Tag Archives: Nostalgia

Todd Starnes, Fox News, and Nostalgia’s Twisted History

Tod Starnes, the epitomome of American manhood, thinks the Doobie Brothers never smoked weed.

Fleshy Fox News gas geyser Todd Starnes, the epitome of American manhood, thinks the Doobie Brothers never smoked weed. Isn’t that precious.

It’s a fairly well-established trope in American politics that conservatives are overly obsessed with the past. Anyone whose ever spent time experiencing the ear-invading ceti-eel that is conservative talk-radio, or viewing the idiot-box propaganda that is Fox News knows that conservatives love to reference a past that was invariably better than the allegedly freedom-crushing nightmare of the Obama era.

For those to the right of the political spectrum, the space-time continuum is defined by two — and only two — eras: before and after the authoritarian reign of Barack Obama. And, of course, the era before Obama’s conquest was much better (and whiter). That’s because conservatives imagine the past to be a simpler, morally superior time, and they want to return to that time pronto!

The problem with yearning for a more wholesome (and by extension, less liberal) time is that such a time never actually existed. The idea of a simpler American past over which right-wingers salivate like golden retrievers anticipating a bag of Beggin’ Strips is, in fact, a past constructed from nostalgia.

In his classic article “Nostalgia and the American,” the historian Arthur Dudden defined nostalgia as “a preference for things as they are believed to have been.”* Conservatives use nostalgia to rally their followers (usually, but not exclusively, grey-haired, government-hating medicare beneficiaries) into supporting Republican political candidates who promise to destroy liberalism and bring America back to a mythical time when the federal government was non-existent and most people lived in a version of Andy Griffith’s Mayberry, went to church every day, and didn’t have to deal with teh gayz.

Case in point: Todd Starnes — a pasty cross between Lou Dobbs and Lewis from Revenge of the Nerds who regularly serves as Fox News’ resident front-line correspondent for the non-existent “culture wars” — has written a new book that uses nostalgia to condemn all-things liberal. Brilliantly titled God Less America: Real Stories from the Front Lines of the Attack on Traditional Values (conservatives don’t do irony), Starnes’ book is a standard collection of right-wing boilerplate describing the so-called assault on Christian values by the ever-expanding army of liberal heathens who are apparently intent on dragging the U.S. into a hellish orgy of critical thinking and secularism.

In most respects, Starnes’ screed differs little from the stack of conservative polemics published by the (now-threatened) right-wing book industry on a yearly basis that warn of America’s impending slide into moral anarchy. But Starnes’ book is notable thanks to its unbelievable reliance on hackneyed nostalgic clichés to describe a completely fictitious American past in which conservatism reigned supreme and that Barack Obama took away.

As this Andy Griffith statue in Raleigh, North Carolina demonstarte, the myth of a Mayberry-style small town still shapes American identity.

As this Andy Griffith statue in Raleigh, North Carolina demonstrates, the myth of a Mayberry-style small town still shapes American identity.

Andrew Kirell over at Mediaite first alerted me to the truly Shaksperian verbiage contained within Starnes’ mighty tome, and he dares people to actually get through the first six pages without bursting into uncontrollable (and possibly dangerous) fits of laughter. Take these paragraphs from Starnes’ Introduction,* in which the Fox News poet layeth down the corn-pone characteristics that defined his humble youth in small-town America:

I grew up in a much simpler time — when blackberry was a pie and dirty dancing meant somebody forgot to clean out the barn for the square dance. It was a time when father still knew best — when the girls were girls and the men were men. I grew up in a time when a rainbow was a sign of God’s promise, not gay rights.


When I grew up, spam was something you ate and a hard drive was the twelve-hour trip to grandma’s house without any bathroom breaks. It was a time when a virus was cleared up with a bowl of chicken soup, not the Geek Squad from Best Buy. It was a time when Doobie was a brother and hip-hop was something a bunny rabbit did.

In a truly stunning feat of deception laced with stupidity, Starnes uses nostalgia to create a fictitious American past that is completely untethered from any actual time and space. Just look at the disparate pop-culture references he manages to cram into those two paragraphs: Square-dancing hasn’t been en vogue since at least the late-1970s; the film Dirty Dancing (which Starnes references to comment on the decline of American sexual values) came out in 1987; Best Buy’s Geek Squad was founded in 1994, and modern computers have been around in some form or another since the 1970s. This alleged “time” when Starnes “grew up” is an imaginary past that he created using nostalgia to stitch together disparate time-periods and pop-culture references into a mythical American historical cloth.

And then there’s the sheer obtuseness displayed in some of Starnes’ references to pop-culture, which he uses to contrast a simpler past with a more complicated present. Seriously, is there anything simple about what goes into making a can of Spam?! And what about the reference to a “Doobie” being merely a “brother?” If Starnes thinks that the name of seventies band the Doobie Brothers wasn’t a verbal nod to smoking weed — then he’s really, really dumb. Starnes commits the cardinal sin of all nostalgia mongers: he believes that because the past happened before, then it must have been simpler than what happened after. Of course, as historians have long pointed out, the past was never, ever “simple.”

So why do Starnes and other conservatives insist on viewing the past through nostalgia-colored lenses? Well, they do so because nostalgia simplifies the past and purports to offer solutions to problems in the present. In his book, Starnes invokes what scholar Andrew Murphy calls “Golden Age politics” by reappropriating the past in order to present a “solution to present difficulties.” Murphy writes that “nostalgic and Golden Age politics depend on the…claim that some aspect of the past offers the best way forward in addressing the inadequacies and corruptions of the present.”* In God Less America, Starnes is doing just that by claiming that the (fictional) America of his youth was simpler and, by extension, better than, the overly complex and morally depraved present that is the Obama era.

