Nostalgia, it has been said, is a great American disease. Yet an appraisal of the past need not be nostalgia. True nostalgia is “homesickness,” and even the most ardent antiquarian would not so yearn for the past as to want to return completely. In this speeding world, the faster we travel, the farther back we leave our past. We soon find ourselves using all our powers to “keep up with things,” and looking backward at all has become a lost art. Even beholding and evaluating the present becomes difficult.
We have actually come to believe today that we must either progress or retrogress. Each season of existence should be an entirely new one, according to twentieth-century thinking, and there is no such thing as intelligently remaining stationary. Next year’s things, we assume, must necessarily be improvement on this year’s, and to want anything but the newest, brands us as quaint.
Contentment too is considered a bogey in this century. Eugene O’Neill voices this modern opinion, saying, ”One should be either sad or joyful. Contentment is a warm sty for eaters and sleepers.” How different was America two centuries ago when Benjamin Franklin declared that “Contentment is the philosopher’s stone that turns all it touches into gold!”
We often observe that great-grandfather had a knack of enjoying himself that we seem to have lost. It might be that his “seasons for fun” were more independent from his “seasons for work” than ours are today. It might be, too, that he devoted himself more completely to the moment.
That great American privilege and aim, the “pursuit of happiness,” originally involved a now almost obsolete use of the word “happiness.” Then, it meant “blessedness,” or “a state of satisfaction or contentment,” but now it suggests fun. The "pursuit of happiness” which we accept as an American heritage is, it seems too often mistaken for a pursuit of fun. I am alarmed as I agree with Carl Sanburg that “Never was a generation.... told by a more elaborate system of the printed word, billboards, newspapers, magazines, radio, television—to eat more, play more, have more fun.” This, we are led to believe, is an American way, and a recipe for contentment. Yet the time for fun and the time for contentment were two very different seasons in great-grandfather’s mind; and he fared fabulously well with both.
I am indeed grateful for the good things of this age, yet I feel there were certain things of the past which were good and unimprovable, many of which have become lost. It is both my lot and pleasure to look backward, to search the yesterdays for such carelessly discarded wealth. I am forever thankful for living at this time when many of the marks of early America still exist, before that fast-approaching time when they will all have disappeared into a far different landscape.
America, the richest nation in the work, has managed to be the most wasteful. We will be the first to admit this, and there is even pride in our voice. We spend our way into prosperity and out of recessions so that thrift is regarded a way of the past. Across our nation at present is written a record of land wastefulness never equaled in the history of the world. Land is “improved” by destroying it and building over the waste. We always forgive ourselves with the ready excuse that we can afford wastefulness. But there is always a reckoning, and even now we begin to wonder. We might wonder what other wasteful ways of everyday life have also become Americanisms.
The lost seasons of early America may sound like vanished trifles, but in a confused age when the most patriotic American must sometimes grope for words to explain his heritage, or to define “ Americana,” any material which contributes to a better understanding of our past is invaluable, and it is often the apparently small detail which contributes most.
The American heritage, as I see it, is grounded in the freedom and expression of the individual, and individual freedom, I maintain, was a fresher spirit a century or two ago. Individual expression was likewise richer. I believe that freedom becomes stale and expression becomes poor without constant appraisal.
In this age of “arms races” and “ space conquest” the simple, basic philosophy of our past is too often ignored; and when the study of the past is mistaken for nostalgia, beware!
This is from the Author's note in The Seasons of America Past by Eric Sloane, an excellent book as is everything I've read from this author so far. I've had this ready to go in a post for quite a while, but decided to put it in today after a conversation with Tasha Tudor's granddaughter-in-law, Amy Tudor. I'm writing a piece about self sufficiency for Farming magazine and interviewed her about her famous relative. I have a regular column there called The Backyard Herbalist and the editor asked me to write the other self sufficiency piece for the Winter issue. I still have to select the photo to put with the article, but I wanted to write this post up first.
On the sewing front, I completed Abigail's quilted petticoat today. It is brick red on the outside and mustard on the inside. I machine quilted it, which was a first for me, to see if it was feasible to do one for me on the machine. I don't have a walking foot so I don't think I'll do mine that way. My sewing list is shrinking slowly but surely! I want to speak with a certain reader about a fan front gown she made recently, I have some linen that would look well made up thus. ;-)