“Yesterday,” sang the young Paul McCartney, “all my troubles seemed so far away.” According to most sources, the Beatles’ song is the most covered in history, with more than 2,000 recorded versions. (Number two on the list is the Rolling Stones’ “[I Can’t Get No] Satisfaction.”)
It’s no wonder that nostalgia, often defined as a sentimental longing for the past, has such a powerful grip on us. It’s a popular Cape Cod pastime to hearken back to the good old days and maybe even to maintain, reflexively, that everything was better back then.
Academics have studied the nostalgia phenomenon and found that, psychologically speaking, it’s a way to get at least a fleeting dose of satisfaction.
“Nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom, and anxiety,” reported John Tierney in a 2013 New York Times piece on researchers at the University of Southampton, England. “It makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. Couples feel closer and look happier when they’re sharing nostalgic memories. On cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to literally feel warmer.”
But what if, as the actress Simone Signoret titled her memoir, “Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be”?
For this last issue of the Independent in 2023 we asked writers, artists, and photographers to reflect on their own ideas about nostalgia and look at aspects of Outer Cape Cod life both past and present. The results have revealed some little-known chapters of local history and explored the relationship between memory and wishful thinking.
For many people, “no nostalgic pangs are keener than those felt for a time through which they never lived at all,” wrote Thomas Mallon in his New Yorker review of Tobias Becker’s Yesterday: A New History of Nostalgia (Harvard). Perhaps the most striking example of such delusionary nostalgia in this issue will be found in Wampanoag writer Paula Peters’s “Of Patuxet” (see page A14), her introduction to a new edition of William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation. We no longer make Provincetown schoolchildren dress up as Pilgrims and Native Americans in a reenactment of the so-called first Thanksgiving, but the mythology surrounding that profoundly incomplete picture of the relationship between European colonizers and the people who had lived here for thousands of years remains firmly rooted in our collective unconscious, planted by history books and popular culture. Peters’s essay quietly exposes the horror of what Bradford and his ragged compatriots found after the Mayflower left Provincetown for the mainland.
Another version of local mythology relates to the colonial trade in enslaved people. We rightly celebrate Massachusetts abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Tubman, and Catherine Sargent, but as Sophie Mann-Shafir points out in “The Deed for Hector” (page A16) there are few records of the actual history of slavery on Cape Cod. She writes about the recent acquisition of one such record by the Truro Historical Society: the bill of sale for a Black child, three years old, sold to a Truro farmer in 1726 for “thirty pounds of good or passable bills of credit” — about $7,500 in today’s money.
There were surprises, even for us history lovers, in some of these stories. Guglielmo Marconi, who built his celebrated trans-Atlantic wireless transmission station on the bluffs of South Wellfleet, later became a functionary of Mussolini’s fascist government and appears to have been at least partly responsible for barring Jewish scientists from being admitted to the Royal Academy of Italy. Aden Choate has that bit of history for us, on page A8.
But nostalgia isn’t all humbug, our writers were happy to discover. Paul Benson celebrates the successful efforts of Josephine Del Deo, Ross Moffett, and others to keep the Province Lands and the West End Moors from turning into hotels, parking lots, a golf course, and mooring for yachts (page A6). And Dennis Minsky (page B8) tells us about Provincetown’s Maline Costa, “the most loved man in town,” whose restaurant, the Moors, burned down on May 28, 1956 and was rebuilt in a stirring town-wide restoration effort in just 30 days, in time for the start of the busy season. “It is a story of people coming together to help one of their own,” Dennis writes. “I hope we would do the same today.”
Our fascination with nostalgia is double-edged: both a longing to relive past pleasures and a hope that things might actually be better now and in the future. “We’re very good at idealizing the past, or seeing the past as being incredibly bad,” said the New York Times’s Lydia Polgreen in a recent discussion of the rise of authoritarianism. “There is something in this human tendency to always be caught in this netherworld between memory and fantasy…. We’re over-learning the histories of the past, or we’re over-idealizing, or over-terrified of what’s going to happen in the future, and I think insufficiently attentive to what’s happening right now.”
Among the best things happening right now in our corner of the world is art, and the contributors to our annual art and photography section have captured in the present the double-edged nature of our relationship to the past. What is most affecting, after all, about our cherished memories is their ability to bring back the emotions of a particular moment.
“ ‘Casablanca’ (1942) was filmed from a famously unstable and rewritten script,” wrote Mallon in his New Yorker review. “From day to day, the actors weren’t sure how the story would turn out, just as they didn’t know how the war would end and who would win it. This double lack of knowledge surely contributed to the movie’s everlasting immediacy: the film feels so authentically like the past because it was so entirely about the present. It has probably inspired more feelings of nostalgia than any other movie, no matter that its famous song insists that everything fundamental stays the same as time goes by.”
As we consider the past and look ahead to 2024, from all of us at the Independent, here’s looking at you.