New Books Network

Feelings have a history and nostalgia has its own. In What Nostalgia Was: War, Empire, and the Time of a Deadly Emotion (University of...

Feelings have a history and nostalgia has its own. In What Nostalgia Was: War, Empire, and the Time of a Deadly Emotion (University of Chicago Press, 2018) Thomas Dodman explores the history of nostalgia from the late seventeenth to the late nineteenth century. Beginning with the coining of the term by a young Swiss medical student in 1688, the book tracks the development of nostalgia as a diagnosis with a specific military medical history. Never exclusive to the French context, the disease garnered more attention there than elsewhere in Europe for various reasons, including the existence of a powerful military force through the period of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, and the specificities of French political, cultural, and medical fields during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Rooted at first in the experiences, displacements, and alienation of soldiers far from home, the diagnosis morphed eventually from an illness to a broader set of cultural phenomena and “feels,” acquiring the character of the temporal, memorial sentimentality we think of today.

Bringing together intellectual, military, and medical history with the history of emotions, What Nostalgia Was stays close throughout to the lived experience of those whose pained and/or pleasurable longings for spaces/times distant or lost preoccupied the expert observers and practitioners who sought to help and understand them. Dodman’s examination of historical shifts in understandings of nostalgia is compelling as it builds on both the author’s commitment to archival evidence and sources, and his openness to the insights and approaches of political and cultural theory, philosophy and literary studies. His carefully researched analysis of what nostalgia was and became between Algeria and France is particularly fascinating. The book will give readers (and listeners!) much to think on in terms of why and how nostalgia has moved and affected individuals and cultures for centuries up to and including the present.


Roxanne Panchasi is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Simon Fraser University. Her current research focuses on the representation of nuclear weapons and testing in France and its empire since 1945. She lives and reads in Vancouver, Canada. If you have a recent title to suggest for the podcast, please send an email to: panchasi@sfu.ca.

*The music that opens and closes the podcast is an instrumental version of “Creatures,” a song written and performed by Vancouver artist/musician Casey Wei (“hazy”). To hear more, please visit https://agonyklub.com/.