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The Nostalgia Trap

From the Archives

The Nostalgia Trap

Sarah Rovang


Happy Fourth of July! I thought I'd use the time off afforded by this patriotic holiday to meditate on a methodological issue I've been encountering with the current chapter that I'm working on, namely that of nostalgia.

This current chapter, Chapter 2, is a bit of an outlier. Past scholarship on the government agency I'm studying, the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) has tended to critique the organization for a variety of reasons (including that it pushed urban values on rural people, primarily benefited those who were already middle class, and was perhaps more concerned with selling refrigerators and washing machines than effecting real social change). Most of my dissertation fits into that picture, showing how architecture, exhibitions, and print media was largely complicit in the REA's corporatist ploys to sell as much electricity (and as many electrified devices) as possible. However, Chapter 2 recounts a brief sequence of events at REA between 1939 and 1943 that do not fit into the established narrative. Indeed, during these years, certain key players including architects, high-ranking staffers, and even the agency's chief administrator, dreamed of creating rural community centers based around REA's own electric cooperatives. Although REA has previously been understood as a mostly apolitical or even slightly conservative agency, these cooperative schemes were unequivocally fueled by a leftist progressivism that flourished among agricultural intellectuals during the late New Deal. As historian Jess Gilbert's fantastic new book Planning Democracy relates, REA was hardly alone among United States agricultural agencies in pushing cooperative planning during that odd pocket of time between roughly 1939 and when the U.S. entered World War II. So as I'm writing this chapter, it seems to have a decidedly different tone than what I've written so far—in my attempt to at least partially redeem REA, I come off if not precisely celebratory than at least nostalgic. Yet, the circumstances that permitted this revived progressivism to thrive were a complicated amalgam involving the late depression economy, the legacy of earlier New Deal agricultural reforms, and the burgeoning national defense planning already well underway by 1940. 

Many historians I know suffer from nostalgia, but this is an affliction not unique to academics. Much contemporary popular media depends on fostering nostalgia for historical periods that its target consumers were not yet alive to experience, as Frederic Jameson and other scholars of postmodernism have duly noted. It's always a sort of pick-and-choose nostalgia. We long for some things but not the others—we want the clothes from Mad Men but not the overt workplace misogyny. Similarly, historians of the New Deal, including myself, look fondly upon federal funding for the arts and the sense of purpose (real or merely perceived) that seemed to drive much legislation and government action during the 1930s and early 1940s. The crushing poverty and endemic unemployment, not so much. 

Nostalgia is particularly seductive when writing a top-down history. Most of my archival evidence comes from REA rather than its cooperative members/customers, and thus contains a definite and one-sided bias. Preventing that bias from carrying over into my writing has proved surprisingly difficult; the funny thing about propaganda is that it works. Even with a healthy dose of skepticism, reading ad copy and editorials and human interest features always wears me down eventually. It can be very hard to sort out what I've actually found in the archives (backed up by correspondence, internal memos, and other sorts of non-public communications) versus what I merely wanted to find—what psychologists call confirmation bias. For Chapter 2, the evidence is really there to support what I'm arguing, but I'm trying to be careful not to exaggerate or blow small evidence out of proportion because I feel more of an emotional attachment to this particular argument.