Jim Fleming: As Thomas Wolfe wrote, "You can't go home again." But why do so many of us long to return home? Historian Susan J. Matt has some ideas. She's the author of "Homesickness: An American History." As Matt writes in her book, the feeling we call homesickness has been around for centuries, but for a long time there wasn't really a word for it.
Susan J. Matt: Homesickness comes into the English language in the 1750s, but nostalgia definitely signified a more acute case of the condition. You could have homesickness and survive it, but your chances weren't very good is you had nostalgia. Doctors would furrow their brows and worry about the outcome of your decision, so much so that many believed the only cure if you had a real case of nostalgia was to send the sufferer home. That was the only way to avoid death.
Fleming: Wow, and that of course, became even more acute later on during the Civil War, for instance.
Matt: Right, just an amazing chapter when nostalgia really comes out on the scene in full glory, if you will. People had been using the diagnosis for the previous 60 or 70 years, but it's very widespread during the Civil War as so much of the nation is facing the fact that fathers or sons or brothers are away from them. It becomes a national preoccupation and you'll have very high ranking military officers worry that they themselves might succumb to nostalgia. He'll have orders that military bands shouldn't play Home Sweet Home because it might make soldiers and eventually get homesick, and eventually nostalgic and they would die. So there are some very strange precautions that come into place as a result of this fear. And I think it indicates that while we're a nation that celebrates mobility, we weren't all that used to it, even though large numbers of people left home, nobody was finding it easy.
Fleming: But this was sort of the end of the tolerance for nostalgia as a diagnosis, wasn't it? The Civil War was a kind of dividing moment in the history of homesicknesses.
Matt: That's right, you begin to see a growing impatience with it by the late 19th century. The diagnosis will continue up through WWII of soldiers having nostalgia, civilians having nostalgia, but there's less cultural tolerance of it. For instance, people are told that the ambitious and successful will not be nostalgic or overly homesick because that would prevent them from going off and seeking opportunity in an age when social Darwinism was gaining traction in American thought, the idea that people couldn't adapt to new environments was seen as a dreadful flaw, perhaps a biological weakness. So homesickness began to be a marker of inferiority and a sign that you might perish.
Fleming: You have all of the millions, frankly, of immigrants who came into the country, especially at the end of the 1800s, the beginning of the 1900s. Came by choice and in many cases came to enjoy the place they had come to while at the same time experiencing homesickness.
Matt: Absolutely, you see incredibly high rates of return among those immigrants who most people say setoff with the idea that they would be able to go back home easily and often. Among southern Italians, 56% of immigrants went home and stayed home, 30% of Poles went home, close to 50% of Greeks went home and stayed home. In the age of the steamship the decision to migrate didn't see so consequential, so people said well I'll come to America and make some money. I'll go home. Some of them do, some of them don't and stay on in America, but they end up having a dual identity and they aren't quite sure where home is. And that becomes and increasingly common sentiment in American life.
Fleming: So how do they deal with being here? Do they try to recreate home in a new place?
Matt: Yes, exactly, you see so many of those ethnic colonies that spring up in the big cities of America where you can go and not hear a word of English spoken. It will be an all Tialian community with Italian newspapers, Italian food or Greek food. They'll create restaurants for the men in their community who have come without their wives and can't cook the dishes of home for themselves. You'll have all the fraternal organizations designed to keep you in touch with others from your village or city. These groups often sponsored trips home and some people will take those trips and stay, some will just come back and forth for visits, but these ethnic communities become a real oasis where you can feel that you haven't really left home. And they'll even be organized down to the village level so that little Hamlets in Poland will be recreated in Chicago.
Fleming: Is this what you mean when you write about the split between nostalgia and homesickness; that nostalgia has become an anecdote to homesickness?
Matt: Well, increasingly people discover that they really can't go home again and that's kind of the basis of our modern sense of nostalgia. I think technology had a lot to do with that when you could take the steamship home and go to your village and realize that it had changed during your absence, or you had changed during your absence...or taken the Transcontinental Railroad home and see that your little town in Massachusetts wasn't what you remembered. People realized they couldn't go home again and that became this new sense of nostalgia that what people are longing for today is a lost past and home is located somewhere in that past, but it's irretrievable. In contrast, the homesick want a lost place that they can go back to, it's only a gulf of geography that separates them, whereas the nostalgic is separated by a gulf of time. In modern society I think because homesickness is disruptive emotion, a lot of people make do with mementoes of the past with indulging in kind of nostalgic indulgences, whether it's vacations, purchases of retro cars or retro houses; these icons of the past are supposed to make you have a sense of roots, feel connected and stable, even if you're far from the home you once occupied.
Fleming: Is it different now, especially with all of the social media tools that we have available to us, the internet of course, bringing us in some ways closer to the people we left behind?
Matt: Definitely it's changed the experience of immigration. It's changed the experience of military service. It's changed the experience of college. All these were experiences that used to be rife with homesickness. When college students left home they would be beset by homesickness in their first month or two of a new college career. When soldiers went off they too would it...certainly immigrants. What numerous scholars have documented is how the internet has changed that and how cellphones have changed that, and people area certainly in more contact than they were with their families before such technologies existed. And I think the incredible popularity of texting, of Facebook, of email, of cellphones is testament to how much people want to stay in touch and how present that longing for family and place is. On the other hand I'm not sure that technology actually solves the problem with homesickness. It gives the illusion of closeness, but you're still not there and sometimes that fact is brought all the more clearly to you when you can call home and hear the family gathered, as one Mexican immigrant family told me, when you can call home and hear everybody having Sunday dinner and you're in San Diego and they're in southern Mexico, yes, you're connected to them, but you're also so aware of how far away you are.
Fleming: Throughout history, of course, there have been these conflicting views. It's a virtue to some, it's a weakness to others. Is there a right way to view homesickness that we can most healthfully view homesickness?
Matt: Well, 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. And I think a history of homesickness kind of puts that in perspective and gives the lie to that mythology because earlier generations were just as eager for contact with their parents, just as full of the desire to be in constant connection. During the Civil War people talk about how hundreds of young men would be writing letters to their mother if you looked around any army camp at any given time. And I think of that often when I look around and see people on their iPhones and computers, constantly networked. 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.
Fleming: Susan J. Matt is a historian at Weber State University in Ogden, UT, and the author of Homesickness: An American History.