Homesickness is the topic of a fascinating book, Homesickness: An American History, published late last year by historian Susan J. Matt, in which she knocks down some of the stereotype beliefs associated with homesickness. While Americans like to portray themselves as optimistic adventurers, always ready to wave goodbye to the past, pack up the car (or wagon train) and boldly blaze their trail into the unknown, Matt found that the evidence actually makes it pretty clear most of us are — and always have been — sentimental homebodies.
In fact, Matt found that the attempt to disguise or hide homesickness, for fear of being seen as weak, is a fairly recent societal phenomenon.
She found that homesickness was a tolerated part of life well into the 19th Century. For example, during the Civil War, soldiers openly wrote about their longing for home and family. The Surgeon General’s office actually listed “nostalgia” — which was believed to be a severe case of homesickness— as the official cause of death for 74 Union soldiers. Immigrants during that time shamelessly recreated home in their new communities. She found that homesickness among women, longing for a return to hearth and family, was even popularized by the press as a virtue.
With the industrial revolution and the advent of Social Darwinism, however, the tolerance for homesickness started to change. Homesickness was viewed as the inability to adapt, a mark of inferiority. Men, especially, were castigated for wasting time reminiscing about home or openly expressing their emotions. Beginning in the 1920s, experts warned parents of the dangers of coddling their kids — a parenting no-no some labeled “momism” — and told mothers to refrain from hugging and kissing their kids too much. Leaving home and not looking back was promoted as an important rite of passage, with those who remained behind frequently dumped into the “loser” camp.
While steering clear of more direct displays of homesickness, Matt said that modern society has tried to soothe the lost feeling of family and home with mementos of the past, or “nostalgic indulgences,” such as the purchase of retro homes, retro cars and a fascination with the toys, clothes, entertainment and brands of our childhood.
But the pendulum may be swinging back. Matt points to statistics and changing demographics that indicate a growing nostalgia for the past and desire to recreate “home” through — or, never leave it all. A 2008 Pew study of census data found that Americans today are settling down and are more likely to stay in one place than any group since the government began tracking the trend in the late 1940s.
In a radio interview with Wisconsin Public Radio’s Jim Fleming, Matt said that moving back towards an acceptance our natural call to home is probably a healthy thing.
“I do think that a lot of the alarm we hear today about children being too connected to their parents, all that discussion, and boomerang kids, helicopter parents, that there isn’t enough distance between them is based on a mythic view of our past that somewhere back in a different century we were more individualistic than we are…. I don’t think we’re that much different from earlier generations and I don’t think we should perhaps worry that we’re becoming soft or less independent, or less individualistic because I’m not at all convinced we were that individualistic 100 years ago, 150 years ago.”