Nostalgia for the 20th Century

While walking around the walled town of Siena this past month, my husband and I have quietly observed that even though most of the tourists here are European, if not Italian, a lot of them wear T-shirts printed with English words. The English is often goofy, as if it was translated from the Hungarian by Google translator. Today my husband saw a T-shirt that read, “MILLBURY COLLEGE RALEIGH CITY USA 1968.” I’ve traveled in Europe enough to know that American pop culture has been viral for generations. But what I’m now noticing are the dates: 1983, 1972, 1968, 1956. (The 1950s, now three score years in the past, are about as far back as hip Europeans seem to want to go.)

In the States, the same sort of temporal wistfulness applies. When I walk by my local wine shop, with its sign proudly announcing Est. 2000—meaning it’s been in business for more than one entire decade (wow)—I feel a longing well up in me to see “19” as the first two numerals in the the establishment year. I predict that the farther we creep along into the 21st century—2015, 2020, 2025—the more the 20th will tug at our heartstrings.

Now that we’re a dozen years into a century of Facebook, MacBook, iPhones, and terrorism (terrorism—especially of the nuclear kind—is to old-fashioned war-with-frontlines what psoriasis is to a broken arm), I think the 20th century is striking many as distantly charming. It’s not carrying quite the appeal of the fantasy Gay Nineties of the 19th century, but many are seeing it as a refuge from the present.

Admittedly, from one standpoint, the 20th century was an utter horror—terrible social and racial inequalities in America, child labor, lynchings, polio, smallpox, not to mention two grotesque world wars pitting democracy against two brands of totalitarianism and killing millions of people. But the second half of the 20th century, for all its troubles, was relatively peaceful. Moreover, it was more crisply defined than our own time.

Compared to the 21st century, the 20th century feels remarkably solid, heavy, and physical. It was the century that perfected the internal combustion engine, cars, trucks, machinery, drill-presses, and came up with Bakelite telephones, radios with big dials, and televisions two-feet deep.

With the turn of the millennium fast receding into the archival depths, those of us who graduated from college as part of one of those “19” classes feel a little lost. A more brutal assessment would be that we feel a little old. What was solid when we were young has now scattered into zillions of digital impulses flying invisibly through the wireless air.

I believe that part of our cultural appetite is now craving things from the the 20th century. For example, although the popular superhero movies are themselves marvels of 21st century digital technology, the leading players—Batman, Superman, Black Widow, Ironman, Spiderman, Captain America, Transformers (Hasbro introduced the toys in the 1980s), Catwoman, the Green Hornet, et al.—were born and matured in the 20th century. (As an aside, notice how the movie studio 20th Century Fox hasn’t yet updated its century. Maybe its moguls sense that “21st Century Fox” has an unsolid, unreliable, digitally diaphanous sound to it.)

If I should decide to buy a T-shirt in Siena to remind me of my wonderful month here, I’m not buying one with 2012 printed across the front. I’d be afraid the number would disappear during the flight home.


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