Nostalgia, as Michael Kammen pointedly summarizes, is "history without guilt" (688). Nostalgia surrounds untoward sentiments like despair, unhappiness and hate that inevitably occur in actual history and infuse them with a rather hazy, benign aura that tends to forgive such negative feelings and emotions or shrug them off as an "it-was-all-for-the-best" attitude. The tendency, then, is to bask in the warming glow of other feelings like pleasure, joy and satisfaction that encompass many of the positive qualities of a lived past (Davis, 14). The word "halcyon" frequently arises when this feeling of nostalgia occurs. Phrases like "the halcyon days of yore" or "the halcyon summers of my youth" elicit the calm, placid, peaceful meaning of the word. Furthermore, those participating in nostalgia often go so far as to elevate the memory and experiences of the past beyond those of the present, or, as legendary San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen once remarked, "they called them the good old days because they were!" (in Davis, 20).
The discontinuity between the "good old days" and the present usually is a change in individual or collective experience. Nostalgia is a normal, psychological reaction that is set off by the fear of such a shift on a personal or community level (Davis, 10). When an individual's social world is fractured, they naturally turn towards a distinct, known entity for comfort. An individual experience (like the loss of a loved one or other traumatic personal event) or one that is shared with others (like the Depression, the upheaval of the 60s or war) shakes people from their moorings and drives them towards pleasant memories of times when things seemed more simple, more stable and less troubling.
However the past of nostalgia always occurs in the context of present fears and anxieties. The dislocated farmer of the Dust Bowl era may look towards the his bountiful harvests of the 1920s because of his dire present situation, or today's unemployed Internet worker may remember the "dot com" boom of the late 90s warmly because of her difficulty finding work. Yet no matter how much nostalgic emotion draws its sustenance from the past, the nostalgic person must live in the present. Davis suggests that:
a place that takes us further and further away from the present and surrounds us more and more in the past, "removing" us from the mental and physical state of the present, will more and more greatly ease the pain of nostalgia, but once removed, the pain is enhanced (9).
The refuge sought in nostalgia is an attempt to escape the present for a more comfortable, recognized past; but the more one tries to escape the present through nostalgia, the more the eventual (and impending) return the pain of the present is amplified. Like a downward spiral, the need for nostalgia seems to grow with the more that is consumed. To this effect, commercial enterprises that survive on the commodification of nostalgia attempt to build the experience of moving into the past more real and more complete. Halls of fame are a prime example of the attempt to remove the individual from the present by creating a universe of nostalgia, highlighted by the display of the past's heroes.
The National Baseball
Hall of Fame
in Cooperstown, NY
The Baseball Hall of Fame and its surroundings in Cooperstown, New York is a cogent example of the type of total emersion in the past a hall of fame strives to accomplish. The "bucolic" town of Cooperstown itself is almost intentionally removed from "the present." Located almost an hour away from the nearest interstate, "you are 'In the past' when you arrive" (Onigman, 112). The town has intentionally restrictive zoning laws prohibiting national chain stores or fast food restaurants in order to maintain this aura of a realized history. For baseball in particular, this idealized past of a country town with red brick buildings and small streets is important in holding true to the sport's intrinsic bond with America's agrarian traditions (Springwood, 66).
Cooperstown became the location of the Baseball Hall of Fame based upon a myth of the sport's invention in the tiny upstate New York town. While in fact the sport had its origins across the Hudson River from Manhattan in Hoboken, New Jersey, Cooperstown's imagery of small towns and stretches of greenery provided the sport with a "suitable historic past," as opposed to the increasingly industrialized region in northern New Jersey (Springwood, 36). This idealized 'historic universe' that Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame embody the attempts of various halls of fame to establish a definitive past. Although not in a setting reminiscent of its origins, the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto has built itself to be a model to other halls of fame looking to attract visitors. Many of their exhibits have taken a turn towards the interactive.
An exact duplicate of the old Montreal Canadien's dressing room as it appeared in the now defunct Montreal Forum, complete with both game video and audio that "enables visitors to experience a simulated training room" (Kidd, 330). The hall of fame further immerses the visitor into the hockey experience by offering an exhibit where visitors can call the play-by-play of some of the most memorable moments in hockey history, and take the recorded tape home to relive the experience as many times as possible. The International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island, has an exhibit where a visitor can play a simulated match with current stars of the sport. Swinging rackets at the image of a ball shots places the tennis fan further into the warm embrace of their sport (Spencer, 335). Some of this interactivity, only possible with modern electronic equipment intends to draw the visitor further away from the present, surrounding them with the sights, sounds and feelings of the past.
Halls of fame dedicate themselves to capturing the history of their area to educate and promote its healthy future. Halls of fame and their adjoining museums are often the public face of the subject they represent (Pope, 310). As physical structures and institutions themselves, halls of fame are tangible symbols for their respective topics. The broadly based "cultures" of freshwater fishing, thoroughbred racing, aviation and kite flying, for example, all can rely on the public institution of their hall of fame and museum to maintain their history and broadcast it to whomever is interested enough to visit them at their location or on the Internet. Yet the emphasis on finding heroes for a sport or other pastime often overshadows the need for historical accuracy (Vamplew, 274).
