- Homesickness: An American History by Susan J. Matt
Americans are supposed to be radical individualists, able and even eager to abandon birthplaces, family, and familiarity for opportunity, adventure, and even just a change of life and scenery. This presumed attitude marked at least the European immigrants, westernizing pioneers, and corporate executives of American history. Yet, as Susan Matt, points out in her thoroughly documented study homesickness was an emotion and even affliction that impacted millions of migrants and that the “modern” value of embraced mobility had to be learned. And she presents much evidence that it still is resisted.
Matt distinguishes the hortatory from the personal—how American elites of all kinds have insisted that Americans accept displacement first in the name of serving a Puritan God in the New World and later progress and the advance of capitalism while individual migrants expressed through their letters, diaries, and memoirs their loneliness and often eagerness to return home. This is a work in the history of emotions and their control long championed by Peter Stearns. In the search for how Americans felt about leaving home, Matt has amassed an impressive range of evidence and has ignored no group across the span of American history. In doing so, she questions a persistent belief in the “myth of Americans’ magnetic allure” to the world.
Much of the homesickness is understandable: Enslaved Africans, indentured European servants, Native Americans removed to Oklahoma reservations, sold and transported slaves born in America, women obliged to leave family and friends in the east to follow adventurer husbands west, Civil War soldiers festering in prisoner of war camps, young European immigrants obliged to emigrate to find work, and detained Japanese in World War II. But Matt found evidence of homesickness even among those who presumably should have welcomed their movement: prospectors in the California gold rush, successful Jewish or Italian immigrants, and even after 1970, the happy warriors of corporate America who began objecting to repeated relocations.
Matt notes how public attitudes toward homesickness have changed from the Puritan rejection of such “selfish” feelings, to Victorian acceptance of emotions of care and concern for families (especially mothers) left behind, to associating resistance to leaving one’s birthplace with primitive character (low on the Darwinian scale of adaptability and the survival of the fittest). By the 20th century, psychologists insisted that modern life required a cool and collected individualism, and summer camps and other institutions were to train the young [End Page 784] to learn to leave behind home and family in order to advance themselves and contribute to American economic progress.
Homesickness so afflicted American soldiers in war (leading even to death) that officials were forced to deal with it. This was done by treating homesickness as a vice, with attempts to combat it by shaming and physical exercise, by offering furloughs (during the Civil War), and in the 20th century by attempting to forge loyalty between battle mates and providing female entertainment and familiar foods.
This is a very well balanced study covering all possible sources of homesickness and range of feelings. At points, the reader may find the evidence obvious. Coerced migrants were seldom happy. And inevitably some immigrants embraced their new home and others hated it. But this book is loaded with raw and intense expressions of emotion seldom uncovered, and the context of each group explaining the range of feeling is well documented. Especially compelling is Matt’s discussion of how the longing for a place (the original meaning of nostalgia) has gradually shifted to a longing for a lost time, especially as technology, mobility, and business has transformed places of origin so much that one can no longer go home again. Despite efforts around 1900 to persuade the nostalgic that a vacation on a Vermont farm or return to a village of one’s youth during Old Home Week was a way to recapture the past, many were disappointed.
While the author argues that Americans gradually learned to cope with displacement, her evidence suggests a more interesting and nuanced story...