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Nostalgia, Sentimentality, and Robin Williams. Part 1

In my office the other day, prepping for an Intro Creative Writing course, I found myself ruffling through cabinets and drawers in search of a set of notes I made a few years ago on Robert Frost. I checked, too, also to no avail, behind the books on my bookshelves, which is where I sometimes shove papers I can’t think of a place for. I do this furtively, the shoving, looking back over my shoulder as I do, as if someone might be watching. Who knows why I do this; it’s as if I’m hiding the evidence of my guilt.

My mailman last year was put on a forced leave of absence and then fired after his bosses, having been tipped off anonymously, discovered much of my neighborhood’s mail in the mailman’s sideyard, spilling from canvass postal bags. There was no evidence he took anyone’s mail out of ill will or for profit. He was just worked too damn hard and wanted to get home, like the rest of us, at a decent hour. He had every intention, in fact, according to news reports, anyway, of delivering all that mail, just as soon as his workload slowed down a bit.

There’s not much of a connection between me shoving papers behind my books and my mailman stashing mail in his yard, other than one vision triggering another. That, and this: one of the pieces of mail found in my mailman’s yard and subsequently delivered to me (by a newer, more harried mailman) was an edition of West-Running Brook, which contains “Acquainted with the Night,” for a while now my favorite Frost poem. I promptly lost West-Running Brook and have been unable to locate it since. It’s not in my office, that’s for sure—not in the cabinets or drawers or behind the other books. At least I didn’t find it there the other day. Nor, as I say, did I find my Frost notes.

But I did find items, mostly books, which kept catapulting me into various states of nostalgia. I found the first copy I ever owned of One Hundred Years of Solitude, a short thick paperback I’ve managed to hang onto for just about three decades now. It’s almost my oldest possession, predated only by a couple of childhood photographs. I opened it, as I always do, to the page before the book’s remarkable opening sentence–“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice”–and lingered over for the what? two-hundredth time? the Buendia family tree. For my companion, it’s Ursula; for my companion’s cousin Julian, it’s Remedios the Beauty; me, I’m most moved by Colonel Aureliano Buendia himself, who famously organized 32 uprisings and lost them all.

Another thing I found, in blue ink on the inside back cover of a notebook, was the following passage from James Baldwin, a passage I’d copied from his essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel”:

“Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty.”

In the essay, Baldwin fairly eviscerates Richard’s Wright’s Native Son. Baldwin places what is generally considered Wright’s masterwork in a line of sentimental novels begun with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Both Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Native Son, argues Baldwin, reduce their black characters to caricatures, political props. Readers never learn why, for example, Legree beats Tom, just that he does. And Bigger’s inner life: what is it? Where is it? Both novels, in Baldwin’s view, fail because they don’t complicate—and thus humanize—their characters. With their ritualized and almost erotically charged violence, the novels become a kind of pornography: we can’t take our eyes off the (brutalized) flesh. Our tears are the marks of our arousal.

But when I recall Baldwin’s passage, as I do from time to time, I remember the key word as nostalgia, not sentimentality. Why I make this error, I’m not sure. It might be because I’ve heard and read so many poets warn against nostalgia as an enemy of truth. It might be because of an undergrad literary theory course I took where some cultural critic or other noted Hollywood’s use of nostalgia as a tool to deaden our senses. (Above all, I do not want my senses deadened.)

Whatever the reason, I’ve been wary, still, of buying into the assumption that nostalgia is necessarily harmful, most likely because I myself am so prone to nostalgic reverie. I’ve been this way since I can remember. In the 7th grade, in bed with my 6th grade yearbook, I knew no year would ever be so fine as the one before. More recently, I have been struck with such intense yearning for this or that past life of mine that I’m convinced, were it actually possible to return, that I’d abandon companion, kids, friends, job, Columbus—all of it—to rejoin one of my previous lives. It should go without saying that these previous lives were, in reality, hardly idyllic. Far from it. But such is nostalgia’s power.

Sentimentality, though: that is a different beast.

Next up: the difference between nostalgia and sentimentality; the reaction to Robin Williams’ death; Frost creeps back in.