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No Place Like Home—Interview with Historian Susan J. Matt on Homesickness in American History

You’re described as a historian of emotion. How does your work fit into the study of history?

I think a lot of people used to treat emotion almost entirely as something that animated the mob and the working classes, but saw “true history” as the history of rational actors. I have little faith that such a thing as a “rational actor” exists. I’m not a psychologist, but from what I’ve read about rationality and emotion there is not much of a wall separating the two.

As our understanding of psychology improves, our understanding of what motivates people in history changes. For me, wanting to know why people do what they do seems a question I could answer better by recourse to the emotions than just through an examination of external actions.

Is your work then considered a part of social history or history of medicine?

I think of myself as a social and cultural historian, interested in the history of daily life and the history of inner life. This work also tackles subjects that are part of the history of medicine and psychology. What I am most interested in is how these changing medical theories affected ordinary people.

What inspired you to write about homesickness? Did it grow out of your previous work on envy in history?

In some sense it did, because envy and homesickness are opposites. They’re both yearnings. Envy can drive people forward, particularly in capitalist societies, and often makes them move geographically. Homesickness pulls back and is in many ways antithetical to envy. These two yearnings are related and both are fundamental to modern individualism. Today, we expect people to repress homesickness and express envy in order to keep the capitalist economy moving. I’m interested in how these emotional styles took shape and how they have created the bourgeois psyche. 

So part of homesickness came from my past work and part of it came from relocating so many times as I started my career and moving about and realizing it wasn’t as easy as I expected.

So you’ve experienced homesickness yourself?

I never would have used that term and I still recoil from it, as many of the people I wrote about recoiled as well, because it has the connotation of a whiny immaturity. But I certainly found moving painful so I guess I was homesick even if it took me a while to realize that.

There was also another inspiration. The first week of graduate school I was assigned an essay by Jean Starobinski called “The Idea of Nostalgia.” He traced the word nostalgia back to 1688 when Johannes Hofer coined the word, and he examined the epidemics of homesickness that occurred in Switzerland and France and across the continent, [but] he never touched on America. And I presumed that America just never had outbreaks of homesickness because we’re so mobile and restless and this disease couldn’t affect us. That essay stayed with me a long time. Then I thought wouldn’t it be interesting if there were American counterparts to that European trend, and indeed there were.

Is there something uniquely American about homesickness?

I don’t think homesickness is distinctively American, but I think Americans move more often than other people in the world, so we may have more of it in our culture, even if we don’t always talk about it explicitly.

What was your research process and your plan for the book?

I wanted to make it a book that was national in scope so I tried to go to as many archives in different regions as I could. I went to archives in South Carolina, Connecticut, New Jersey, Minnesota, Wisconsin, California, and Utah. 

Before I started, I thought that it would be difficult to find homesickness, but I was amazed that anytime I went to an archive I could find evidence of it very easily. I’d like to say it was dreadfully laborious and required a heroic effort, but it was everywhere I looked. So the archives were a rich treasure trove.

I went to Mexico in 2009 and interviewed immigrants who had come to the United States from Mexico and then returned home. I got the idea from reading Oscar Handlin’s interviews with returned immigrants from Europe in the 1950s. It was a fascinating process. I had never done oral histories, particularly in a second language. I thought I’d be able to predict what they’d tell me about their lives in America, but it was so much more complicated than I expected and made me rethink where the book was going. 

I did interviews as well in Utah with immigrants and with native-born Americans who volunteered their stories to me. Lots of people, when I told them I was working on homesickness, came up to me and said, “I have something to say about this as well.” So I had to learn some ethnographic techniques.

You write about homesickness since colonial times. You trace the evolution of homesickness from a fatal disease until the twentieth century to a seemingly minor emotion more recently.

Yes, it occupied so much of American consciousness in the nineteenth century and seems to occupy barely any today.  I think it’s an important transformation in our collective psychology. 

How did the recognition of homesickness or nostalgia come about? It seems those terms weren’t used before the seventeenth century.

The word homesickness did not enter the English language until the 1750s. There were German and French words but no English word. And there was no medical diagnosis of it as a physical or psychological illness until 1688 when Dr. Johannes Hofer coined the term nostalgia from two Greek words: “nostos” for “return home” and “algia” for “sorrow or pain.” In his medical dissertations on the topic, he offered case studies of the condition, giving, for instance, the affecting story of a young man who traveled 60 miles—from Berne to Basel, Switzerland. He nearly died of nostalgia in the process, and had to be transported home on a hospital litter for fear that he would expire if stayed in Basel. He magically revived when he returned home to Berne. So [Hofer] wrote up his clinical case studies and quickly the term spread and caught on. 

