The recent surge of nostalgia in American politics and popular culture has motivated scholars across humanities disciplines to ask whether the emotion can be a means of creatively redefining national identity, or if it inevitably reinforces reactionary visions of cultural heritage. Svetlana Boym’s monograph The Future of Nostalgia (2001) set the terms of this debate, defending the creative potential of a passive “reflective” nostalgia, while critiquing the reactionary tendencies of “restorative” nostalgia, which drives a political agenda. While most subsequent studies have concurred with Boym’s assessment, Modernism and Nostalgia (2013), edited by Tammy Clewell, suggests that the politics of nostalgia may be more nuanced than Boym supposes, particularly in light of the modernist movement’s conflicted political and historical vision. Yet scholars have largely overlooked nostalgia’s role in modernist literature, particularly modernist poetry.
My project, the first extended study of nostalgia’s relationship to modernist poetics, argues that the modernist epic, with its fragmentary forms and vast allusive range, exhibits a mode of nostalgia that disrupts linear cultural tradition in favor of layering and juxtaposing the past and present. I term this longing for the past of a place one already inhabits “archaeological nostalgia.” The methodological lens of literary form illuminates how these texts seek neither to abandon nor to reconstruct the past, rather striving to preserve and reclaim it.
Chapter 1 considers James Joyce’s paradigmatic modernist epic, Ulysses (1922), reading its meticulous reconstruction of 1904 Dublin as a nostalgic return to the author’s homeland and childhood. The text juxtaposes everyday experience with ancient epic, thereby sidestepping a xenophobic account of national heritage while retaining the resonance of mythic parallels; in other words, it rejects an unhealthy obsession with the past through its use of nostalgia.
Chapter 2 deals with Mina Loy’s Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose (1923–25), which satirizes conventionally nostalgic images like childhood, courtship, and the English countryside, while nonetheless returning nostalgically to moments of personal illumination experienced by the young protagonist and her father. This nostalgic, epiphanic individualism facilitates Loy’s critique of narrow accounts of Englishness along with her exploration of her own cultural identity.
Chapter 3 examines how T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (1936–42) and Lynette Roberts’ Gods with Stainless Ears (1951) respond to the violence of World War II, by composing long poems which construct an image of national heritage through fragmentary images of local culture and the submerged national past. Eliot and Roberts carried on a significant correspondence during the period, but almost nothing has been written about the connections between their work.
Chapter 4 considers David Jones’ The Anathemata (1952) in terms of his theory of art as re-presentation, concluding that for Jones, poetry is inevitably a nostalgic process. This is particularly the case for poets in the twentieth century, who in Jones’ view must assemble the fragments of the cultural past as a means of resisting the increasingly utilitarian nature of modern culture.
Ultimately, these authors, all of them displaced or alienated in some way, use nostalgia to redefine their national identities, disrupting rigid accounts of heritage. By resisting the initial urge to absolve or indict nostalgia’s politics, and focusing instead on its relationship with epic form, the project offers a new account of the emotion’s cultural possibilities. In developing this account of productive nostalgia, moreover, it sheds light on modernism’s equivocal relationship to the past and the nation, while providing a standard against which humanities scholars can assess our own, highly nostalgic, cultural moment.