Where nostalgia lives

In March 2014 I tried to explain in Town & Gown magazine “why place matters.” Our world is increasingly “flat” and place is seen as less relevant, at least when it comes to commerce. But I think place matters. And some of America’s most special places are its often distinctive college communities:

Literary critic Henry Seidel Canby (and father of folklorist Edward T. Canby) observed as long ago as 1936 that “it is amazing that neither history, nor sociology, nor fiction, has given more than passing attention to the American college town, for surely it has had a character and personality unlike other towns.”

I was reflecting on this recently when walking along College Avenue in State College, Pennsylvania. College Avenue divides the Penn State campus and the Borough of State College. Along a major stretch there’s this little stone wall, and near where the lawn of Penn State’s Old Main reaches College Avenue, the Class of 1915 carved out a section of the wall for its memorial gift.

One of the reasons that place matters is because nostalgia often lives there. Nostalgia’s often found lurking in specific places, and washes back over us in unexpected moments. It’s definitely true that this happens metaphorically, but I think nostalgia’s most powerful pull happens physically. But what is nostalgia, really? Just a longing for the past from someone who sees the world a bit more colorfully than it really is?

I think it’s something else, and I lean on Katherine Miller‘s description from a few years ago that’s stuck with me:

Nostalgia by itself is fake, illusory charm, sure, but nostalgia in the context of reality is an entirely different thing. Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote an entire book about it, basically. … Nostalgia in the context of reality offers moral clarity. It might not be exact science, but it’s the ethos and the pathos of the day. It’s a positive vision, and not positive in the “Let’s all go down to the Christmas tree and sing ‘Welcome Christmas’ even though we don’t have any gifts or food!” sense, positive in the active, concrete sense. It explains what it isn’t at hand in the here and now, but perhaps, what was and what could be — an external representation of our values. … nostalgia, in the context of reality, tells us what we don’t have.

I think America’s colleges towns are important (and often beloved) not just because they were the settings for some great years in our youth. I think they’re important because, like nostalgia, college towns often “tell us what we don’t have” and consequently equip us with “a positive vision” for what we might enjoy once more.

This is too abstract, so let me break it down. When I walk down College Avenue and sit on that stone bench, I’m sitting in a place where my grandfather sat at one point nearly 70 years ago. I’m sitting in a place where my cousin sat nearly 20 years ago. And maybe my children or theirs will sit there at some point.

We’re so socially, economically, and physically mobile today that most of us don’t have fixed, solid places like this to root our experiences. Where is the family farm that’s been with us for generations? Where is the tree in the yard planted decades ago? Where is the room in the house where your great grandmother once softly sang as the leaves of that tree rustled in twilight?

We lack these things. We move. We die. And thousands of experiences and stories are fragmented as a result. It becomes difficult to remember what we’re doing here.

In the context of the reality of this daily life, college towns and the little places they contain like College Avenue’s stone bench tell us what we don’t have. We probably won’t recover most of the beautiful little experiences of yesterday’s America, but at least in our college towns we are often presented with some of the life we’ve lost and reminded we can have it again, even if just for a pleasant visit.

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