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Nailed Down to the Past: Nostalgia, Masculinity, and Corporeality in American Literature, 1900-1950

  • Author(s): Greenwell, Jeffrey Craig
  • Advisor(s): Kinney, Katherine A.
  • et al.


Nailed Down to the Past: Nostalgia, Masculinity, and Corporeality in American Literature, 1900-1950


Jeffrey Craig Greenwell

Doctor of Philosophy, Graduate Program in English

University of California, Riverside, August 2011

Professor Katherine Kinney, Chairperson

This dissertation will argue that, in addition to the widespread popular cultural perception of nostalgia as a saccharine, lachrymose phenomenon in which people yearn for an ostensibly kinder, gentler time, a number of early twentieth-century literary texts note how white males use nostalgia to express anxiety whenever apparent threats to their power manifest themselves as marginalized individuals' endeavoring for progress. Whereas progress looks forward and attempts to improve upon the past, nostalgia looks back, regarding the past as the ideal which must be reproduced.

An introduction discusses the historical development and evolution of nostalgia as concept. Each of the four chapters discusses a characteristic of nostalgia as manifested in texts by Faulkner, Weldon Johnson, Cather, Fitzgerald, Dreiser, and Chesnutt. The first chapter describes depression insofar as nostalgic individuals exhibit an unhappiness with the present circumstances in which they find themselves. Such misery results from an inconsistency between the nostalgically idealized vision of the past and the disappointing present. The second chapter addresses desire, noting that nostalgic people yearn for a better past precisely because of their disappointment and frustration. Desire can never be fully satisfied, even when people obtain what they believe they want.

The third chapter addresses destruction directed inward; individuals unable to imagine a future conforming neatly to their vision of the world as it should be--and presumably was in the past--believe they have no other choice than to commit suicide.

When individuals blame the incoherence between the desired past and unsatisfactory present on others, they direct the destruction outward--the final chapter's focus. In death, the memories of individuals consigned to discursive oblivion or physical death or both are preserved by those who destroy them in ways that maintain white males' advantage in power asymmetries. A conclusion considers how to apply the features of nostalgia analyzed in this dissertation to the literature published in the 1950s and 1960s.

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