In an 1838 speech, a young Abraham Lincoln lamented that his generation could never achieve a place in history equal to Washington’s. No glory could compare to the “display before an admiring world, a practical demonstration of the truth of a proposition, which had hitherto been considered at best no better than problematical; namely, the capability of a people to govern themselves …. This field of glory is harvested, and the crop is already appropriated.” Lincoln and his generation were left with only the more prosaic task of preserving the “political edifice of liberty and equal rights” for future Americans.
I wouldn’t call this nostalgia, exactly. Just as there are different sorts of satisfaction in the present—for instance, happiness from lack of want, fulfillment from exertion towards a higher purpose—there are different sorts of idealization of the past. Lincoln’s yearning is not for a beatific past but the opposite – a past of tumult, but also one of opportunity and perhaps more importantly, meaning and glory.
Though removed by an ocean and a couple of centuries, I get the same feeling from Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, now dramatized (the first two books, at least) in the TV series My Brilliant Friend. The story begins in post-WWII Naples, a time and place of extreme poverty and desperation. But also of great achievement, which many Neapolitans today look back on with pride. The city revolted against Nazi occupation during the War, and after the War launched decades of economic advancement unknown in Europe before or since. Reading the books at their publication in the 2010s feels, even in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, like a trip back to a time when one didn’t have to look hard for purpose in life. Survival itself was more than a day’s work. Being so close to death, the characters seem more alive.
Ferrante doubles the refraction by her placement of the narrator. Not only are we, the readers, looking back on a more gloried time, but the narrator Elena tells the story of her more gloried and more economically disadvantaged friend, Lila. Though Elena excels in school, she recognizes Lila’s brilliance as brighter than her own. Although, or perhaps because, Lila’s circumstances do not permit the path of academic advancement that Elena follows, Elena envies Lila’s ability to harvest and appropriate the glories of life. At one point, Elena recounts the various aspects of her life that she experiences only “quasi” –almost—but that Lila experiences fully.
Lila also does not suffer from any attachment to history, national or personal. The great exertions of her formidable creative power—a story she wrote as a young girl, the shoes she designed for her production with her brother—she quickly abandons. In both cases, she later explains them as only attempts to escape the desperate poverty and precarity of the neighborhood where she and Elena grew up. When Elena—always searching for a higher meaning—tries to show Lila the beauty in the story she wrote, Lila dismisses her, and says her interest in the story was purely mercenary. Elena is left to wonder whether her own appreciation of Lila’s story is silly or refined, whether seeing the artist’s work as more profound than the artist brings her closer to or further from glory. Whether she has overcome, or merely repeated, Lila’s fullness and her own quasi-ness.
History eventually found Lincoln, of course. If he revisited his Lyceum address in the summer of 1864, he may have read with a grimace his glorification of the “living history [of the Revolution] … found in every family—a history bearing the indubitable testimonies of its own authenticity, in the limbs mangled, in the scars of wounds received….” But decades later, Americans would look back at the Civil War, even their own mangled limbs, and see a field of glory.