I’ve written about nostalgia before, particularly in reference to the reality show American Pickers and in terms of how nostalgia shapes the enduring myth of small-town U.S.A., and I’ve noted that nostalgia in-and-of-itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But in some circumstances, it CAN be a bad thing, especially when conservatives use it reshape the past in an effort to disingenuously comment on the present.

Writing in the 1960s, Arthur Dudden recognized how nostalgia, which he characterized as a type of “cultural homesickness,” could be manipulated to serve devious ends. “Nostalgia implies a certain dissatisfaction with present circumstances, and very likely also a dissatisfaction with the apparent direction of trends leading into the future,” Dudden wrote — and I’ll be damned if he didn’t describe the essence of modern conservatism as promoted by Todd Starnes.*

For Todd Starnes, America begins and ends with this painting.

For Todd Starnes, America begins and ends with this painting.

But by invoking a mythical past to fix what they see as a “broken” present, conservatives like Starnes fail to see how their own beliefs and policies have shaped a contemporary world that seems so much more complex and amoral than the “simple” past they claim to remember. Consider conservatives’ sanctification of free market capitalism. As Erica Grieder notes, “capitalism encourages mobility and disruption. It therefore represents a particular challenge to the traditional structures, like family or civil society, that used to represent a person’s personal safety net.” Grieder recognizes how the inherent dynamism of capitalism pays no heed to traditional structures like family, church, and small-town communities that conservatives want to preserve.

All of the complexities of modern society — which Starnes sees embodied in things like the Blackberry device, the film industry, popular music, the internet age, and urbanization — are the direct result of the relentless free-market dynamism that conservatives promote. Market forces drive the onslaught of technology by creating products that people want to buy, and if, in the process, these same market forces decimate small towns by shipping jobs to Third World countries, or make employment so scarce that tight-knit families and communities are forced to split up in order to find work that is increasingly concentrated in big cities, as opposed to the small towns over which Starnes waxes nostalgic, then so be it.

Market capitalism doesn’t care about disrupting American social institutions, but Todd Starnes does, and like other conservatives, he’s unable to recognize how his undying support for free-market capitalism creates the contemporary conditions that he views as far less simple than the idealized past that he longs to return to in God Less America. And therein lies the dangerous aspect of nostalgia: by creating a fictional and overly simplified vision of the past, it renders people unable to deal with the present as it is.

While it’s worth reiterating that nostalgia isn’t always a bad thing, it’s nonetheless something that can prevent people from understanding the very real complexities of the modern world. Shameless nostalgia mongers like Todd Starnes only make things worse by promoting a past that never existed in order to fix a present that they simply don’t like. So suck it up Todd; your gay rainbow is here to stay.

* See Todd Starnes, God Less America: Real Stories from the Front Lines of the Attack on Traditional Values (Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House, 2014), 1-2.

* See Arthur P. Dudden, “Nostalgia and the American,” Journal of the History of Ideas 22 (Oct. – Dec., 1961): 517.

* See Andrew R. Murphy, “Longing, Nostalgia, and Golden Age Politics: The American Jeremiad and the Power of the Past,” Perspectives on Politics 7 (Mar., 2009): 126.


Christmas is for Capitalists: The Bourgeois History of American Yuletide Ideology

A depiction of a 19th century middle class New York Christmas. The amount of bourgeoise fumes stuffed into the this image is enough to make you want to reach for a guillotine.

A depiction of a 19th century middle class New York Christmas. The amount of bourgeoise stuffed into the this image is enough to make you want to reach for a guillotine.

The middle class is a big deal in American society. Last year, America’s ever-observant punditocracy, including southern-fried campaign guru and Gollum look-alike James Carville, harped endlessly about how corporate Democrat Barack Obama and Montgomery Burns stand-in Mitt Romney waged their electoral battle royal in the name of the American middle class. President Obama dived head-first into this quadrennial tradition of bourgeois boot-licking, blowing past Romney in terms of the number of times he mentioned the phrase “middle class” in campaign speeches.

American politicians universally exist as servants/toadies for the country’s oligarchs, but they nonetheless pepper their campaign rhetoric with appeals to the middle class because bourgeois identity may as well be considered “American identity.” Want proof of this? Look no further than Christmas.

That’s right: Christmas, perhaps more than any other American tradition, has promulgated the ideal of a middle-class ideology that sanctifies capitalist conspicuous consumption (alliteration is always alluring) and warm, hearth-centered family togetherness as an antidote to cold (literally and figuratively, being December) external worldly ills. Since its emergence in the nineteenth century as the dominating signifier of American cultural identity, consumer capitalism has marched arm-in-arm with Christmas to create a highly idealized seasonal tradition that promotes excessive market consumption and middle-class, “on the make” values as synonymous with American identity.

Sure, that stuff about a deified Jewish kid being born in a livestock trough after his supernaturally inseminated mother was refused admittance to the Bethlehem Best Western has always been an important component of American Christmas, but Americans even celebrate that story through the ritual of consumerism — just look for yourself. It’s always been that way, and as long as Americans continue to bow down to the omniscient and ever-wise god of the marketplace, malls and Amazon.com will continue to be the holiday temples in which they do the majority of their December genuflection.

The idea of Christmas as middle-class consumer ritual is less a value judgement than it is a statement of reality. Shameless capitalism, the engine of bourgeois domestic ideology, is as Christmassy as Tiny Tim and a swaddled up infant deity. As scholar of popular culture Sheila Whiteley observes in Christmas, Ideology, and Popular Culture, the idea of a ‘traditional Christmas’ evokes “a concern for the family, children, and family-centred activities, the rituals and expectations framing gift-giving and receiving, and an idealized nostalgia for the past, which prioritizes themes of neighbourliness, charity and community.”* Christmas ideology is middle-class ideology. It was the construction of a new leisured class, born in the nineteenth century, that had the time and the money to envision family togetherness and the exchange of mass-produced market goods as a traditional annual ritual, rather than as the relatively recent historical development.

