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.

This is not to say that homesickness is bad, though the rending of families in the name of opportunity and wealth was often viewed negatively by those called by opportunity to leave home.  One such ambitious young man, Hamlin Garland, who left his family in the Midwest for a job in Boston in the late 19th century, called breaks with family and home, such as the one he had experienced, “the mournful side of American ‘enterprise.’ ” Matt indicates that towards the end of the 19th century the idea of homesickness as a noble sentiment and mark of good character (if one to be mastered when duty called) began to lose purchase. In the 20th and 21st centuries homesickness took on a decided stigma in America and was no longer considered the serious medical condition it had been. It became, instead, the mark of weakness, unfitness, and future failure, and even a matter of national security when it manifested itself in soldiers stationed in foreign theaters.

While Homesickness begins in the colonial era, tracing the longings for home of settlers and slaves in the Virginia and Massachusetts colonies, its most interesting and intellectually robust work is in the chapters covering the 19th century. In part, this is because the terms nostalgia and homesickness did not become established in American English usage until the end of the 18th century.

In Europe, however, nostalgia had been an established medical diagnosis since the late 17th century.

In 1688, Matt reports, a medical scholar named Johannes Hofer published an account of a student who had traveled to Basel to study and became melancholy about his dislocation and subsequently developed a high fever. The attending doctors concluded that the boy’s only hope was returning to his native city, and so had their “halfdead” patient carried 60 miles in a bed back to his home in Berne. The boy’s health reportedly improved with every mile and he was restored to near perfect health by the time his bed arrived home. Hofer invented the term nostalgia (from the Greek nostos, returning home, and algia, pain) to describe this condition, a term that had close relatives in the German heimweh and the French la maladie du pays. While the potentially fatal medical condition of nostalgia, as described by Hofer, was for some time believed to be unique to Switzerland, by the 19th century nostalgia had begun to take its toll in the United States and was recognized by American medical professionals as a serious condition.

“Don’t write to me to come home anymore,” General Benjamin Butler of the Union Army wrote to his wife. “You make me so homesick. I shall have nostalgia like a Swiss soldier.” The homesickness that his wife’s letters had inspired had made him, he claimed, “almost unfit for duty.”  Butler wasn’t alone: From 1861 to 1866 Union Army doctors treated 5,213 white soldiers and 324 black for nostalgia; 74 were reported to have died of the disease. At the Confederate prison in Andersonville, Georgia, some 8,000 men were said to have “died of scurvy, and nostalgia.” Nostalgia “fastens upon the breast of its prey, and sucks, vampyre-like, the breath of his nostrils,” wrote one correspondent for a Texas newspaper of the conditions at Andersonville: “Many a heroic spirit after braving death at the cannon’s mouth .  .  . has at length succumbed unresistingly to this vampyre, Nostalgia.”

But by the early 20th century homesickness was no longer considered such a dire condition. “Homesickness Is Not Rheumatism So Don’t Try to Make the Army Doctor Believe It Is” announced one headline in Stars and Stripes during World War I. And throughout the century, Americans demanded the suppression of homesickness and sought ways to help their citizens master it (though it afflicted soldiers, students, and business executives no less than it had afflicted their colonial, pioneer, and immigrant forebears, if it manifested in different ways).

Parenting experts urged parents against overly affectionate treatment of their children—“smother love”—warning them that a too-close-knit family would hobble children when it came time to make their way in the world. Summer camps offering versions of the “frontier conditions” that American pioneers had faced in the 19th century became children’s training grounds for self-reliance and overcoming homesickness. The USO, taking the opposite approach, offered “a home away from home” as a cure for servicemen’s homesickness. American women who worked for the USO talked and danced with the soldiers, sewed on missing buttons, and were urged to invite servicemen for home-cooked meals: “Nine out of 10 of those boys are desperately homesick .  .  . [and] hungry for home atmosphere,” an article in the Los Angeles Times explained.

In our own era, Matt explains, cell phones, PDAs, email, texting, Skype, and Facebook, like cars and inexpensive air travel, give the illusion that we can—almost—be in two places at once and allow for long-distance intimacy that displaced Americans of an earlier era couldn’t have imagined. Mass-produced consumer goods, chain stores, and satellite television also mean that we can find many of the trappings of home across the country and around the globe; thus the American capitalist economy makes us at home everywhere, even as it uproots us for school and work.

In this observation, Matt again seems to invoke Lipset’s “double-edged sword.” She has a delicately calibrated sense of the emotional costs of material choices, and her work is important not only because it is meticulously researched and skillfully written, but because it integrates aspects of the human condition that are intimately intertwined and too often separated: the economic and the emotional.

Emily Wilkinson is a visiting professor of English at the College of William and Mary.