In displaying the heroes of the past, the halls of fame emphasize the greatness of success over the mediocrity of the average and the baseness of failure. This focus on success turns history into a more nostalgia-oriented, beautification of the past. Yet a strict focus on history without nostalgia, such as the Cowboy Hall of Fame's portrayal of American Indians or the Baseball Hall of Fame's handling of the integration of the major leagues, would detract from the underlying theme of a hall of fame's proud glorification of heritage (Vamplew, 278). The task of having to juggle the two seemingly contradictory ideals lies with the curator who must present entertaining and educational content promoting the museum's subject area with the need for historical accuracy.
The curators are in a powerful position to influence the public's perception of their topic's history; they chose what is and what is not displayed in their museum (Vamplew, 274). Nostalgia, often a word of derision from historians because of its neglect of the unfavorable elements of history, becomes a touchy subject for the curator. Many people who visit a hall of fame often will have their own nostalgic perceptions of a person or event enshrined in the hall, yet if a curator allowed the inclusion of some information that would taint the visitor's nostalgic memory, there lies a very distinct possibility that the visitor may no longer want to contribute to the population that celebrates the past of their sport, pastime or hobby. Furthermore, the hall of fame is a commercial institution. The curator must realize that the history he/she provides has paying visitors wishing to participate in the culture the specific hall of fame represents.
Nostalgia makes people feel good. Nostalgia helps soothe the worries of the present (if only for a short while) by incorporating the warm memories of the past. The desire to escape the turbulence of the present is often such that they will spend money, a lot of money, to achieve it. As one of the fastest growing segments of the United State's $350 billion tourism industry,
the commodification behind nostalgia/heritage tourism has become a significant part of the potency behind halls of fame (fed.us). James Earl Jones' character in Field of Dreams, Terence Mann, speaking towards Kevin Costner's Character, Ray Kinsella, expressed this idea of how nostalgic sites, such as the baseball field Ray built on his Iowa farm, have a powerful pull towards people.
James Earl Jones in
Field of Dreams
Ray, people will come Ray. They'll come to Iowa for reasons they can't even fathom. They'll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they're doing it. They'll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. Of course, we won't mind if you look around, you'll say. It's only $20 per person. They'll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it's money they have and peace they lack… And they'll watch the game and it'll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. And the memories will be so thick they'll have to brush them away from their faces… This field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh... people will come Ray. People will most definitely come (imdb.com).
This incarnation of the healing power of a commodified nostalgia is best described by Stephen Fjellman as akin to "soma;" the "feel good" drug of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (6). In Brave New World, the government used soma to navigate the population towards social conformity, to have everyone unconsciously fall in line and deflect them away from any "critical thought about the organization of society" (7). This example is contemporarily best served in Fjellman's analysis of Disney World in his Vinyl Leaves, where the Disney company is "selling the antidote to everyday life" (11). The environment they've created in Central Florida has been entirely decontextualized from the outside world and re-contextualized into the Disney version of reality and nostalgia, or "Distory."
Disney World has "become the home of childhood" (ibid). The movies, television shows, characters and the theme park itself exist as its own universe of cultural identity. A visit there is a resuscitation of ones own childhood, a reversion to the wide-eyed innocence of a time long past when the turmoil of modern life hadn't yet worn away optimism and energy. The utopian aspects that the different 'worlds' of TomorrowLand, FantasyLand and Main Street, USA provide rejuvenate like the "magic waters" in Terence Mann refers to in Field of Dreams or the nostalgia laden pastorialism of Cooperstown.
Cooperstown excels in the "soma" of nostalgia, something other halls of fame struggle to accomplish. Because of their intimate association with America's bucolic history, the quaintness of Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame function as nostalgia so well. The other halls of fame use place in a different way. The identity of the particular hall of fame is often intrinsically tied with the location in which they've been established.
Much like Cooperstown's mythic identity as the location of the founding of baseball, other halls of fame identify with their subject's creation. Canton, Ohio chartered the Pro Football Hall of Fame because the American Professional Football Association, the direct forerunner of the National Football League, was founded in Canton in the 1920s (Porter). Canastota, New York hosts the International Boxing Hall of Fame because two of its residents rose to become world champion fighters in the middle of the twentieth century (Nathan). Cleveland, Ohio's claim that landed it the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was that legendary local DJ Alan Freed first coined the term in the early 1950s. Though each place's identity may have been slightly linked to the subject of their hall of fame in the past, the pride the townspeople took in the link helped create the hall of fame.
Creating these halls of fame became a way to exhibit pride in their own pastime, celebrate the achievement of their heroes, boost the recognition of their town and draw in the tourist dollars that such a hall of fame inevitably would produce. The identity of place associated with the greatness of achievement has the tendency to elevate the location and the town into the heroic realms of the people who've been enshrined there. Football players dream of having a bust placed in Canton and basketball players often reflexively look fondly upon and the meaning Springfield has to them and their sport. However the commercialization inherent in tourism and the desire to reap the rewards of the tourist dollar have contributed in the massive explosion in the creation of halls of fame.
Part of the reasoning for this mass distribution of halls of fame comes from the dissolution of the idea of fame. Fame has now been broken down into such a small contextual area that one merely needs to have achieved success within a minute cultural scope in order to be recognized for their achievement. Microcultures broken down into individual sports, hobbies, states, cities, colleges, high schools and even singular sports teams all recognize their heroes as a means to build a collective identity and a recognizable history. If these groups don't keep and propagate their own history, nobody will. Halls of fame have become the lynchpin in collective experience and collective identity within which these microcultures can build their own histories upon.