The Challenges of Writing a History of Nostalgia Set in the Age of Democratic Revolutions

This post is a part of our “Challenging Democratic Revolutions” series, which explores the ways in which democratic ideologies challenged Old Regimes and how revolutionaries challenged notions of democratic liberty.

By Seth Cotlar

A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

–Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History (1940)[1]

This entire book was written in the grip of a kind of religious terror occasioned in the soul of the author by the sight of this irresistible revolution, which for centuries now has surmounted every obstacle and continues to advance amid the ruins it has created…To wish to arrest democracy would then seem tantamount to a struggle against God himself, and nations would have no choice but to accommodate to the social state imposed on them by Providence…A world that is totally new demands a new political science. To this need, however, we have given little thought. Immersed in a rapidly flowing stream, we stubbornly fix our eyes on the few pieces of debris still visible on the shore, while the current carries us away and propels us backward into the abyss.

–Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835)[2]

We can fact check Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and criticize his penchant for grandiose overstatement all we want, but for me, the book’s ironic, at times even tragic depiction of historical change continues to make it a compelling read.  In an era when most of his contemporaries were writing teleological, self-congratulatory narratives about the unfolding glory of a chosen nation, Tocqueville’s relationship to his subject was far more emotionally complicated.  He regarded the global and national processes of democratization pushed forward by the Age of Revolutions as irresistible, yet not inevitably beneficent.  His writing managed to convey a sense of both dread and wonder, with neither emotion ever entirely predominating. It is, in part, Tocqueville’s chastened uncertainty about the future that has endeared him to generations of historians.

Although Tocqueville refused to resolve his ambivalent feelings about the sublime, socio-political dynamics of democratization, he was quite adamant about one thing. He had no patience for the sensibility we today would call nostalgia.  Democracy in America can be read as an extended warning to his fellow aristocrats and other men of letters who felt tempted to stand athwart history and yell “stop.” Tocqueville feared that if people like him allowed themselves to indulge in defeatist, nostalgic fantasies about a return to a pre-democratic era, they would forfeit their obligation to shape the world’s future.  “Immersed in a rapidly flowing stream, we stubbornly fix our eyes on the few pieces of debris still visible on the shore, while the current carries us away and propels us backward into the abyss.”  That enchanting “debris” on the shore consisted of the vestiges of the old order which the forces of democratization had demolished, but not yet reduced to unrecognizable rubble.  Tocqueville readily admitted that the river of time was a destructive force, especially when viewed from the vantage point of people like himself.  But his greatest fear was that his readers (and perhaps he himself) would become seduced by the fantasy that one could, like Don Quixote, simply pull one’s boat out of the river and return to some unchanging place outside of time until, perhaps, the river receded. Tocqueville allowed himself to feel many conflicting emotions about the historical processes he so eloquently limned, but nostalgia was decidedly not one of them.

I began my career writing about the democratic idealism inspired by Thomas Paine, one of the most forward-looking, optimistic revolutionaries of the Age of Revolutions and one of those people who Tocqueville would have regarded as an eager paddler down the democratic stream. I am now working on a book about nostalgia in the era between the American Revolution and the Civil War. Put most simply, I’ve moved from studying optimistic rationalists like Paine who thought “we have it in our power to begin the world over again,”[3] to studying the melancholic sentimentalists who pined for aspects of ‘the olden days’ that had been rendered obsolete by modernity’s creative destruction.

As someone socialized into the modern discipline of history, there are powerful epistemological currents—almost as forceful as Benjamin’s “storm blowing in from paradise” or Tocqueville’s “rapidly flowing stream”—that propel me to see these two projects of mine as diametrically opposed to each other, as two mutually exclusive sides of the same historical coin.  Two stories flow out of the Age of Revolutions, one about democratic progress and the other about conservative reaction—one about the people who pushed Humpty Dumpty off the wall and the other about the people who mournfully but fruitlessly wished he could be put back together again. Paine and his Humpty-pushing compatriots moved history toward the present, while the backward-looking nostalgics sought in vain to hold back those forces that were generating an ever freer, an ever-more equal, and an ever-more democratic future that was contained, in embryo, in the principles of the eighteenth century’s great revolutions. Or so the story goes.

I will grant that the above caricature of the historical profession is not entirely fair. Historians have long been self-reflective about the problematic nature of such Whiggish meta-narratives about progress and its antagonists, yet we still struggle to get free of them.  As E.H. Carr playfully noted in What is History?, the historian who literally wrote the book on “Whig History,” Herbert Butterfield, ,turned around a decade later and wrote a fairly Whiggish book entitled The Englishman and his History.[4] As a discipline that seeks to understand change and produces narratives that require protagonists and antagonists, it is exceedingly difficult to resist framing our stories around heroic forward thinkers and the anachronistic, nostalgic cranks who either foolishly opposed them or just “lost the plot” and wandered off into escapist fantasy lands of the past. Writing “serious” history as a modern historian has usually required one to follow Tocqueville’s injunction to dismiss nostalgia as an anachronistic hold-over, a weakness, a failure to see the world “as it really is.”