Historian Mary Ryan notes in her classic book Cradle of the Middle Class that the early nineteenth century transition of the American socio-economic structure away from a predominantly agricultural framework towards an economy increasingly characterized by industrial mass-production fundamentally reshaped the American home and family. As Americans farmed less and shopped more, their identities shifted to accommodate an increasingly reliance on the market economy. “The family’s economic unity was now expressed primarily at the point of consumption rather than production,” Ryan writes, “the separation of the place of work from the place of residence was of central historical importance.”*

Ironically, the new middle-class domestic homes couldn’t have come into existence without the market from which they were supposed to be separate. Those domestic shelters were created by an industrializing society in which white-collar work became increasingly distinct from older forms of manual work. The rise of a non-laboring, white-collar middle class brought about an increase in market consumption, and that consumption, in turn, helped weld bourgeois identity to shopping. Thus, as historian Stuart Blumin writes, “with its new-found wealth, the non-manual stratum soon moved into fashionable homes, and the formal parlor became the recognized hallmark of middle-class life.” As middle-class homes flourished, distinct “patterns of consumption” emerged, and store-bought items such as carpets, sofas, pianos — and yes, Christmas presents — came to define the lifestyle of a new leisured class.*

A middle class, commercial Christmas embodied in a 1951 ad for Plymouth automobiles, courtesey of Norman Rockwell. Christmas is better with family, presents, and a new car.

A middle-class, commercial Christmas embodied in a 1951 ad for Plymouth automobiles, courtesy of Norman Rockwell. Christmas is better with family, presents, and a new car.

Christmas emerged during the Victorian era as a holiday that fed the ideological needs of the new middle class. They had money to spend and fancy homes to decorate, and Christmas gave them an annual excuse to load up on mass-produced joy. Cultural historian John Storey puts it bluntly when he explains that, “Christmas was invented first and foremost as a commercial event. Everything that was revived or invented – decorations, cards, crackers, collections of carols…visiting Santa Claus and buying presents — all had one thing in common: they could be sold for profit.” Indeed, Storey notes that Christmas was, and is, a celebration of “the achievements of industrial capitalism — conspicuous consumption in a market economy.”* And as much as Victorian Brits embraced leisurely holiday buying, Americans soon proved that they could out-capitalist even their Industrial Revolution-spawning cousins across the pond.

Historian George McKay notes that by the 1860s, the American economy had been thoroughly transformed by the acceleration of Western capitalism. The transition from an agricultural to an urban nation that began in the early part of the century fed demand for an economy increasingly based on production and consumption. These cultural trends provided the perfect breeding ground for that most American of creatures: the department store. Department stores “made a new shopping leisure experience and consumerist lifestyle possible.”* American shoppers had more money and flashier homes that housed kids eager to receive store-purchased items, and what holiday symbolized family togetherness and domestic bliss via gift-giving and excessive consumption? Christmas, of course.

It’s no surprise, then, that perhaps the most recognized of American Christmas icons, Santa Claus, is also an icon of capitalism itself. Santa Claus became a fixture of American department stores by the late-nineteenth century, and what a commercial symbol he was: who better to symbolize capitalism than an obese, bearded, cookie craving, near dictatorial factory owner who rules over a diminutive, proletariat army that slaves all year to mass produce the products over which middle-class American kids salivate? The ‘deity of materialism,’ as one scholar labels old Claus, perfectly embodies the modern American fusion of Christmas and capitalism, as evidence by the prominent role he’s played in advertising everything from Coca-Cola, to Lucky Strike cigarettes, to M & Ms.* Its ironic, then, that Santa Claus and Karl Marx sort of resemble each other: one railed in vain against capitalism, while the other developed into the smiling, grandfatherly symbol of world-dominating bourgeois excess.

Santa Claus once hocked cigarrettes. Dude, Santa, not cool.

Santa Claus once hawked cigarettes. Dude, Santa, not cool.

Of course, American materialist consumption at Christmas hasn’t been historically limited to the store. After all, gifts purchased in stores were meant to be enjoyed in the warm domestic bliss of homes populated with kith and kin. When industrial capitalism took hold of food production, it helped create yet another American holiday consumer tradition in the form of the “traditional” Christmas dinner. Yet, as food historian Cathy Kaufman writes, “Christmas dinner” became popular “only in the mid-nineteenth century, when turkey with gravy, stuffing, potatoes, and plum pudding was hailed as the quintessential American Christmas dinner” that emulated the Cratchit family meal in Charles Dickens’ Victorian era classic, A Christmas Carol (1843).* Although the ingredients that make up the “traditional” American Christmas dinner have changed over the years, the idea that there had to be some kind of middle-class, home-bound, family centered holiday feast remained a core element of the commercial festival that is American Christmas.

So the next time you’re out at the mall in December and you feel a bit sick amidst the shameless commercialism displayed by your fellow shoppers, try to remember that, historically, Christmas has never been some kind of spiritually pure tradition that was separate from the cold, secular whims of the marketplace. The marketplace made Christmas, and the American middle class long ago adopted Christmas as the quintessential bourgeois holiday that best embodied the virtues of domesticity, family, consumption, and leisurely living. To criticize Christmas commercialism is to criticize the very middle-class values that have become synonymous with American values. No wonder American politicians consistently pander to the middle class: they’re the only group who can claim their own world-renowned holiday.

* See Sheila Whiteley, ed. Christmas, Ideology and Popular Culture (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008), 2.

* See Mary P. Ryan, Cradle of the Middle Class: The Family in Oneida County, New York, 1790-1865 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 231.

* See Stuart M. Blumin, The Emergence of the Middle Class: Social Experience in the American City, 1760-1900 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 155.

