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The past is…past

Fact is, things have never been simple, and the past has never been as great as we want it to be. As a historian, I often use Raymond Williams’ The Country and the City to illustrate this point. Williams, a literary critic and historian, looked at Western literature asking the question, just how great was the past? He found that every age hearkens back to a idyllic past when things were good, right, better, simpler, easier, more moral. But when one looks back, for instance, and says the 1950s were great, the literature of the time is filled with people looking back on the 1890s as a time that was better. People in the 1890s looked back on the 1830s, and the 1830s people looked back to the foundation of the Republic, etc.

What Williams showed, and many other people, scholar and nonscholar have subsequently looked into, is that humans want to believe something better than today existed. It is perhaps an innate human characteristic.

For me, I only need to hear about how great the 1950s were and remember what my black friends think of the time. Or what my friend from Appalachia was told of the time by his parents. Or, I just have to look back in my family history. Not so great, those 1950s.

Not so great, those 1920s…1890s…1830s…

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