Napoleon’s Hat: Or, The Nostalgist’s Progress
by Stephen Fowler



It’s not the same as memory. Memory is a record of actual experience: things you did, places you visited, feelings you felt. This is something more subtle and uncanny. It’s an intimate awareness of a time that preceded your own; a woozy encounter with the texture of a lost moment; a convincing whiff of the inaccessible. More like absorbing someone else’s memories.

Yes, it sounds improbable. Maybe it’s just the willful illusion of a romantic; or, if you’ll agree to entertain the idea, perhaps it’s actual time travel. A psychoanalyst or neurologist could probably explain it away (though the mental legerdemain that permits an otherwise sane person to palpably experience a forgotten era must be intricate indeed). In any event, to us chronic anachronists  the underlying mechanism is hardly important. All that matters is the melancholy mood itself—and how to acquire it over and over again.

One thing is certain: there’s always a trigger. Typically this is some enduring scrap of the past, an evocative piece of historical evidence that serves as a catalyst and precipitates the reverie. It might be the wooden handle on a depression-era eggbeater, a century-old clothbound field guide to identifying bird songs, or the institutional green paint in the stairwell of a decommissioned post office. It makes no difference whether it’s dusty, or rusted, or damaged; as long as an artifact exhales the eerie breath of the past, it can exert its force over a vulnerable individual, and transport him.

From earliest childhood I was aware of my susceptibility. Like other Midwestern boys, I played touch football and threw snowballs at passing cars; but sometimes, in long latchkey hours alone, I pursued more arcane activities as well. While I was still in elementary school, I began to explore the generations of books that had somehow collected on the shelves of my parents’ living room. Scarred and yellowing paperbacks only a few decades old, but already suggestively decrepit; Victorian collections of love poetry, stately and demure, with faded four-leaf clovers pressed between their pages. There were even a few eighteenth century leather-bound volumes, whose earthy scent bewitched me like a communication from the crypt. The engraved frontis illustration of “The Complaint: or, Night-Thoughts” (1762), depicted an uneasy sleeper awakened in his bed by an animated skeleton, who stood pointing a ghoulish hand toward a ray of moonshine. I was transfixed by a nocturnal anxiety more than two centuries old.

Sometimes the experience was just a passing shiver inspired by the sight of a browned meerschaum pipe in a hinged leather case, or the chrome lever on the door of a 1950s refrigerator. Other times it was more engrossing. An encounter with an antique firearm—an 1870s Springfield breech-loading carbine passed down from some ancestor—could occupy a whole Saturday afternoon. The simple act of drawing back its textured steel hammer into the cocked position was enough to conjure the thumb of a long-dead cavalryman.

One incident in particular stood above all the others. Despite being an indifferent student, I was always fascinated by history, and around the age of twelve I became particularly fixated on the Napoleonic era. On a vacation to Paris, my parents took me to see Napoleon’s tomb at Les Invalides where, in a side gallery, I encountered  the emperor’s distinctive hat displayed in a glass vitrine. Its presence dumbfounded me. In a trance-like (and presumably delusional) state, I experienced the utter dissolution of time, and entered into a material communion with Napoleon himself via a faded piece of bicorn felt.

That experience at Les Invalides was my “coming out” moment as a time-traveller; it was irrefutable confirmation of my backwards-facing orientation. In fact, it had such an effect upon me that I adopted the term “Napoleon’s hat” to describe any artifact that casts an especially transporting spell. Sometimes I still blurt out the phrase—like a madman in a comedy—whether anyone around me understands the reference or not.

Alas, a wistful child does not necessarily flower into an effective adult. As I grew older I found myself looking backward more and more avidly—not like a hunted man, fearfully glancing over his shoulder for imagined enemies, but like a haunted one, compulsively searching in the mirror for the ghost behind him, always just out of sight. The most vivid recollection I retain from my very brief time at a small college in the Hudson Valley is the idle sense of wonder inspired by the wood-framed transom window over the door of my nineteenth century dorm room. If I climbed a ladder and peered through it, would I see young ladies in crinolines whispering in the wide hallway beyond?

Decades passed. While my peers lived their lives forward, inventing the future in front of computer screens, I steeped myself in time’s mortal remains. I wore dead men’s shirts; I ate my meals with a dead man’s corroded spoon at a dead man’s formica table. As the digital age progressed, old paper became a particular fixation for me; instead of working at respectable or productive jobs, I sought out menial positions in silent antiquarian shops, where I sorted and shelved dead men’s books. I spent hours, weeks, and years sifting through heaps of musty hardcovers, faded magazines, and curled photographs. I was utterly absorbed, even narcotized, by the persistent fact of their existence.

You can see the inevitable crisis coming, can’t you? Eventually, as a middle-aged breeder—already responsible for one child, and with another on the way—I came to my senses while sitting on the living room floor, surrounded by piles of garish mid-century recipe pamphlets I’d collected from dumpsters and flea markets. In one uncharacteristically present moment, I saw myself as others might see me. Clearly my relationship to the past was pathological.

It’s a testament to the good sense and humane understanding of my psychotherapist that she made no real effort to cure me. From our first conversation, she must have recognized that I was an irredeemable case, too profoundly habituated to the melancholy intoxication of time travel to even consider giving it up. Instead, she gently nudged me toward a sustainable solution, and in the spring of 2006 I opened my own antiquarian bookshop.

As a twenty-first century business venture, it seemed a bit chancy, if not downright reckless; but I didn’t have many other prospects. And, as my wife pointed out, it would put to use my one proven faculty. All those years of wallowing in the past, of sniffing out the most redolent artifacts from sagging cardboard boxes in junk store basements, had to be good for something.

It was obvious from the outset that my shop would differ in fundamental ways from the traditional bookstore. It couldn’t be a destination for scholars since I lacked the deep learning and academic credentials necessary to meet their needs; nor would it satisfy compulsive consumers of literature (who are, after all, fantasists of a rather different stripe). Instead, I determined that it would be a place for people like me: a buffet where retrogressives could indulge their appetite for things old and forgotten, and perhaps, by squinting, get a glimpse across the hazy gulf of time.

At first, sitting alone in my newly opened shop surrounded by old books, I consoled myself the way I always had. Stroking the die-cut cover of a 1930s medical corset catalogue, or staring into the rich depths of an undersea scene in an Edwardian chromolithograph, I felt like a lucky alcoholic with the keys to a well-stocked bar. But then a curious thing happened: a customer walked in.

He was a dapper and self-possessed fellow who clearly knew his way around a bookshop. Watching him browse, I felt a bit intimidated; but when he selected a 1960 civil defense publication entitled “Blueprint for Survival: Your Basement Fallout Shelter,” the awkwardness was replaced by a reassuring sense of kinship. He lay the booklet on my desk and we both stared at it reverently. Its cover, featuring a naively rendered illustration of a suburban house with radioactive dust falling like snow upon its roof, was sufficiently beguiling to conjure a Cold War daymare. If the air-raid sirens were sounding in my customer’s head as forcefully as they were in mine, he probably didn’t even notice when I muttered “Napoleon’s hat…” under my breath.


  1. Stephen, what a fascinating peek into your early years. And maybe all of them so far. If you ever find the time to extend it into a book, you will find me first in line. Thank you for a several chuckles and a good read! MAB

  2. Anne Canfield on

    I’m right there with you on your time travels. I enjoyed your evocative and well-written essay!

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