The Magazine

Only the Lonely

The peculiar isolation of American life.

Feb 13, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 21 • By EMILY WILKINSON
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We Americans—so the rough sketch of our archetypal character has it—are a people of rugged individualism, ambition, and, above all, unfettered, unrepentant movement. Summing up the 19th century in America, Frederick Jackson Turner wrote that “movement has been its dominant fact.” But movement was no less a part of the colonial era or the 20th and 21st centuries.

Photo of a bench with no one sitting on it

Lydia Davison Whitcomb

We were English Puritans who fled religious persecution at home and crossed the Atlantic to build a new settlement in Massachusetts, pioneers who left behind the comforts of settled New England towns to make their way in the lawless wilds of the West, soldiers who left homes in Maine and Vermont to fight for the Union in Virginia and Georgia, and in the 20th century, to fight in Europe and Asia. We were 19th-century immigrants from Italy, China, Poland, and Scandinavia who left home in search of opportunities for advancement the old country didn’t offer, farm boys and girls who left family farms for city jobs as clerks and factory girls, African Americans who migrated to the North after the Civil War in search of better work and better treatment (some of whom moved back after segregation ended). And we’re still moving—as soldiers shipped to Afghanistan, as bicoastal college students and business executives, as newly transplanted immigrants from Mexico, India, Korea, and Cuba.

But this isn’t quite the whole story, as Susan J. Matt argues: Unfettered and constant our movements may be, but unrepentant they are not—and never have been. Matt doesn’t deny the distinctly American penchant for movement or its centrality in our cultural identity and history; instead she offers a sentimental history, a meticulously researched account of the costs and effects of being a people in perpetual motion. Homesickness is a history of American patterns of movement and a history of how Americans from the colonial era through the present have felt about their voluntary and involuntary upheavals.

What Matt’s new reading of American history reveals is a culture crucially shaped by homesickness and nostalgia, a people at once deeply sentimentally tied to particular places and people, and simultaneously driven away from these beloved places by ambition, honor, duty, a desire to improve the fortunes of the family—or by war, drought, famine, land reclamation, or urban renewal.

Ours is a land littered with reminders of lost homes: Our towns and cities are named for cherished homes left behind in the Old World (Richmond, York, Boston, Plymouth, Athens, Vienna, Bismarck) and our communities are, and have long been, full of businesses and organizations born of homesickness and nostalgia: Irish pubs, Japanese groceries, soul food restaurants, Little Italys, Chinatowns, German and Yiddish newspapers, Greek churches, Spanish-language television stations. From the colonial era to the present, we’ve been rife with organizations representing myriad immigrant cultures as well as state cultures (the Iowa Club in Los Angeles, the Sons of North Carolina in 19th-century New York City). Even the YMCA and YWCA were a venture founded to provide “a home away from home” for young Americans moving alone to cities from rural communities. The mid-19th-century Y, Matt explains, “hoped to reinvigorate home values and provide newcomers with a compass with which to navigate the city’s moral and social geography.”

For all our mobility and veneration of independence and unfettered movement, we are a nation afflicted by homesickness—torn between strong forces driving us onward and the beloved people, places, songs, and food of home that urge us to stay and tinge our wanderings with melancholy.

Americans in their migrations have consistently affirmed—in private writings, through purchases, through remittances sent home—a set of values that counter lonely individualism, that embrace community and connection.

Matt’s ultimate sense of the American character—ruggedly individualist, cheerfully or stoically forging ahead and simultaneously deeply familial, community​-​dependent, nostalgic and melancholic for lost homes—is a paradoxical one, one that seems to work on Seymour Martin Lipset’s model of the American individual and national character as beset by contradictions, and whose negative traits are often “inherently linked” to an admirable inverse.