The earliest [American] reference I could find was in Benjamin Rush’s work from the 1780s where he described American troops in the Revolution as suffering from nostalgia. But even before those words [nostalgia and homesickness] hit American shores, people were talking again and again about how much they missed home. You see all sorts of terms and expressions of that longing, from “a hankering desire to see Old England,” or a yearning for home, or a servant’s poignant plea to parents to redeem him so he could come home. Their vocabularies were different but these longings were very present in colonial America.

Did you find anything specific to the Puritans on homesickness or their desire to repress the desire to return home?

There was the sense that if colonists were really committed to the mission to America, they would be able to conquer their homesickness. When people went back to England, there was a great deal of consternation and condemnation. Roughly one in six Puritans returned during the seventeenth century, and those people were often seen as lacking the moral fiber to heed God’s call to stay in Massachusetts. There was shame in succumbing to homesickness among Puritans. 

Many colonists who stayed wrote that they were able to bear the homesickness in America precisely because they felt they were obeying divine will. I think that’s true for a lot of groups that moved for religious reasons. Religious fervor didn’t completely conquer homesickness but it mitigated it by giving them a sense that there was a divine purpose to their migrations.

I was surprised by the number of deaths and illnesses blamed on homesickness. You write that there were 74 Union Army deaths attributed to homesickness and thousands of troops were granted leave to return home to alleviate their symptoms. Did you find a physiological explanation for how homesickness caused illness or death?

No. My amateur opinion as a non-physician was that it was probably a combination of dysentery or other contagious diseases and what we would today call severe depression. To some extent, I accepted their diagnosis of nostalgia because I think many of our medical categories and diagnoses are historically contingent. 

Obviously there was a biological cause as well as a psychological one, and this is clear from the doctors’ reports. Physicians described nostalgics as suffering from a wide variety of symptoms, but many of them reported bowel symptoms and “hectic fever,” a sporadic fever often associated with tuberculosis, which could have also been a complicating factor. And doctors often talked about palpitations of the heart. They grouped the symptoms that the homesick displayed, and listed them all as possible symptoms of nostalgia. These doctors certainly didn’t agree amongst themselves about what the underlying physiological processes were, but they were convinced that homesickness could cause very acute illness.

That deep sense of sorrow or loss would probably compromise the immune system.

Right. And the possibility of returning home may have seemed extremely slim since these troops faced the real possibility of death from battle. This, too, must have increased their sense of despair. 

In discussing the westward movement and immigration to the U.S., you undercut somewhat the myth of the lonely, rugged individualist American character, and you uncover a striving for community and connection that isn’t as prominent in many histories of the United States.

Yes.  From Tocqueville on, we’ve had this notion of Americans as people who were independent and never looked back. I loved Democracy in America and read it again and again but I’ve come to see [aspects] of American life that Tocqueville chalked up to individualism which could have been the result of other things like communitarian commitments. For instance, he talks about our tendency to associate as a way of counteracting the lack of organized power in America and as a sign of self-interest. 

But many of the people coming together were not associating merely because they were isolated individuals who needed to join together with strangers to accomplish civic ends. Instead, often nineteenth-century associations were really efforts to re-establish home ties and sustain existing connections. All across the West and the Midwest were fraternal lodges and groups like the Sons of New England and the Sons of New York and the Sons of Virginia, which served to keep people from being isolated individuals in the first place.

You describe the strong connection that slaves felt to the land they worked in the South despite their bondage. 

It was surprising to find out how connected people were to plantations. They didn’t want to be in the labor arrangement of slavery, but when they were asked where home was they said Mississippi or Louisiana. While slaves yearned for freedom, when they were sold away from family, they also longed to return to them, even if returning to them meant returning to a plantation. 

That these places could be so oppressive and still be thought of as home was surprising. It was a comparable surprise when reading about Eastern European Jews who still wanted to go back to Russia at the turn of the century. Home is home even in the midst of oppression.

You note a “dream of return” reported by those moving west or immigrating from Europe, and recent Mexican migrant workers.

