Have you ever awakened one morning to realize you were born hundred-plus years too late? Personally, it’s an everyday occurrence. However, most Americans seem to feel a twinge of nostalgia from time-to-time, but they cannot express why, and they rarely take the time to dwell on the matter. Today’s living standard is too fast paced. So when they feel a sense of emptiness and loss without an easily recognizable cause they often pass it off and fail to decipher the source. And yet, the overwhelming evidence of their nostalgic malady bombards them a million times a day, from every angle, and from nearly every conceivable source. Media, publications, entertainment, and all forms of marketing and advertising, to name a few primary sources, inundate society with their efforts to ignite nostalgia and solicit customer response. Why? Because they pander to America’s sense of longing for what was; the West and Wilderness, and what it stands for – the hope of dreams and freedom. Thus, America’s epidemic of nostalgia, or nostalgic malady, is the lure of the West.
Most people who read Jack Schaefer’s “Shane” probably get caught-up in the nostalgic reminder of the wild and woolly west. They may relate to one of the characters more than others, or root for one over the others. And they will probably feel a rhapsodic elation when good conquers evil, only to feel a twinge of sorrow soon after at the departure of the lone hero. The old ways are dying out. Civilization of the once wild territory is another step closer to suffocating completion.
Edward Abbey’s “The Brave Cowboy” shows the civilized suffocation of the west nearing its death throes. The hero is now, at best, an anti-hero. Burns may have the same commitment to his beliefs as Shane but there are far fewer open spaces to carry on such a lifestyle and far less societal tolerance for those who do. And yet, it is still a nostalgic reminder at what America has lost, and what it needs to retain for any semblance of freedom in the “Land of the Free and Home of the Brave.”
When reading Abbey’s essay “The Great American Desert” I find no revulsion in his elongated lists of animate and inanimate obstacles. His mention of a half-dozen rattlesnake species reminds me of some excellent meaty meals eaten beside a jabbering camp fire keeping me company with its heated and impassioned speech. And his talk of bugs brought the pungent reminder of protein rich insect stew that had me using my tongue and toothpick (splinter) in an improvised strategic attack to round-up, spear, and eject the hard shells of certain species that are as bothersome as the kernel skins when eating popcorn. In fact, there were only two reminders in that essay I could have done without: how the wilderness/freedom is disappearing, and the grimacing and torturous recollection of kidney stones.
In Abbey’s “Freedom and Wilderness, Wilderness and Freedom” essay the perspective of wilderness in the eyes of a child, found among the discarded landmarks of civilization was just as nostalgic as the desert piece. Where he saw wilderness in the waterfront “with its decaying piers and abandoned warehouses… the houseboats, the old ferry slips, the mildew-green cathedral of the Erie-Lackawanna Railway terminal,” I found it in the massive landfills, the equally odoriferous refineries that seemed to perpetually be run with skeleton crews who never seemed to cross our path (no matter how many times we scaled the fences), the over-grown fields that somehow escaped the various building booms, and eventually, come summer, on the reservation when I visited my mother’s family. And, ironically, my sixth-grade class was the last class the school sent to camp for a week. So, unlike every class thereafter, I was introduced to hootenannies, Snipe hunting, sloppy smores, ghost tales around the camp fire, and panty raids that most citified kids no longer had a chance to enjoy: unless their families took them.
In John Steinbeck’s “The Leader of the People,” nostalgia permeated the piece. The grandfather’s need to recall the past was the conflict that drove the story. And, like the fore mentioned writings, the piece resonated with me, sparking my own nostalgic reverie. I easily related to the grandfather theme. My maternal grandfather, a Native American, learned the White man’s ways in order to build-up his own ranch. My paternal grandfather, with only a fifth-grade education, came from Wales to New York after WW1, and then slowly worked his way across the country to Utah. Upon arrival, he worked hard until he could afford a farm, kept it going, and equally bought and operated a successful restaurant. Although the grandfather in Steinbeck’s story makes a statement a couple of times that I don’t fully agree with.
Jody tells his grandfather that he wants to hear his stories and his grandfather replies, “Of course you do, but you’re a little boy. It was a job for men, but only little boys like to hear about it.”
It is obvious that the nostalgic pull of the West draws more than little boys; though I must admit my love for the West and the wilderness did begin at a young age. But each of the aforementioned stories and essays were written by adults with an interest in the West and for readers with similar interests. That’s the point, many Americans have a nostalgic need to find a substitute to enrich their lives and validate their striving like the pioneers of old.
Nearly every child learns about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Christopher Columbus, Johnny Appleseed, Daniel Boone, Davey Crockett, and dozens of other real or imagined characters during their time in American schools. Over half of all television shows and movies directly or indirectly employ the many traits attributed to the Westward Spirit of America’s pioneer movement: the lure of adventure, seeking new land, conquering hostile territory. And stories would be rather dull without standard characters like the mysterious lone hero, the gambler, prospector, outlaw, banker, ranchers and homesteaders, lawman, town drunk, sexy ingénue’, corrupt politician, and various others that grace the pages of Old West history. Even the fascination with all things Native American is in direct response to how they were treated, survived, and now thrives.
Unfortunately, the west is now populated. There is only a small portion of wilderness remaining, compared to what was. And the desires to seek adventure, treasure-seek, or find an open space to explore and settle must be pacified, by most Americans, through inadequate substitutes. Although a select few have found it in ocean exploration, inventive exploration, or the “final frontier” – space exploration. But the majority of Americans are relegated to the temporary fix: books, movies, or interesting getaways like Knott’s Berry Farm, the Grand Canyon, Wild West Stunt Shows, and Dude Ranch cattle drives.
Personally, I think Americans who remain ignorant to the cause of their nostalgic malady might be the lucky ones. Those of us who understand the nostalgic malady, and who may not be in a position to continually pacify the urge with a healthy fix, most likely suffer more over the acknowledged loss; even if we may have called it something different over the years. And yet, there is a satisfaction in the knowledge, for it drives us to enjoy those wonderful wilderness moments when we can, and to take pride in personal traits that reflect those of our adventurous forefathers and westward heroes.
© JW Thomas