lives all too often are idolized. I have never so closely experienced a population with their individual nostalgia so much driven by the experiences of others. Maybe it is because the lines of men and women sprung from the land remained unbroken for so long that they captured the fascinating attention of posterity.
The Heartlanders do not differ much from people elsewhere in that all “inherited” past, true or false, can become a strong group experience: shared memories lead to collective nostalgic moments. These special moments can be sincere, of course, but are also drawn out by commerce–there proves to be a market waiting to be fed with the good stories; there’s a vacuum to fill and keep filled with nostalgic thoughts. It is not just Hollywood that helped to create a collective nostalgia-prone culture. Marketers have long understood the power of nostalgia and created many an artificial feeling to manipulate it. They continue to do this relentlessly; most historical information such as supplied by tourist bureaus and local chambers of commerce, or rewritten by individual producers, is homogenizing most people’s sense of the past by making all tales sound local–tales that would be unrecognizable to our ancestors. Politicians, these marketers par excellence, understand the power of nostalgia as no others. Worst case happened of course in Europe in the 1930s, when “a wish to reclaim both true and twisted historical facts and traditions originating from ancient gloomy forests enjoyed by gnomes and axe-wielding Ur-German heroes laid the pagan foundations of Nazism.” **
Next worse case is more recent and puts Mike Huckabee in the spotlight, one of the legions of Republican candidates opting to follow in Obama’s shoes. He wrote what Gail Collins *** called “his entry in the presidential book-writing sweepstakes,” titled ‘God, Grits, Guns and Gravy’. By the way, Collins said, “I read it so you don’t have to.” She also mentioned we have to be impressed by this guy whose oeuvre includes ‘Can’t Wait Till Christmas’ and ‘Kids Who Kill’. Anyway, in his newest book Huckabee rants about the good old days in the American Heartland he lovingly calls Bubba-ville (as opposite to Bubble-ville, those badlands on both coasts). In Bubba-ville the real people live and kids build forts out of cardboard boxes and men don’t cuss in front of a woman. Of course Huckabee is one of the humble Bubbas: “If people don’t put pepper sauce on their black-eyed peas or order fried green tomatoes for an appetizer, I probably won’t relate to them,” this wannabe statesman writes, and he adds “I really don’t feel comfortable around people who have never fired a gun, never fished with a cane pole, never cooked with propane, or never changed a tire.” The world stage is really waiting for leadership from guys like Huckabee. Breathlessly.
Luckily, not all group nostalgia leads to devastation or BS. Nevertheless, there are disadvantages to consider. If, as in the Heartland, traditions become stimulated (sometimes artificially stimulated) by group behavior that declares them “sacred” and to be kept alive, then nostalgia develops into a rare kind of folklore. Old lifestyles are revered; the compulsive celebrating of non-events called “historic” dominates life. Nostalgia becomes a force that leads communities to conservatism and stasis, to fear of anything that has to do with real renewal; somehow “a substantial percentage of their population become so self-centered in their nostalgia that they are practically incapable of estimating others, beyond the framework of their own limits, or of recognizing the existence anywhere of talents that are not their own.” Then nostalgia becomes a word, as said a dear Kansas-born friend of mine, that is almost as bad as gangrene.
This obsessive behavior displays the symptoms of what Douglas Coupland **** once defined as “legislated nostalgia—the condition formed within groups of people growing up with monochrome conformity, who have memories they do not actually possess, based on life stories in circumstances that have never been surpassed or repeated.” Many communities of the mostly agrarian Heartland have never been in flux since the old settlement days. They cling to their attachment to the soil and their ancestors’ adventurous and inspiring past, forgetting that in the old days of small, remote communities the main element of social cohesion was boredom. Yet many Heartlanders tend to accept “the legitimacy of everything consecrated in the past,” because it seems that what is old must be the outcome of great, admirable labor and experience, because “the daily routine of work, the soothing force of habit quells every storm.” Precaution directs many towards their decisions; tenacity holds them on the path to familiar accomplishments. They are “always open to doubt whether an innovation produces in the end more gain than loss” and outsider interference of any kind is received as an undesired intrusion.
Also, the Heartland forms a breed made haughty by an awareness of its insignificance in the greater world of affairs—of its low esteem, its not so favorable image (they well know that on both coasts they are called the “Flyover People”). This haughtiness adds to their dislike of what is new. Conformity of idea or manner becomes the ideal. This induces a cultural climate inhospitable to ideas in which are planted and nourished the seeds that grow into renewal. “Thus nostalgia, by combining the weakness of sentimentality with the stubbornness of conviction, becomes a force that prevents progress.”
Collective mental time travel, what I learned to call romantiquarianism, blooms in the Heartland. A future different from what’s behind will only come within reach, I believe, if the Heartlanders decide that the past is not a refuge from the present, but just a means of understanding and enjoying it; if they go beyond their nostalgic comfort zone. That’s why I hope this type of nostalgia will become the new “N”-word. With which I am not saying that each of us individuals shouldn’t continue to cherish our wonderful memories in private. Or do as I do and sleep in late.
* Most quotations from research by A. Sedikides and T. Wildschut (University of North Carolina, USA; University of Southampton, UK).
** Simon Winder, ‘Germania—In Wayward Pursuit of the Germans and their History’.
*** In the New York Times.
**** Quoted in The Guardian Weekly.
Ton Haak, March 2015