Nostalgia Used to Be Better

Julian Simon often wrote about the persistence of the belief that life was better in the past or that things are steadily getting worse. It takes many forms: people used to be more polite, the media used to be more literate, life is more dangerous today, we’re running out of natural resources. Simon pointed out in many books and articles that, at least since the industrial revolution, life on earth is in fact getting longer, healthier, more comfortable, and less dangerous. Or, as the title of one of his books put it, It’s Getting Better All the Time.

He was mostly right. But in a review of a new collection of H. L. Mencken’s writings, I found an exception: Nostalgia itself, the longing for a lost golden age, was at least more eloquent when Mencken was writing it back in the 1920s. Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post quotes these eulogies for old Baltimore:

Mencken was born in Baltimore in 1880 and lived almost his entire life in the house on Hollins Street where he grew up. “The Baltimore of the 80’s had a flavor that has long since vanished,” he wrote in a 1925 Evening Sun piece reprinted here. “The town is at least twice as big now as it was then, and twice as showy and glittering, but it is certainly not twice as pleasant, nor, indeed, half as pleasant. The more the boomers pump it up, the more it comes to resemble such dreadful places as Buffalo and Cleveland.”…

Mencken believed, as he wrote in 1930, that the great fire of 1904 was what killed the old Baltimore that he knew so intimately and loved so deeply: “The new Baltimore that emerged from the ashes was simply a virtuoso piece of Babbitts. It put in all the modern improvements, especially the bad ones. It acquired civic consciousness. Its cobs climbed out of the alleys behind the old gin-mills and began harassing decent people on the main streets.”…

“I am glad I was born long enough ago to remember, now, the days when the town had genuine color, and life here was worth living. I remember Guy’s Hotel. I remember the Concordia Opera House. I remember the old Courthouse. Better still, I remember Mike Sheehan’s old saloon on Light street – then a mediaeval and lovely alley; now a horror borrowed from the boom towns of the Middle West. Was there ever a better saloon in this world? Don’t argue: I refuse to listen! The decay of Baltimore, I believe, may be very accurately measured by the distance separating Mike’s incomparable bar from the soda-fountains which now pollute the neighborhood – above all, by the distance separating its noble customers (with their gold watch-chains and their elegant boiled shirts) from the poor fish who now lap up Coca-Cola.”

Man, you just don’t get nostalgia like that any more!