* See John Storey, “The Invention of the English Christmas,” in Sheila Whiteley, ed. Christmas, Ideology and Popular Culture, 20.

* See George McKay, “Consumption, Coca-colonization, Cultural Resistance – and Santa Claus,” in Whiteley, ed., 52, 54.

* See Cathy Kaufman, “The Ideal Christmas Dinner,” Gastronomica: the Journal of Food and Culture 4 (Fall, 2004): 17.

Tricks, Treats, and Shopping: America’s Halloween History

Americans have turned Halloween into a consumerist golieth.

Americans have turned Halloween into a consumerist Goliath, because that’s what they do.

Halloween. It’s a holiday anticipated and embraced with equal fervor by kids craving an unmitigated sugar rush, by adults looking for an excuse to dress up like creepily-eroticized pop-culture characters, and by dentists craving sugar-induced high insurance deductibles.

Halloween is a big deal in America today. For a hyper-materialistic society that long ago replaced agricultural rhythms with consumer totems as markers of the seasonal cycles, the first appearance of Halloween paraphernalia in shopping centers signals the transition from summer to fall. Moreover, American society is rife with contradictions created by major disconnects between ideals and reality on issues ranging from marriage, to sex education, to economic mobility. Halloween’s emphasis on duality and the inversion of traditional social customs, therefore, appeals to Americans caught up in these webs of contradictions because it effectively sanctions misbehavior and the inversion of “traditional” norms. In this respect, Halloween — at least temporarily — validates Milton’s famous line that “its better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.”

Beyond the sanctioning of revelry, however, Halloween’s popularity in America also stems from its sheer marketability: it provides super-charged fuel for the capitalist engine. Bloomberg Businessweek recently reported that a whopping 66% of Americans — nearly 158 million people — celebrate Halloween, and they’ll spend an impressive $6.9 billion in the process. Americans, more than any other previous world civilization, have demonstrated a remarkable talent for turning even the most culturally rich celebrations into a series of mundane monetary exchanges. So they have done with Halloween; turning an ancient pagan ritual into an excuse to buy mountains of costumes, candy, and decorations. By providing a limited time-period for both the controlled inversion of social norms and the relentless stoking of the capitalist marketplace’s fires, Halloween has assumed a hallowed (see what I did there?!) role in American culture.

Of course, you can’t blame Americans entirely for commercializing Halloween. The holiday’s history made it ripe for this type of cultural appropriation by providing an excuse to let humankind’s many demons run wild once a year. Halloween’s roots can be traced back to the British Isles and the ancient Celtic celebration of Samhain, the New Year’s Day on the Celtic calendar.

Like modern-day Halloween, Samhain corresponded with the harvest, and thus served as a major yearly transition between the seasons that acknowledged the coming of winter. Samhain’s association with the death of crops and encroaching darkness made it rife with the symbolism of life and death. As folklorist Jack Santino observes, Samhain “associated the fruits of the harvest with ideas of the afterlife and the otherworld.”* Samhain was a time of transition, when the veil between earth and the spirit world was thinnest. On Samhain Eve, the Celts lit bonfires and laid out harvest gifts for the travelling souls of the dead passing through the corporeal plane on their way to the next realm. The association of Samhain with the dead lives on in Halloween’s celebration of ghosts and ghouls.

Ancient legends associated with Samhain also provided the template for trick-or-treating that came to so define Americans’ consumerist approach to Halloween. One such story described a hero named Nero who, while begging from door-to-door on Samhain, discovered a cave leading into the fairy realm. This story established the idea that Samhain was a time that permitted access to the otherworld. In another tale, a supernatural race called “Fomorians” demanded tribute from Celtic mortals, who obliged by offering harvest fruits to these Gods at Samhain.

As Santino notes, paying tribute to the gods echoed the folk custom of leaving out gifts for wandering spirits, a practice that was, in turn, recreated via the custom of mumming (stemming from the Danish word mumme: to parade in masks). In the practice of mumming, patrons gave food and drink to wanderers disguised to imitate spirits. Santino notes that “the ideas of the dead wandering the earth begging food and the giving of food and drink in tribute and as payment to wandering spirits” created the template for contemporary trick-or-treating.*

A traditional Irish Samhain turnip jack-o'-lantern. Creepy, ain't it?
A traditional Irish Samhain turnip jack-o’-lantern. Creepy, ain’t it?

Early in the fifth century, Christian missionaries came to the British Isles and tried to transform the pagan ritual of Samhain into a Christian holiday. Missionaries branded Samhain’s supernatural entities as elements of the Devil. Fairies became fallen angels; the wandering dead became more malicious; the Celtic underworld became the Christian Hell, and followers of pagan beliefs were branded as witches. Yet, even after the Catholic Church established November 1st as All Saints Day (also known as All Hallows, or sanctification) and November 2 as All Souls Day, the old pagan traditions lived on. People continued to pay tribute to the wandering dead on All Hallows Eve by setting out food and drink. All Hallows Eve was also referred to as All Hallow Even or Hallowe’en, and is still celebrated with many of the old customs intact.*

The All Hallows Eve tradition of masquerading as spirits, when combined with old Celtic traditions of hollowing out fall vegetables and illuminating them with candles to ward off the dead, provided the right combination that allowed Americans to transform Halloween into a pageant of mischievous masked revelry and orgiastic consumerism.

In the nineteenth century, the development of a more urbanized market economy facilitated a growing urban/rural divide that still exists today. As more Americans moved off of the farm, harvest fruits increasingly came to serve as consumed representations of a lost rural past to be displayed in urban and suburban built environments. Santino cites perennial American fall trips to the countryside to buy pumpkins to carve into jack-o’-lanterns as symbolic of Americans’ transforming natural objects into modified ones. “Once transformed,” Santino writes, harvest fruits like pumpkins “are not strictly tied to the organic base and can be rendered in other media.”* In modern America, the rendering of Halloween harvest fruits into other media occurs in the form of the cavalcade of Halloween decorations, candy, and mass-produced costumes. Halloween is highly suited to American capitalism because it provides an irresistable mixture of seasonal nostalgia and pagan masquerade traditions.

