As the present seems ever more dolorous and the future fearsome, we turn to the past for its reassuring comforts. And nostalgia has become the most prevalent take on the past. This essay traces the growth of nostalgia in popular culture especially since the mid-twentieth century. Today it pervades not only the arts and the media but the marketing of everything from clothing and cars to computers and cell phones. Once associated with specific themes and epochs—bucolic pastoralism, medieval chivalry, Georgian elegance—nostalgia now embraces the entire past, from Pleistocene times to the near present, and almost any bygone trait and attribute, lovable and ludicrous alike. Having morphed from a disabling and often fatal disease in the nineteenth century, nostalgia became a curative balm for exiles from childhood and other lost homelands. Backlash against nostalgia’s regressive surfeits—its starry-eyed view of wretched times, its falsified history, its kitschy commerce—today corrodes elegaic wistfulness into selfconscious irony.
This article originally appeared as the chapter “Nostalgia” in David Lowenthal, The Past Is a Foreign Country (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985). Reprinted with the permission of Cambridge University Press.