Romanticizing the Past
Human memory is selective. Depending on what we choose to forget, some idealize earlier times while others trumpet the inevitability of progress. Tension between these worldviews is nothing new. Dickens, a firm believer in progress, mocked the perennial desire to return to a better past. I find these excerpts from his fiction delicious:
. . . they united therefore to resist all change, except such change as would restore those good old English customs, by which they would stand or fall. After illustrating the wisdom of going backward, by reference to that sagacious fish, the crab, and the not unfrequent practice of the mule and the donkey, he described their general objects . . .
- Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge, 1841
“The good old times, the grand old times, the great old times! Those were the times for a bold peasantry, and all that sort of thing. Those were the times for every sort of thing, in fact. There is nothing now-a-days. Ah!” sighed the red-faced gentleman. “The good old times, the good old times!”
The gentleman didn’t specify what particular times he alluded to; nor did he say whether he objected to the present times, from a distinguished consciousness that they had done nothing very remarkable in producing himself.
- Charles Dickens, The Chimes, 1844
11/21/2016 09:15:11 am
Well, Sarah, as a fellow Gemini, you can imagine that I generally welcome change, but at this time of year I do find myself looking to the past with a fair bit of wistfulness.
The trick is to look back selectively. It also makes a difference which time periods and aspects of the past you look back on. Distressed as I am by certain recent events, there are fewer lynchings and fewer infant deaths from infections diseases than in my childhood.
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I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.