Prisoners of Loss: An Atlantic History of Nostalgia

“Nostalgia, like the economy it runs with,” Kathleen Stewart wrote in 1988, “is everywhere.” Critics tend to read nostalgia’s meteoric rise since the 1970s as a reflection of the perversity of global capitalism. Calls for its eradication rest on the idea that it tricks the naïve into foolishly believing that their memories of lost times and places can escape the violence of consumer, domestic, and imperial logics. Philosophers, in turn, read it as a sign that exile – from our homes, languages, and gods – has become the one truly universal condition. Their injunctions ask us to rework nostalgia so that its full potential can be unlocked: we must all learn to accept the inevitability of displacement so that we can better learn how to live together.

Prisoners of Loss returns to the first nostalgics. It is about the soldiers, sailors, slaves, and prisoners in the long-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who were said to die because they were forcibly removed from home. More specifically, it is about how occidental physicians and the institutions they served used a new medical concept, “nostalgia,” to explain the deaths of these migrant laborers. This project reconstructs the genealogy of this diagnostic category, tracking the empirical dispersion, conceptual morphology, and aesthetic remediation of nostalgia as it spread from the European imperial powers to the Americas via medicine, slavery, the military, and literature. Informed by a Christian metaphysics of desire and medieval cosmological beliefs about the health risks of travel, nostalgia was first conceptualized as a form of self-destruction that betrayed a person’s natal weakness of character. Scaled up into an environmental weakness, I argue that melancholic emotion played a pivotal role in constructing minority ethnic and racial populations as peculiarly vulnerable to captivity. Through readings of James Grainger, Oliver Goldsmith, William Wordsworth, Herman Melville, and Martin Delany, Prisoners begins as an Atlantic story about how nostalgia came to support imperial and colonial ventures by moralizing and mediating the deaths of coerced migrant laborers; it concludes as an American story about how nostalgia’s racialized status was virtualized and popularized by literary authors like Harriet Jacobs, Henry James, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Willa Cather into a universally available melancholic response to the losses of modernity.