These masquerade traditions, which date back to the ancient Celts, fuel an endless push to produce increasingly elaborate Halloween costumes for an American public that simply can’t wait to buy them. It’s no coincidence that Halloween’s explosion into a commercial holiday largely corresponded with the American post-World War II economic boom: Americans had more money to spend on holiday frivolities. Costumes, of course, are big among kids looking to maximize both their glucose intake and their dental bills as trick-or-treaters. But costumes are also popular among American adults looking to use Halloween’s traditional blurring of the realms of light and dark — of the living and the dead — to dress up in all manner of ridiculous outfits and carry on in carnival-style revelry each October. Halloween has become so popular among adults that Forbes magazine accused grown-ups of “hijacking” the holiday from kids.

At Halloween, costumed adults can embrace a range of normally taboo subjects such as death, sexual freedom, and every type of imaginable hedonism. Thus, Halloween, however fleetingly, creates an environment welcoming to would-be American libertines, and these normally constrained adults are willing to spend big money to achieve such temporary moments of costumed euphoria that symbolically invert traditional social norms.

Halloween’s many dualistic traditions, the contrast between living and dead; mortal and immortal; summer and fall; wicked and angelic, and rural and urban, have, in many ways, turned it into the quintessential American holiday. It mixes the ingredients of nostalgia, repressed urges, and hedonism into a potent witches’ brew that fuels American consumerism every October. Perhaps its unfortunate that Americans have turned the ancient tradition of Samhain into yet another excuse to go shopping, but such is the way of the modern world. So whatever your age, go carve a pumpkin, dress up like a ghoul, and say “hello” to the dead while you’re at it: after all, Halloween is the only time of year when the dead are the life of the party.

 * See Jack Santino, “Halloween in America: Contemporary Customs and Performances,” Western Folklore 42 (Jan., 1983): 5-8, 15-16. 

Of Foliage and Farms: The History of Fall in American Culture

The Fall harvest maintains a deeply symbolic importance in American culture. Its also provides an excuse to drink hard cider.

The fall harvest maintains a deeply symbolic importance in American culture. It also provides an excuse to drink hard cider.

Americans love the fall season. Every year when September rolls around, a cavalcade of autumnal objects invades every facet of the American landscape, filling up cities, towns, villages and farmhouses like so many occupying corncob cossacks, and Americans welcome them with open arms — and wallets. The symbols of the fall harvest include pumpkins, apples, cornstalks, hay stacks, squashes, scarecrows, and deciduous foliage lighting up the countryside like timber sparklers; flashing  copper, orange, gold, and yellow flares to the bemusement of camera-armed Sunday drivers.

As a people seemingly born with an innate need to shamelessly commodify absolutely anything, Americans have turned fall into a multi-million dollar industry. Each year, they celebrate fall by spending piles of cash at orchards, farms, harvest festivals, and at businesses situated along the foliage-lined byways. Even the booze industry has reaped the awards of Americans’ love affair with autumn, as fall-themed hard ciders have experienced a mini-renaissance alongside the already exploding craft beer market.

Being the most capitalist-oriented people in the history of history, Americans celebrate ideas by buying things that embody those ideas. Indeed, ideas alone aren’t enough: they need stuff; visual totems that symbolize themes both real and imagined that we can’t seem to completely commodify despite our darndest efforts to do so. And so it is with fall, a season second only to Christmas in its power to unlock Americans’ recession-bolted bank accounts in the pursuit of warm, rustic, down-home feelings.

There is, however, a very real historical backdrop that explains why Americans love fall so much. Their cozy relationship with the harvest season can be traced back to the nineteenth century, in what historian Leo Marx terms the “pastoral ideal,” a vision of rural life characterized by slow-paced, small-scale farming, harmony with nature, and family togetherness.

Marx locates the roots of the pastoral ideal in Americans’ “yearning for a simpler, more harmonious style of life, an existence ‘closer to nature.'” This yearning still infuses American life via the “soft veil of nostalgia” that “hangs over” the United States’ now largely urbanized landscape, an ideological remnant of what Marx calls “the once dominant image of an undefiled, green republic, a quiet land of forests, villages and farms dedicated to the pursuit of happiness.”* In various ways, Americans have spent decades trying to remember and experience that quiet, rural land.

Americans created the pastoral ideal as ideological comfort food that manifested most commonly in a type of rural nostalgia that is still prevalent in twenty-first century-culture. As Marx notes, the pastoral ideal can be seen in a distinctly American preference for outdoor leisure activities such as camping, hunting, fishing, gardening, and hiking. It can also been seen in the continued popularity — and bankability — of the fall season, during which Americans purchase pumpkins, apples, cornstalks and other seasonal reminders of the rural harvest tradition. Of course, now that most people don’t live in rural areas, these objects, some of which are even in the form of synthetic “fall decor,” are instead taken back to the cities and suburbs, where they act as comforting symbols of an idealized rural lifestyle that most Americans no longer experience on a day-to-day basis. *

As art historian Sarah Burns writes in her book Pastoral Inventions: Rural Life in Nineteenth-Century American Art and Culture, the pastoral ideal that Marx describes reached its modern form in the nineteenth century. By referencing the bucolic prints of such American artistic luminaries as Winslow Homer, Burns charts the ways Americans used farm imagery to create the ideal of rustic simplicity as an emotional buffer against the turmoil created by the vast cultural and economic shifts that, in the nineteenth century, transformed the United States from a nation of small-scale family farms to a more industrialized, urbanized capitalist society.