Yes. Most people set off thinking that they weren’t turning their backs on their families or their known world forever. With some of the people, it is clear how slim their chances were of actually getting back. Many of the miners in the California gold rush dreamed that they’d be able burst through the door of their Eastern home prosperous and well-dressed and prove that their time in California was well spent. 

The miners’ dreams of return are perhaps better known than how much that dream meant for immigrants, from the first colonists at Jamestown to those who came through Ellis or Angel Island, and those who come today. Of course, these hoped-for returns didn’t always happen.

Looking from the outside we often only see what appears to be forward movement, never realizing that beneath the outward optimism many people are looking backward and dreaming of being somewhere else.

Immigrants travelled to the U.S. with very high expectations so now it seems reasonable that many, as you report, would be disappointed.

Particularly in the immigrant quarters of the cities.  There’s something of a con game when it comes to America and how it was presented overseas by immigrants who returned home, looked prosperous, and downplayed the hardships they had experienced. And there’s the propaganda from railroads and steamship companies and contractors looking for workers. When they arrived here, it was a shock.  Wood houses instead of stones houses. The filth and smells if they lived in a poor neighborhood. Some of the immigrants remembered moving near the Chicago stockyards and what a contrast it presented to their hometowns, which were clean and rural and not so smelly.

Some of the letters immigrants sent home were very affecting about how much they disliked the situation here. Women seemed particularly disappointed in each of the historical periods you explore. How did you see the role of women?

Both the women and men were homesick, but at least the men had a role in making the decision to move in the first place. While men may not have been happy about where they wound up, they went there of their own volition. But time and time again in letters from migrants to the west or immigrants, the women had not been party to the decision-making and were often not in the least interested in going to California or Kansas. If they were coming from Europe, many of the women were utterly unenthusiastic about New York City or Chicago. Women had a double dose of pain because they didn’t have autonomy and they also had to deal with the pain of separation.

That began to change some after women’s liberation in the seventies when women had more to say in household decisions and household relocations, but up until that time the amount of input from women in the 1950s on their family’s moving plans was not that different from the women in the 1850s. 

Some women who moved from rural areas to cities or moved to work in factories in the nineteenth described a deep sense of loss and abandonment.

Right. The quote that stays with me is from Jemima Sanborn: “I never was weaned from father’s house before.” She was 45 when she wrote that and being weaned was very difficult for her. Mill workers were moving to industrialized towns that presented opportunities and often seemed glittering and seductive, but once they arrived they often found them boring and alienating and very lonely. For many people, when they did come to factories, they also felt they’d given up not just their families but the rural landscape they were so used to.

That gets to the point that when people are missing home they’re often missing a family, a house, a landscape, or some combination of those.

You also write about how institutions such as the military and corporations attempt to address homesickness more recently.    

Large corporations and the U.S. government were increasingly asking people to move in the twentieth century. To facilitate those moves, these organizations tried to find ways to offset homesickness.

During World War II, the USO [United Service Organizations] was started and people always talked about it as a home away from home. Its services were supposed to give soldiers a sense that they were in familiar territory. Even if a soldier was in Burma he could drink a Coca-Cola or maybe read a newspaper or book from home. And if he was at a USO office stateside he could dance with a pretty girl and talk with an older woman his mother’s age and feel he hadn’t left all the comforts of domesticity behind. Also the PX or Army Exchange service helped soldiers recapture the feelings of being a consumer, which was so central to American identity in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. With familiar products, they recaptured a sense of home as well.

You bring your book up to date with discussions of e-mail, Skype, and other technology. Yet it seems that even instant communication may not address homesickness.

People have long thought that technology was the solution to homesickness and that it would just disappear if we had fast enough connections over the telegraph or the phone or the computer. 

We have instantaneous communication and people still feel homesickness, so I don’t think technology will solve the problem, but it certainly mitigates some of the sharpest pain, at least some of the time. Many soldiers will phone home at centers the Army provides or with cell phones or Skype. College students will also do so.  Immigrants are in much more frequent contact with their families than ever before.

This certainly has changed the experience of mobility. On the other hand, I’ve had people say to me and I’ve also read accounts where having that much access makes it all the more clear that you’re not at home. You hear everybody having fun in the living room and you’re still thousands of miles away. You’re connected but you’re recognizing sharply that you’re not there.

