Is Walmart the Cure for Homesickness?
Susan J. Matt is author of Homesickness: An American History, which comes out from Oxford in September. She is Presidential Distinguished Professor and Chair of the History Department at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah.
In recent years, a number of writers have suggested that homesickness will soon disappear. Planes and cars scatter people across the globe, sending us to new places that increasingly look like the places we have just left. With McDonald’s available from Mumbai to Madrid, and with curries and chorizo available in Milwaukee and Mobile, global migrants can find more or less identical images, tastes, and sounds around the world. Since home now can be recreated anywhere and everywhere, men and women no longer need to think of it as a distinctive, particular place. In turn, homesickness, an emotion Homer sang of 3,000 years ago, will finally, and forever, vanish. Yet while our sense of home has indeed changed and become far more commercialized, homesickness shows little sign of disappearing. Americans have modified the way they react to the emotion, but it remains powerful and present within American culture.
A century ago, people displayed their homesickness publicly. For instance, during the Civil War, seventy-four Union soldiers died of homesickness, or nostalgia as it was then called. Five thousand other soldiers had severe clinical cases that warranted inclusion in the Surgeon General’s records. Hundreds of thousands more had minor cases, which made them sad if not sick. They peppered their letters with their longings for home, often including a litany of what they missed. Home was a place of particularity, with distinctive smells and tastes. Leaving it represented real trauma. Union soldier Richard Gould wrote his sister in 1864: “I dream of home most every night and of being at your house & of going in the buttery & down in the cellar and eating pie & cake.” Soldiers often requested that their families send cakes and cookies, so that they might enjoy a taste of home.
Fifty years later, during World War I, soldiers still expressed their homesickness, but instead of homemade cakes, talk of branded goods seeped into their laments. For instance, Pvt. Evan Miller wrote his father from France in 1918, suggesting, “. . . you might send me a box of Hershey bars . . . for we can’t buy any good chocolate over here.” By World War II, the Army catered to such desires through its Army Exchange Service [AES]. One journalist reported, “These AES men know better than anyone else what name brands do for a homesick Yank in tropical or Arctic wilderness . . . . Mere sight of a popular brand of cigarette, tomato juice, chewing gum, candy bar or toothpaste touches off eager discussion of peacetime days in the village drug store, of home-cooked meals, of long-remembered dates.”
Today, when soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan feel homesick, they visit the Exchange Service. One explained, “they want . . . some sandwiches, some chips, and that’s all brand names, Lays, Ruffles. . . Pepsi Lime, Coke . . . . It’s just like home. . . . I’m gonna drink a Diet Pepsi or a Coke and sit and watch a DVD.”
These efforts to reproduce a sense of home by buying Cokes and Ruffles are not particular to wartime. Civilians on the move show similar patterns. Whereas in the nineteenth century, thoughts of home lingered on unique faces, scenes, tastes, by the twentieth and twenty-first, homesick Americans longed for their families, but also for Oreos and Rice Crispies.
Today it is easier to recreate home than ever before. Brand names, chain stores, computers, and cell phones allow the displaced to live in the midst of images and objects similar to those left behind. The mass-produced goods and entertainment of multinational companies offer comfort to migrants precisely because they are mass-produced, identical to what they had at home, and much easier to obtain than mother’s home-baked goodies were a century ago. Here the contradictions of capitalism are on display: Some fault it for uprooting individuals, destroying all sense of home and place, replacing the distinctive and particular with the identical and the anonymous, the small friendly grocery with the big box store. Yet capitalism, with its technologies of reproducing, of mass producing, which can be so destructive, also offers familiarity through those very processes. Because corporate capitalism seeks the broadest possible market, it blankets large parts of the earth with identical tastes, sounds, images. The corporatized, homogenized landscapes filled with Burger Kings and Walmarts provoke aesthetic nausea in some, but for many on the move, they offer a sense of the known and the familiar. Chains obliterate all differences, but this is one of their selling points to uprooted migrants. Perhaps home is where the Walmart is.
Take Ricardo Valencia, who moved from Guadalajara to Pahrump, Nevada in 2005, to support his family in Mexico. The day after arriving, he thought, “I want to leave! Because I’ve always been really close with my family . . . . But I had to stand it, we had to stand it.” To cope with his homesickness, he called home and emailed family. More notably, he visited places that reminded him of home. Some were chain stores, for in Guadalajara he shopped at Office Depot, Walmart, Sam’s Club. He visited those stores in Nevada and found in them the “same things, things I had purchased for my children, my wife [in Mexico].” When lonesome, he’d go to Walmart and buy toys for his children. “Objects mentally transported me with my family.”
The fact that Valencia could buy the same products in Nevada and Mexico, and that he could communicate so easily with home, made the world seem smaller. And many believe that as our sense of distance shrinks, it will be easier to feel at home wherever we go. However, this optimism—that homesickness will give way to cosmopolitanism—has been around for over two centuries. In 1846, a French doctor wrote that acute homesickness “becomes more rare each day, thanks to rapid communication which modern industry is beginning to establish among people who will soon be nothing more than one big family.” In 1899, an American observed, “nostalgia has grown less common in these days of quick communication, of rapid transmission of news and of a widened knowledge of geography.” His hopes were echoed in 2009 by an army officer back from Iraq, who suggested that with the globalized economy and new communication technologies, “homesickness should be a thing of the past, now.”
This prediction has yet to be borne out. While chain stores, the internet, and cell phones may be the next best thing to being there, they are not the same as being there. Americans’ sense of home has become commercialized over the last century and a half, and our transportation more rapid. Phones and computers keep us better connected than ever. However, these innovations have not succeeded in loosening the hold that our own particular homes have on our imaginations. In reality, homesickness is stubborn, unwilling to disappear in the face of technological advancement and global consumerism. Certainly this proved true for Ricardo Valencia. After four years in Nevada, during which he wandered the aisles of Walmart, longing for life in Mexico, he returned to his home and family in 2009.
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