The pastoral ideal, epitomized in paintings of rural life such as Winslow Homer’s Boys in a Pasture and Harvest Scene, depicted an “idyllic, peaceful, harmonious” rural existence that provided ideological order and comfort in a chaotic world where agricultural was becoming industrialized and urban areas were slowly, but steadily, supplanting small towns and farms as centers of American life.* By the late nineteenth century, the pastoral ideal served as an idealized form of mental escapism, what Burns calls “a sheltered, pastoral never-never land” for Americans seeking to disassociate themselves from the crowdedness, disease, crime, racial strife, and poverty of urban life.*

Winslow Homer's Boys in a Pasture (1874). Bucolic, isn't it?

Winslow Homer’s Boys in a Pasture (1874). Bucolic, isn’t it?

Above all else, urban life was faster-paced, more impersonal, and, by definition, less rustic than the romanticized notions of rural America depicted in paintings like those of Homer. Despite their general devotion to capitalist development, Americans have never been able to fully let go of the pastoral ideal because, in many ways, they still haven’t come to terms with the Market Revolution that created the modern United States as we still know it today.

The dynamism of a primarily urban-based market economy respects no long-held traditions; it has no problem disrupting family connections, and, with its ever-increasing emphasis on high-tech fields, leaves little daily room for bucolic walks amid crunching fall leaves or the simple pleasure of carving pumpkins and picking apples. Of course, Americans now, as was the case in the nineteenth century, are wary of criticizing even the more unpleasant, tradition-rupturing aspects of their brand of turbo-capitalism. So instead, they’ve used capitalism itself to recreate the pastoral ideal during the fall season.

Thus, every year when the leaves begin to change color and the fruits of the fall harvest appear on store shelves and farm wagons everywhere, Americans embrace the chance to purchase these seasonal wonders and thereby experience a small bit of the pastoral ideal. Fall, of course, has been the traditional harvest season for centuries, but since a largely metropolitan population no longer experiences the fall harvest as a lifestyle, they instead must experience it as consumed nostalgia.

Americans have so effectively and seamlessly integrated the pastoral ideal into modern consumer culture that they’ve created a new niche, “rural tourism,” that seeks to provide a little slice of the bucolic past to the harried populations of America’s urban and suburban office dwellers. As Joanne Steele of Ruraltourismmarketing.com notes in an advice column describing how small-towns can market themselves to urban visitors:

If every small town (and I mean SMALL – 5000 or fewer residents) that is stumbling economically would start their road to revitalization with three words, nostalgia,” connection,” and simple,” they could discover their own road back.

Every article I read on successful agritourism operations talk about how their success is built on offering a nostalgic experience, giving visitors an opportunity to connect with a simpler way of life.

What about your small town can give a visitor an nostaligic [sic] experience and an opportunity to connect with a simpler way of life?

The promise of experiencing, however fleetingly, the simple life of the pastoral ideal, has become yet another American marketing tool, and it works best during the fall season, when millions of nostalgia-starved metropolitan pilgrims emigrate to the countryside to reap the autumn harvest. For a good many modern Americans, there’s no escaping the pastoral ideal; the history behind it is too rich, too embedded in the culture, and perhaps there really isn’t any good reason to escape it anyway.

Americans are becoming increasingly disassociated from the natural world, a trend that threatens to socially separate humans from nature even as they remain a biological part of nature. The separation from the natural world has all kinds of negative ramifications, ranging from a disregard for environmental issues to obesity. If the continued importance of the pastoral ideal keeps bringing people out to experience fall’s plenty in the form of foliage drives, pumpkin festivals, orchard excursions, and other activities in bucolic environs — then all for the better.

So enjoy fall’s splendor, even it means acting the part of a weekend urban tourist pouring your dollars into apple bushels and scarecrow chotchkies. Doing so may help keep the pastoral ideal alive for another century.

* See Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), 6.

* See Sarah Burns, Pastoral Inventions: Rural Life in Nineteenth-Century American Art and Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989), 1-20, 83, 313.

Pumpkin Flavored History


It didn’t used to be like this. Only five years ago, I swear that pumpkin-flavored stuff was still a bit of an anomaly. Oh, you could get a pumpkin spiced latte at Starbucks, and your standard pumpkin pies and pastries lined bakery sections everywhere, but now it seems that the very minute autumn begins to peek out from summer’s sweaty, smothering armpit, the pumpkin conglomerate unleashes a now ubiquitous barrage of pumpkin spice-flavored everything. Its fall and you must eat pumpkins! There’s even a pumpkin pie flavored vodka, because Russian alcoholics enjoy the fall season too, dammit.

So what’s the deal with everything being pumpkin flavored? Well, as with so many things these days, it all goes back to the nineeenth century. Pumpkins function as big, squashy symbols of idealized rural life, and rural nostalgia has always been popular with Americans. For a people stuck in the high-tech, urbanized twenty-first century world, pumpkins invoke more simple times and landscapes dotted with small family farms untainted by modernity’s impersonal touch.

Rural nostalgia, however, is nothing new in the U.S. In fact, it goes all the way back to Thomas Jefferson, who, of all the Founding Fathers, was surly the Founding Father-est. Jefferson’s vision of America centered on the “Agrarian Yeoman” ideal: he believed that small, independent yeomen farmers represented the highest level of American self-sufficient virtue and work ethic, and should therefore settle the vast American landscape. Jefferson considered an agrarian society to be morally superior to the cities, which he viewed as rife with unnatural economic and moral corruption in the form of financial speculation and industrial development that threatened his ideal of agrarian democracy.

Jefferson’s Agrarian ideal has never really left American popular culture, and pumpkins have helped keep it alive and kicking. Historian Cindy Ott, author of the fantastic book, Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon, traces the pumpkin’s modern popularity back to the ninteenth century, when the Market Revolution spurred the growth of industry that drew Americans away from the countryside into the larger cities. As the growing market economy caught more and more people in its web, Americans embraced the pumpkin as a symbol of pre-modern, idealized, rustic family life. Thus, pumpkins became big, orange emblems of the agrarian ideal that Jefferson so cherished and to which Americans ascribed the simple comforts of home, family, and small town life.