I don’t think technology is ever going to eradicate homesickness. In the book, I quote optimists from the nineteenth century who believed that once the telegraph was created, and once people adopted a suitably cosmopolitan outlook, no one would feel a longing for a particular place any longer, for everyone would be connected. But that didn’t happen in the nineteenth century and hasn’t happened in the twenty-first, either. New technology may alter how we act on the emotion or assuage it, but I don’t think technology is ever going to eradicate distance, so homesickness is not going to disappear.

You write about “helicopter parents” who keep in constant contact with their children and hover.

The amount of connection is startling. One recent study said that, during college, students were in touch with their parents an average of 13 times a week, and after college, an average of 16 times a week. Maybe it’s too much of a good thing. On the other hand, the people who are critical of that suggest that people won’t become individual enough or independent enough if they call home so frequently, and I am not totally convinced of that, either. 

Modern psychology enshrines the bourgeois, independent individual as the normal personality type, and when this is taken as the norm, it leads some to worry when people show dependence, when they seem too connected to others. They fear this connectedness will prevent us from filling the role of the solitary, lonely individual that is so much a part of our ideology. That personality ideal, however, is very much a product of history and isn’t some absolute paragon of psychological health.

Despite the fact that we’re not supposed to be homesick, we are. I thought I’d find that we’ve all internalized modern standards of emotion management that teach us to repress homesickness, to move on without pain, and to cut ties. And then I looked around and saw that, in reality, people are incredibly connected, probably more connected than they’ve ever been before. We’re calling home all the time and don’t really maintain our solitary, isolated individualism much at all because we’re really never alone.

Your work suggests that rather than pursue lonely individualism, it may be more natural to strive for community and connection.

I think many people are coming to believe this, and are also worrying about the uprooting effects of mobility. Mobility rates are down. That’s not just the result of the recession, because ever since the late eighties mobility rates have been steadily falling. A growing number of people are also living in extended families. Additionally, there are all these patterns of people returning home, whether it’s African Americans migrating from the North back to South—a reverse of the Great Migration—or boomerang children coming back after college to live with their parents. 

All of these groups seem to be voting with their feet and demonstrating that some spots have a stronger hold on them than others. Maybe it is time to move beyond the myth of the disconnected individual who can be anywhere. If we do so, maybe we’ll come up with a new sense of ourselves that more accurately reflects some of our other values.

You refer to Vance Packard’s Nation of Strangers and there is other literature in the past few decades about a striving for community, but people are having difficulty finding that.

Sure. And Robert Putnam’s expression of that is provocative as well:  Why we don’t associate and why we don’t have as much social trust? Mobility might be part of the answer to that. If we’re not in a place long enough, it’s hard to put down roots and build trust. 

You see some trying to find that sense of community in the New Urbanist developments like Celebration, Florida, where people are working to rebuild the architecture of small-town life. These places are so interesting because they are physical manifestations of a deep desire for face-to-face relationships with neighbors and for a certain sociability that’s often lacking in suburban housing.

You mention nostalgia, and politicians are trying to tap into that desire for some better, imagined past. From the right, you get a look back to the fifties perhaps.

Nostalgia is a potent political weapon. It often seems like a deeply conservative emotion, but it doesn’t have to be. It all depends on the vision of the past that people are trying to return to.

In his new book on President Kennedy, Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero, Chris Matthews stresses Kennedy’s calls to service of all Americans and the idea that everyone had a role in building America. I wonder if pulling people together for some common goal would help answer the desire for community now.

Service is another way to build community, to bring people out of their isolation. We need more of an emphasis on shared endeavor. 

I imagine people are very interested in your work on homesickness.

I’m amazed [at readings] about how many people want to talk about the topic, perhaps because it is usually a taboo emotion for adults. And I’ve received lots of letters from people telling me about their homesickness.

The theme of homesickness seems to strike a chord with people right now—maybe because of the recession or some social malaise or the political divisiveness. What do you think?

Right or left, people feel there’s some disintegration of society and that maybe lonely individualism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. We may not all agree on how to get to a more communal vision, but it seems people on both sides of the political spectrum want that. Conservative communitarians may embrace Edmund Burke’s critique of capitalism and individualism and point to the way that it destroyed religion and severed family ties, and thus caused homesickness. Left-wing communitarians agree that capitalism has changed the way individuals express their emotions and relate to their families, has altered their sense of place, and often has compelled them to subordinate personal need to the pursuit of profits and efficiency.

Both sides can agree that home and community stand at the center of this vision, and that our homesickness reflects deeper longings for a sense of connection that many of us feel is missing from daily life.