For this reason, historians have rarely regarded the nostalgic subjects of the past as historical informants and agents with legitimate insight and knowledge. People who refused to adopt modern technology or who donned styles of dress from the olden days or who longed to recapture a preferable past have been depicted as Luddites, eccentrics, or fuzzy-headed sentimentalists. In 2018, however, as good old fashioned bicycles and scooters are becoming ever more common on city streets; as increasing numbers of young people take up knitting, canning, home brewing and other supposedly “obsolete” forms of DIY culture; and as backyard chickens and farmers’ markets sprout up in record numbers, we might start to wonder whether it’s entirely fair to dismiss such backward-looking, yet creative responses to over-consumption and climate change as expressions of a politically-vapid, escapist nostalgia. Indeed, I would argue that the modernist impulse to regard the past largely as a graveyard of obsolescence has prevented us from seeing the myriad ways in which the supposed “ruins” of the past have long served as a reservoir of ideas people have drawn on to critique the limitations of the present order and to imagine preferable futures.  What if time isn’t a Tocquevillian river that flows solely in one direction and leaves only useless debris in its wake? How else might we write and think about the nostalgic, backward glances that most modern subjects have cast while being ineluctably propelled “backward into the abyss?”

In my efforts to rescue the nostalgic sensibility of the early American republic from the Tocquevillian condescension of posterity, to figure out how to write about nostalgia as a modern cultural sensibility meaningfully engaged with the world rather than detached from it, I have found some inspiration in what I admit might be a fairly idiosyncratic reading of Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Concept of History.

From Benjamin’s vantage point, writing in 1940 as he desperately tried to survive the intensifying fascist storm, the Age of Revolution’s enchanting promise of progress had entirely lost its sheen. The idyll of progress had come to look less like an inspirational and generative polestar, and more like an agent of destructive chaos that had left indiscriminate piles of debris in its wake. Benjamin’s “Angel of History” is turned toward the past, just like Tocqueville’s boaters on the river of democratization. And like the people in Tocqueville’s boat, Benjamin’s Angel of History is terrified by what he sees, and he can’t help but fixate on the debris which history has piled all around him.  But where Tocqueville held out hope that the historical trajectory he perceived could be bent toward a positive future, Benjamin’s backward glance, from his vantage point in the horrible year of 1940, rejected any such optimistic teleology. Benjamin saw a history comprised almost entirely of catastrophic destruction, and almost no life-giving creativity.

But Benjamin was not a complete pessimist. He saw glimmers of liberatory hope. This hope resided not in some imagined, modernist future yet to unfold. Rather it lay scattered amongst the ruins of history awaiting our discovery.  The ruins of the past that Tocqueville dismissed as meaningless distractions, Benjamin regarded as a potential gold mine of practices and ideas that could be brought back to life so as to provide meaningful hope and insight in the present. “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was’ (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger…Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins.”[5] Benjamin seems to be saying that the people in the present and the past that we should be listening to are those whose memories flashed up in a moment of danger, people who were terrified by a historical dynamic impacting their lives and were moved to recall something of value that was in the process of being destroyed. Those supposedly obsolete ruins, the many objects of nostalgic desires past, thus possess truth value because they tell us something important about the historical power dynamics of creation and destruction that led up to our current point in history. The longing backward glance, thus, is not necessarily escapist and reactionary as Tocqueville would have it. The moment that a nostalgic emotion “flashes up,” might be the very moment when someone glimpses the “spark of hope in the past” that can help them find a way to defeat a present enemy and start to build a better future, whatever that enemy or that future might be.

What Benjamin taught me was to distrust Tocqueville’s modernist disdain for nostalgia, a disdain which most subsequent American historians have also embraced. While the dominant, public transcript of the early American republic may have foregrounded the creative dimensions of modernity’s destruction, the upsurge of nostalgia in that era (the subject of my current book project) gave voice to the destructive elements of that process: the experiences of dislocation, harm, and loss that the most avid modernizers preferred to ignore or actively suppress.  Writing a fuller, more honest history of Tocqueville’s era thus requires us to listen sympathetically (though not uncritically) to the nostalgic voices he so insistently wanted us to ignore, to find out what, in all of its complexity, people were talking about when they talked about ‘the olden days.’  What I hope will emerge is something we might call a vernacular history of modernity, a history of emotions that enables us to make sense of the ambivalence, melancholy, and loss that generated Antebellum America’s culture of nostalgia.

Seth Cotlar is a Professor of History at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. His book, Tom Paine’s America: The Rise and Fall of Transatlantic Radicalism in the Early Republic (2011), was awarded the James Broussard Best First Book Prize by the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic.  He is the co-editor (with Richard J. Ellis) of a collection of essays entitled Historian in Chief: How Presidents Interpret the Past to Control the Future (Forthcoming, University of Virginia Press).  His current book project is entitled “When the Olden Days Were New: The Cultural History of Nostalgia in Modernizing America, 1776-1860.”

Title image: Paul Klee, Angelus Novus, 1920.


[1] Accessed at on 26 August 2018.

[2] Democracy in America, trans. Arthur Goldhammer, (2004), V. 1, p. 7.

[3] Thomas Paine, Common Sense, 3rd ed. (1776) accessed at on 26 August 2018.

[4] E.H. Carr, What is History?, (1961), p. 50-1.

[5]Walter Benjamin, “On the Philosophy of History,” accessed at on 26 August 2018.

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