So powerful a symbol was the pumpkin that even after it ceased to be a valuable commercial crop, it still connected Americans to a primitive, pastoral age untainted by the cold mechanics of the modern world. As Ott observes:

As many Americans felt they were losing connections to the natural world, an authentic way of life, and their cultural roots, the orange field pumpkin, in particular, helped them rebuild those connections…What the orange field pumpkin lost in practical usage and economic value, it gained in symbolic power. Americans gave it a vibrant life in stories and holiday rituals that helped them talk about the meaning of nature within a rapidly developing urban and industrial society.

Since the transition from countryside to urban centers hasn’t really stopped since the nineteenth century, Americans today are scarfing down pumpkin flavored-stuff for largely the same nostalgic reasons. By eating and drinking pumpkin flavors, Ott notes, “We’re celebrating the nostalgia for this old-fashioned, rural way of life, that no one ever really wanted to stay on, but everyone’s always been romantic about.” The explosion in popularity of pumpkin flavored everything has left some people worrying about the rise of a “pumpkin spice empire” with possible designs for Genghis Khan-style world conquest, while others are downright angry, pleading for more rational heads to “stop the pumpkin-izing.

The growth of the “pumpkin spice empire” might lead some to conclude that the humble orange squash has been commercialized and factory-farmed to the point of it being yet another weapon in the industrialized agricultural onslaught that nearly wiped out American family farms. But never fear, for, as Ott notes, the commercialization of the pumpkin via the buying and selling of rural nostalgia has actually been a boon to small American farms. People’s idea about the pumpkin, she writes:

[H]ave revitalized the very thing it has long symbolized – the small family farm. The natural peculiarites of the crop, its meanings, and market conditions have all encouraged its production by small-scale growers for local markets at the turn of the twenty-first century.

The pumpkin’s increasing economic value arose out of the deep meanings Americans invested in it, and its increased commodification helped rejuvinate small-scale farmers and small rural towns rather than undermine them.*

Pumpkin flavored beers: nothing wrong with that!

Pumpkin flavored beers: nothing wrong with that!

It seems, then, that however annoying and shameless, the commercial onslaught that is pumpkin flavored-stuff will likely continue — even though most of that stuff likely contains no actual pumpkin. So far, this commodification has been beneficial to the great orange squash and the people who grow it. Moreover, by continuing to worship the pumpkin via attending the sacred church of American capitalist consumption, you are keeping the age-old Jeffersonian tradition of the Agrarian ideal alive and well. Even if you’re a suburban office dweller, by eating pumpkin flavored-stuff, you nonetheless gain a primal connection to Jefferson’s mythic, virtuous, independent yeomen — and that should make you downright sick with glorious American-ness.

So this fall, go on and enjoy your pumpkin flavored coffees, chocolates, pies, and, especially, beers. You can be safe in the knowledge that you are helping to stimulate the American economy, especially those fabled “small businesses,” via the cultural consumption of a storied American icon.

* Cindy Ott, Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012), 7.

“American Pickers” and Buying Nostalgia in the U.S.A.

Frank Fritz and Mike Wolff of History's American Pickers. Holding a rusty motorcycle in a field if so 'Murica.

Frank Fritz and Mike Wolfe of History’s “American Pickers.” Holding a rusty motorcycle in a field is so ‘Murica.

Despite what I claimed in a piece for Salon about A&E’s smash show “Duck Dynasty,” even without cable, I do, on occasion, catch t.v. shows online. Although it might seem crass and opportunistic to frame an article on American history through reality t.v. (hint: it IS crass and opportunistic), these types of shows offer a window into how history is filtered through popular culture.

One of the most successfull history-themed reality shows of the last few years has been History’s “American Pickers.” The show first premiered back in 2010 and it was an instant success that brought the world of hard-core antique collecting geekitude to a massive audience. As I’ve watched the show, however, it got me to thinking about just why the seemingly innocuous subject of junking – a subject considered so boring that a string of production companies passed on “American Pickers” before it was finally picked up by the History network – is so darn popular. Then, it all became clear: “American Pickers” is popular because it feeds off of the age-old American love for consuming nostalgia.

In case you haven’t seen “American Pickers,” the show centers on two junk collectors, the lanky, expressive Mike Wolfe and his stocky, quieter, bearded compadre, Frank Fritz, who drive a van around bucolic parts of the Midwest and other regions of the U.S.A. seeking so-called “rusty gold” hidden in the barns, sheds, houses, and fields of compulsive rural collectors. When the pickers “pick” an item, the show often gives a brief history of the object, then the duo of Wolfe and Fritz haggle over the price in hopes of eventually selling the item in their shop, Antique Archaeology, for a profit. The shop on the show is run by a hipster-styled burlesque performer and clothing designer named Danielle Colby, who also acts as the pickers ace locater of hidden junk.

Like every “reality” show, “American Pickers” is entirely scripted and staged, having been packaged and presented to networks as a simulation of the life of junk buyers, though Wolfe has indeed been in the antique business for over 20 years. The show’s appeal, however, stems from the Laurel and Hardy-like banter of Wolfe and Fritz, and, more importantly, the showcasing of old stuff — everything from rusty car and motorcycle parts to antique pottery. Americans love old stuff, especially when that old stuff takes them back to a bygone era. Americans buy old cars because owning such vehicles transports them back to their youth. Other collectors choose items from before their own time because material objects connect them to centuries past in a way history books simply can’t do. Books recollect history, but antiques are part of history. Americans like to connect with the past because they envision the past in an idealized fashion. They view it through nostalgic lenses.

