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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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.