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My New Book!

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

March 13, 2024: NeMLA Reflections: My Panel on Nostalgia & the 50s

[This past weekend I attended the one scholarly conference I never miss: the Northeast MLA. It was a great time as it always is, so as usual here’s a series of reflections on some of the great work I heard, saw, and shared there! Leading up to a few more reflections on NeMLA as an organization!]

On three takeaways from Vaughn Joy’s excellent panel on “nostalgic extremism” on which I was lucky enough to speak.

1)      The Compelling Concept: I’ve thought a lot over the last decade or so about the role that nostalgia plays in contemporary political narratives like “I want my country back!” and “Make America Great Again,” and since my dissertation/first book my most defining overarching scholarly interest has been in our collective visions of the past. But there’s always more to think about and add into my sense of these topics, and Vaughn’s concept of nostalgic extremism represents a particularly well-developed and helpful perspective on those questions, especially when it comes to idealized visions of the 1950s specifically in late 20th & early 21st century American culture and society. I look forward to spending a lot more time diving into all the ways this concept can help illuminate both individual cultural works, broader social and political debates, and our overall narratives of past and present alike.

2)      My Complex Connection: For this panel, I applied that concept to an analysis of my favorite film, John Sayles’ masterpiece Lone Star (1996; SPOILERS in that hyperlinked post, as there were in my NeMLA talk as well). Most of the flashbacks at the heart of Sayles’ 1990s film focus on 1950s histories, and more exactly on an extremely nostalgically celebrated figure from that earlier era, Sheriff Buddy Deeds. But as I thought about what this new concept could help me analyze in this most-familiar film, I realized that (without getting into as many spoilers here) what its protagonist Sam Deeds learns about his father and the past both challenge some nostalgic myths yet also make the case for embracing others if they can help protect more vulnerable members of the community. Which is to say, I’d argue that there are distinct varieties of nostalgia, like patriotism, and that some are likewise more critical and constructive than others.

3)      Our Continuing Conversations: Besides Vaughn as chair and my talk, the panel also featured two other papers, William Magrino on the Back to the Future films and Eleanor Rambo on the 21st century Russian musical (about a 1950s subculture) Stylyagi. Each offered a unique lens on the 50s, nostalgia, and late 20th and early 21st century cultural works, but what was most interesting to me was the way that all three of our papers, as well as Vaughn’s concept and introduction, intersected around questions of where and how we can trace as well as challenge idealized visions of the past, from a fictional suburban community like Hill Valley to the unique and striking Russian trend known as “bone records” to the connections between familial and civic myths in Sayles’ film. As I’ve thought about throughout my career, narratives of the past are created and challenged in specific cultural conversations, and this panel helped me and all of us think through particular versions of that trend.

Next reflection tomorrow,


PS. If you were at NeMLA, what would you share? If not or in any case, other organizations you’d highlight?

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