Way back in 1961, historian Arthur Dudden identified the real importance of nostalgia in American life in his (unfortunately paywalled) seminal essay, “Nostalgia and the American.” According to Dudden, nostalgia is a psychological buffer of sorts that Americans have used to navigate the relentless onset of modern progress, with all of its disruptive social and economic changes. Modern progress has always fueled an American “preference for stability,” rooted in the “familiar human desire to recapture fleeting conditions and former circumstances.” Dudden defines nostalgia as “a deep-seated, romantic, heart-felt longing for the yesterday that is gone but not forgotten.”

For Dudden, nostalgia is Americans’ preferred tool for recapturing the past not as it was, but as how they imagine it to be.* This is why the collectors on “American Pickers” collect, and why the pickers themselves purchase those rare items from collectors to sell to other collectors. Every toy owned by collectors takes them back to their childhood; every car they restore invokes memories of youthful vigor; every old machine part they mount harks back to a more authentic time when America actually made machine parts.

The "American Pickers" haggle with a collector over an old motorcycle tank. In the background: lots and lots of junk.

The “American Pickers” haggle with a collector over an old motorcycle tank. In the background: lots and lots of junk.

“American Pickers” shows that nostalgia and collecting are intimately connected: the former drives the latter. So why is collecting such a powerful past-time in the U.S.A.? As cultural historian Leah Dilworth observes in her book Acts of Possession: Collecting in America, Americans create collections to construct narratives about the nature of the world around them, usually through nostalgia-colored glasses. Collections are driven by the idea of loss; the idea that the modern world has taken away something that was good and valuable. Collections “represent lost worlds or worlds distant in time and signification” such as childhood and a past that Americans want to re-experience with all of the bad memories filtered out.*

Old stuff, the material objects known collectively as “antiques” that are showcased on “American Pickers,” are tangible, physical representations of times gone by that serve as vessels in which Americans store their idealized memories. Leon Rosenstein, historian of material culture (a fancy term for a guy who studies old stuff and the ideas people associate with old stuff) offers a pretty comprehensive definition of what an antique is in his book Antiques: The History of an Idea:

An antique is a primarily handcrafted object of rarity and beauty that, by means of its associated provenance and its agedness as recognized by means of its style and material endurance, has the capacity to generate and preserve for us the image of a world now past.*

The role of antiques in the success of “American Pickers” cannot be overstated and reveals a whole lot about how Americans construct their own narratives of history. The pickers might best be described as “memory merchants” whose stock in trade is nostalgia. But how do you sell an abstract idea, you may ask? Simple: the pickers sell an abstract concept by selling the antiques that serve as very concrete manifestations of that concept. This is why items such as toys, motorcycles, pottery, old machines and machine parts, old paintings, and numerous advertising signs that invoke the golden age of American consumerism have such a wide appeal. These antiques appeal to the collectors showcased on “American Pickers” and to the viewers watching the exchange of these antiques on their t.v. screens because, for both audiences, antiques generate that “image of a world now past.”

Maine-based antique collectors Dennis and Mary Westfall sold their junk on an episode of "American Pickers."

Upstate New York-based antique collectors Dennis and Mary Westfall sold their junk on an episode of “American Pickers.”

That this image of the past is highly idealized and romanticized by nostalgia is a feature, not a bug to Americans who are wracked by the anxieties of modern life. In keeping with a long tradition, the march of modern progress generates a host of worries about keeping up with the Joneses, especially in a post 2008 economic crash environment in which staying afloat — as opposed to merely getting ahead — is the prime concern for most Americans. In such a stress-laden society, its understandable that people would turn towards nostalgia. In a recent article, the Atlantic crowned the U.S.A. “the planet’s undisputed worry champion,” and this trend shows no evidence of abating:

Things only seem to be getting worse, unfortunately. “Surveys show that stress levels here have progressively increased over the past four decades,” says Paul J. Rosch, MD, Chairman of the Board of The American Institute of Stress. New research indicates that anxiety will continue to grow with modernity: Millennials and Generation Xers are more nervous than their elders and less capable of handling the pressure in their lives, much of which comes from worries related to money and work.

For many Americans, the best way to relieve themselves from the anxiety associated with modernity is to embrace the past via nostalgia. And the best way to experience nostalgia is to buy old stuff that reminds them of supposedly simpler times. Indeed, nostalgia is its own market niche: PBS’ program “Antiques Roadshow” has been popular for years, magazines like Reminisce invite geriatric Americans to share “vintage photos and nostalgic stories that celebrate the American experience,” and websites like Nostalgic America do the same for a more digitally minded audience. “American Pickers” is but a tributary to this larger nostalgia stream that helps t.v. viewers revel in the pursuit of history and simpler times through the exploits of two guys who “travel the backroads of America looking to buy rusty gold.”

So, does this mean that nostalgia is a bad thing? Not necessarily. While nostalgia can, as historian Stephanie Coontz observes, “distort our understanding of the world in dangerous ways, making us needlessly negative about our current situation,” it also offers much-needed therapeutic relief to Americans increasingly under assault by modern selfish capitalist culture and its associated social fracturing and status anxiety. Besides, nostalgia isn’t going to go away any time soon, and if current trends are any indicator, its only going to become a more significant factor in American life. So I say turn on “American Pickers” and get your fix of antique-based nostalgia while you can. Just beware that the past was never as good as you remember it, and maybe, just maybe, the present isn’t as bad as it seems.

* See Arthur P. Dudden, “Nostalgia and the American,” Journal of the History of Ideas 22 (Oct. – Dec., 1961), pp. 516-17.

* See Leah Dilworth, ed. Acts of Possession: Collecting in America (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2003), 6-7.

* See Leon Rosenstein, Antiques: The History of an Idea (New York: Cornell University Press, 2009), 14.