But nostalgia is often not what we need. Comforting memories tend to filter the past. Jennifer Niesslein dives into this ambiguity in her new collection, Dreadful Sorry: Essays on an American Nostalgia, a free-ranging mix of nine personal essays that entwine family history, social commentary, and pop cultural musings as the author plumbs her own rearview-mirror longings and white America’s revisionist histories.
Founder and editor of the celebrated online journal Full Grown People, Niesslein explores the lure of looking back. “I have a nostalgia problem,” she admits, “and I’m not the only American who does.” She digs up the roots of the term, coined by a 17th-century Swiss doctor to diagnose students and soldiers haunted by homesickness. From there, she pivots to the modern understanding of pining for a lost past — and its many American guises, from preoccupations with family lore to the toxic white male anxiety that gave us Trumpism and the deadly 2017 rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she lives.
But the true coordinates of her nostalgia lie 400 miles northwest in the Rust Belt hamlets of Western Pennsylvania where she spent an idyllic stretch of childhood in the early 1980s before the steel industry collapsed, costing her dad his job. The family resettled in Virginia, and not long after, her parents divorced. The psychic pull toward New Galilee, Pennsylvania, the town where she romped and dreamed as a girl, encompasses vibrant memories of “bursts of neon yellow from lightning bugs, the red tomatoes from the garden up on the windowsill,” and hilly coal country where “slate piles still stand.” Niesslein’s renderings of the region had me — a fellow native of the area — fighting pangs of homesickness.
Along the way, she shows a tender curiosity toward just about every branch of her family tree, in particular her strong women ancestors, from a Polish American great-great-grandmother who moonlighted as a bootlegger and died mysteriously to her own mother, a bighearted special education teacher with a knack for cracking wise. “I’m writing this as an ordinary person who came from other ordinary people,” Niesslein tells us. As she details their stories, they don’t seem so ordinary, but we get what she means.
A scrupulous narrator, Niesslein is honest about how her ancestors’ worry about being “not the right kind of white” led to fixations on respectability and a desire to shed the stigma of working-class poverty. It fueled their striving but created incentives to distance and judge.
I remember that sometimes my grandparents would explain their youths to me in ways that could only be seen as racist: Dating an Italian was almost as bad as dating a Black. Meaning, in the poor white community, you lost status.
How should she feel about all this? It’s complicated, especially when she begins to factor in her own educated, middle-class standing. “I lead a pretty damn charmed life,” she writes, “and claiming otherwise is, I know, ridiculous. But I’ve clung to the underdog myth.”
Niesslein’s project — untangling her stubborn knots of nostalgia, and simultaneously, America’s — is a tall order, and these essays range looking for answers. At some moments, various meanings of nostalgia seem to coalesce, so that an understandable yearning for childhood innocence blurs with the selective editing she points to in some feminist narratives and a fondness for Southern “gentility” (not her gentility, but still).
Niesslein’s writing is consistently charming. A meditation on film adaptations of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868–’69) showcases the “precious mouthy” bonds between her, her sisters, and her mother, whom she still can’t imagine losing. A portrait of her solid marriage captures the evolving sweep of partnership in a few kinetic pages. “We grew up,” she writes, “shape-shifting together, holding hands like the Wonder Twins.”
However, institutional nostalgias unsettle the narrative. In “Hospitality,” she stays at The Homestead, a resort with historic ties to slavery and, as recently as the 1960s, as she learns from a book in the gift shop, a habit of belittling its black staff (she is there for her son’s music competition). She details the problematic artifacts and clueless guests: “All the nostalgic grandeur […] must be in other rooms. I can’t imagine any wannabe southern belle thinking this is the height of luxury. I’ve stayed in nicer rooms at the Hampton Inn.” The hotel’s atmosphere may border on farce, but the historical oppression it represents is very real.
Jennifer Niesslein is aware of the risk of deflection. She’s often at her best when she approaches her subjects in a sidelong way, examining her biases through analysis of culture, sobering research, or tensions with extended family, sneaking up on the ways our desires and memories are shaped by the web of influences around us.
In Dreadful Sorry’s final essay, “Mighty White of Me,” the “curtain” of nostalgia, as Niesslein describes it, is finally thrown open. She circles back to New Galilee, giving us a full accounting of the blind spots in her childhood recollections along with data that suggest the toll of regional racist practices. “I’m a true nostalgic, but I’m also someone who wants progressiveness, dignity, equality, equity,” she writes. “I feel that deeply inside myself. It’s a tricky thing to square.” With her book’s rich dramatizations of the constant allure of nostalgia, she reveals just how tricky the squaring is, letting us sense the edges of hard truths beginning to soften, before inviting us to find those edges again.
Dorian Fox is a writer and freelance editor whose essays and articles have appeared in Brevity, The Rumpus, Gay Magazine, SmokeLong Quarterly, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Creative Nonfiction’s “Sunday Short Reads,” and elsewhere. He lives in Boston and teaches writing courses through GrubStreet, Pioneer Valley Writers’ Workshop, and Creative Nonfiction Foundation.