OGDEN, Utah – In these jet-set times, it’s hard to imagine that homesickness could prove fatal. Yet Civil War army doctors often discharged soldiers who exhibited symptoms of missing home for fear they might otherwise expire from the malady known as “nostalgia.” In fact, the U.S. military documented cases of “nostalgia” well into the 20th century, until the terminology became passé.
That’s just one of numerous anecdotes and insights Weber State University history professor Susan Matt found while researching her latest book “Homesickness: An American History,” which Oxford University Press released this month. The book is available on Amazon.com.
From early Jamestown colonists pining for their native England, to California gold miners who were reduced to tears by the refrains of “Home, Sweet Home,” Matt depicts a version of the American experience that contrasts with popular mythology.
Matt spent five years researching the book, drawing on letters, diaries, journal entries, medical records and psychological studies to unearth personal perspectives from our nation’s history that contradict the romanticized imagery of American ruggedness, restlessness and individualism.
“As a nation, we focus on individualism, but we have always been about community and family,” Matt said.
A native of Chicago, Matt admits to experiencing homesickness when she completed her graduate studies at Cornell in Ithaca, N.Y., and took her first job in Worcester, Mass. She experienced the emotion again when she and her husband moved to Ogden in 1999.
“I was glad to be here, but I remember thinking, ‘Oh wow, my family is kind of far away,’” Matt said.
That’s a reaction she might have shared with an earlier transplant to the Ogden area, the homesick immigrant credited with naming Ben Lomond peak after a mountain in his native Scotland.
Matt draws connections between her current research and her previous work, “Keeping Up with the Joneses: Envy in American Consumer Society 1890-1930,” published in 2003.
“Envy and homesickness both deal with a longing or yearning for something you don’t have,” said Matt. “Envy is something that kind of pushes you forward, causes you to leave home and try to get the world’s goods. Homesickness drives you back.”
Both traits play a role in how we learn modern American individualism, Matt said.
“We’ve learned to act on our envy, while at the same time we are taught to repress our homesickness. It’s a childish emotion we are supposed to conquer at summer camp.”
Matt suggests that society continues to be homesick, but has learned coping mechanisms, such as fans remaining loyal to their hometown or childhood sports teams even when work or family prompts them to move away. Matt notes the increasing amount of international foods at local grocery stores is further evidence. Matt believes “helicopter parents” are another modern-day example of the homesickness phenomenon.
Some contend that technological advances like Facebook, email and cell phones have eased the pangs of homesickness, a perspective that isn’t entirely supported by Matt’s findings.
“The research is ambiguous,” Matt said, based on interviews conducted with immigrants and soldiers. “One soldier I spoke with, who served in Iraq, said you can talk to your wife on the phone, hear the kids in the background and realize you can hear it but you can’t be there. For some it lessened the distance, but for others it increased it.”
Homesickness also helps explain another phenomenon, return migration. In every mass migration, large percentages of immigrants choose to return home.
Matt cites one in six Puritan colonists in Massachusetts returned to England. During the California Gold Rush years of the 1850s, 25,000 emigrants a year returned back East rather than continue to seek their fortune. Nearly half of Italian and Greek immigrants to the U.S. in the early 1900s chose to return to Europe.
Recent data suggests return migration continues. In 2008-09, the Pew Foundation reported 636,000 Mexicans coming to the U.S., while that same year, 433,000 returned home.
So if leaving home is so challenging, how did the nation become so transient?
“During the highest rates of mobility, 1820-1850, people move with the hope that they will get back; they’ll make their fortunes and return home,” Matt said. “After the Civil War, people see themselves as permanently scattered. They begin to hold family reunions in the 1870s, conceding they were never going to live together in the same place.”
Matt suggests that 19th century European commentators reporting on restless Americans contributed to the perception of rugged individualism, as well as historians who drew conclusions based solely on actions observed.
“The piece they missed is why we were moving,” said Matt, who examines the history of emotion in her research. “If you don’t know what people are feeling when they are doing things, you don’t know what motivates them. You need to get inside their heads to fully understand their actions.”
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