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What Nostalgia Was

War, Empire, and the Time of a Deadly Emotion

What Nostalgia Was

War, Empire, and the Time of a Deadly Emotion

Nostalgia today is seen as essentially benign, a wistful longing for the past. This wasn't always the case, however: from the late seventeenth century through the end of the nineteenth, nostalgia denoted a form of homesickness so extreme that it could sometimes be deadly.
What Nostalgia Was unearths that history. Thomas Dodman begins his story in Basel, where a nineteen-year-old medical student invented the new diagnosis, modeled on prevailing notions of melancholy. From there, Dodman traces its spread through the European republic of letters and into Napoleon's armies, as French soldiers far from home were diagnosed and treated for the disease. Nostalgia then gradually transformed from a medical term to a more expansive cultural concept, one that encompassed Romantic notions of the aesthetic pleasure of suffering. But the decisive shift toward its contemporary meaning occurred in the colonies, where Frenchmen worried about racial and cultural mixing came to view moderate homesickness as salutary. An afterword reflects on how the history of nostalgia can help us understand the transformations of the modern world, rounding out a surprising, fascinating tour through the history of a durable idea.


"Today the word [nostalgia] connotes poignancy more than suffering, but Dodman's What Nostalgia Was reminds us that nostalgia once referred to a severe and potentially fatal kind of melancholy.”

Inside Higher Ed

"Dodman (French, Columbia Univ.) delves into the history of the medical and non-medical diagnoses of nostalgia. His research took him into various archives of the French military, and these archives inform his analysis and presentation. As a medical phenomenon, nostalgia first came to prominence as a condition affecting French troops deployed in faraway places (though definitions of faraway varied with each sufferer). Nostalgia extended beyond feelings of homesickness; its symptoms could result in major physical disability and even death. During the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era, military surgeons and doctors increasingly used the diagnosis to help conscripted soldiers combating illness and to elevate their own status in the military. Later, French imperialism in North Africa both revived and challenged the medical diagnosis of nostalgia. As the age of scientific medicine dawned, nostalgia gradually lost its standing as a creditable diagnosis and was relegated to the realm of (non-medical) emotions. Dodson argues that medical nostalgia's shifting dimensions over time illustrate a dynamic modernism; the case he builds in this text is perhaps its greatest achievement. Highly recommended."


"This is one of the most remarkable volumes I have read in over a quarter of a century of reviewing books." 


"Through painstaking analysis of medical treatises and dissertations, as well as military and literary sources, Dodman provides an important longue durée exploration of the rise and fall of nostalgia as a medical malady, akin to treatment of hysteria and other shifting, and gendered, diagnoses. Studies of this kind are essential to show how emotions play out in distinct historical moments, how they are political and politicized, and connect to ideas about identity in the past as in the present."


What Nostalgia Was is undoubtedly the best of the new wave of nostalgia studies. Dodman recounts the history of nostalgia in richly contextualized detail with thorough research and thoughtful, persuasive interpretations. This book is an impressive achievement.”

Mark Micale, University of Illinois

What Nostalgia Was is by far the most thorough and interesting investigation ever written into how physicians and others came to define a disease they labeled ‘nostalgia’ and how the phenomenon evolved over the two centuries from 1688 to 1884. Remarkably creative and original, this book has significant implications for how we understand the history of the emotions, the history of psychiatry, and the history of modern European society.”

David A. Bell, Princeton University

Table of Contents

Introduction: Nostalgia as a Historical Problem
1 • Nostalgia in 1688
2 • The Reasons of a Passion
3 • The Lost Pays of the Patrie
4 • Mothers and Sons in the Time of Napoleonic War
5 • Golden Age
6 • Nostalgia in the Tropics
7 • Ubi bene, ibi patria: Nostalgia Fin de Siècle
Afterword: Nostalgia in History
List of Abbreviations
Archival Sources


Association for French Cultural Studies: Lawrence Wylie Prize in French Cultural Studies
Honorable Mention

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