Susan J Matt. Oxford University Press 2011 (344 pp). ISBN 978-0-19-537185-7
The wonderfully named French physician Louis-Alexandre-Hippolyte Leroy-Dupré wrote that acute homesickness “becomes more rare each day thanks to rapid communications which modern industry is beginning to establish among people who will soon be nothing more than one big happy family.” One might imagine that this observation was written for the age of Facebook, Skype and Twitter, but it is fact over one hundred and fifty years old, dating from 1846.
Susan J Matt is a historian at Weber State University in Utah; her specialty is the history of the emotions (a previous book is entitled “Keeping Up With The Joneses: Envy in American Consumer Society 1890-1930”) This admirably lucid book, based on primary sources such as diaries, letters and personal interviews, is an overview of the history of a particular emotion, homesickness. American society is famously built on the archetype of the pioneer, the rugged individualist, cheerfully moving on from place to place without demur. This archetype finds different forms; the immigrant, the cowboy, the “Organisation Man”, the pilgrim settler, but all have in common a sense of perpetual motion and freedom from ties.
As with all archetypes and grand narratives, the details of reality were very different. Very many pioneers and immigrants returned, despite the social pressures to remain. Matt places centre stage the men and women who actually lived these experiences, and who were often beset by overwhelming homesickness. This was especially so for women, less in control of their destiny than men. From the first settlers on, thoughts of home contended with the various religious, political and economic motives for perpetual motion. While official rhetoric emphasised the importance of forging on with the pioneer spirit, diaries and letters allow Matt to reconstruct the emotional lives often lost to history.
In 1865, twenty –four Union soldiers officially died of nostalgia. Among the American forces in World War 1, only one casualty had a cause of death listed as nostalgia. Matt records the varying opinions of psychiatrists, alienists on physicians on the causes and management of nostalgia-as-an-illness. Contemporary concerns such as racial and ethnic purity (“weaker” ethnicities such as the Irish and Southern Europeans were often held to be more susceptible) and venereal disease were implicated as risk factors for nostalgia cases.
Over the later nineteenth century and into the twentieth, public attitudes to homesickness hardened. Once, children who crossed thousands of miles to return from boarding schools to families were celebrated. Their attachment to home was seen as evidence of a tender sensibility. How homesickness was addressed by the military in the various wars in the era Matt’s history covers is revealing. Armies have to balance the motivating power of attachment to country with the demotivating power of separation from that same country. In the American Civil War, homesickness among soldiers was seen as evidence of a nobility of nature. This attitude persisted through the century. The sole nostalgia fatality of the Spanish-American War of 1898 was treated with great sympathy bordering on glorification by the contemporary media. The inter-war years saw the cultural shift gain momentum. This was the era where the child rearing “expert” began to opine in the popular press; no less a figure than the seminal behaviourist John Watson weighs in on the importance of avoiding excessive affection with one’s children. The following fifty years saw the denigration of homesickness gain pace. Where the home-loving children of previous eras were celebrated, now over attachment to parents and to home was seen as “sissifying” and a manifestation of “Momism.” An ethic of universal cheerfulness which celebrated the “can-do” spirit further cast homesickness into disrepute. The interests of corporate America were in creating a mobile workforce, ready to cross the continent at short notice. While this is not a matter that Matt discusses, this aspect did get me thinking how the anti-family jeremiads of R D Laing and David Cooper ironically dovetailed neatly with this corporate imperative. Perhaps, as the Marxists say, there are no accidents.
Anti-homesickness rhetoric persists today, although the picture is complicated by the rise of technologies which allow instantaneous communication, and the global availability of familiar brands. Yet these developments are palliatives for homesickness, not cures. Skype, Facebook and similar technologies allow a certain abolition of distance, and Matt shows how they have perhaps helped in the rehabilitation of homesickness as a valid public emotion. Indeed, one of her themes is “the surprising persistence of the extended family” and how emotions and their expression can be moulded and shaped by social forces, but are also strangely resistant to them. Indeed, this is a history of the resilience of homesickness, despite everything. So many approaches in contemporary humanities emphasise the contingent and socially constructed nature of things; what Matt manages to do is to acknowledge the role of social and economic pressures while making a strong case that emotions are less fungible than theorists, pundits and social engineers of all political hues would believe. There is also very little of the jargon and theoretical ballast which many contemporary historians freight their work.
Matt’s title clearly indicates that this is an American history of homesickness, but the book is of great interest to an Irish readership too. The Irish immigrant experience abroad is of course familiar to most of us; a sizable chunk of Irish popular music is eloquent testimony to the force of homesickness. More fundamentally, homesickness is a universal emotion; all readers will find someone to identify with among the lives Matt describes. We may not always go through the same social transformations as America at the same time, but we always seem to get round to them sooner or later. In our age of ghost estates and resurgent emigration, many of the concerns of the book seem all too relevant.
Academic careers rival medical careers in demanding frequent moves (and in requiring a certain insouciance as the proper response.) In her acknowledgements, Matt salutes her husband and observes “since we met in Ithaca, New York, in 1990, we have lived in six different states and travelled many places, but no matter where we are, when I am with him, I am home.” It is a poignant note, and one which sets the tone for a humane and thought-provoking work.
St Lukes Hospital,
Co. Kilkenny, Ireland.
School of Medicine,
University College Cork,