Are Americans Secretly Homesick?

According to a new history, we were never a nation of rugged individualists. We were—and still are—nostalgic homebodies.

Are Americans actually homesick?
Are Americans actually homesick?

Photograph by Oliver Hoffmann/iStockphoto.

We like to think of Americans as restless westward wanderers, forever striking out for new territories. We don’t look back; we squint into the sun. We imagine the immigrants who built this nation as optimistic, rugged folk, shaking off old ways to hustle in a land of inventors and entrepreneurs. If these people missed home in their relentless drive to conquer, they didn’t dwell on it.

Except they did. It was all they talked about. In her new book, Homesickness: An American History, historian Susan J. Matt documents all the ways in which restless Americans have missed home—and how they’ve gradually learned to suppress their declarations of homesickness. It’s only over the last 100 years or so, Matt writes, that we’ve come to idealize leaving home, to see it not just as a necessity but as proof of real adulthood. Homesickness is now the province of children at summer camp. But once upon a time, we were a nation of proud homebodies. We felt deeply rooted even when we wandered far. And now demographics suggest that we may be reclaiming that mantle, showing ever greater nostalgia for the past, and returning to where we came from in greater numbers—if we ever leave at all.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, homesickness was a matter openly discussed by displaced Americans. Missing home was considered evidence of a virtuous and sensitive character, especially for women. Newspapers carried stories of little girls somehow separated from the family hearth, who valiantly trudged through snow to return to it. (These days, we read only about miracle cats finding their way home.) Papers also reported on the phenomenon of what were called “Homesick Suicides”—the Michigan schoolgirl living miserably in New York, the English woman in “deep despondency … owing to her separation from friends and home scenes.” A guide warned foreign men likely to emigrate: “Women, and especially English women, transplant very badly.”

Men, too, talked of their suffering. Some pioneers who’d obeyed manifest destiny openly lamented it. Matt quotes one California-bound man’s journal, which she describes as “visibly tear-smudged”: “I left all that is near and dear and turned my face toward a strange land.” During the Civil War, men waylaid with what today might be considered reactions to the stress of combat were diagnosed with “nostalgia,” or severe homesickness. The medical community speculated that activities such as drinking, gambling and masturbation could exacerbate this condition, and they tried to cure it with approaches ranging from sympathetic female nurses to strict exercise to shaming. The Surgeon General’s office actually listed nostalgia as the cause of death for 74 Union soldiers.

But over time, the view of homesickness as something natural and even inevitable changed. Toward the end of the 19th century, Matt writes, as the modern industrial economy developed, homesickness came to be something Americans—and men especially—didn’t admit to, a sign of weakness and provincialism. Social Darwinists theorized that it was connected with savagery, and that “civilized” whites were less likely to suffer from it. From the 1920s onward, parenting experts picked up the thread. They cautioned against the scourge of coddling, sometimes called “momism”; they warned parents not to send their children gushy notes at summer camp; they even told mothers to avoid kissing and hugging their kids for fear of provoking too much attachment. Somewhere along the way, homesickness became the province of the youngest and neediest. The rest of us might miss our parents when we left for college or for a job in a new city, but we’d get over it. Leaving home was a rite of passage.

This machismo about leaving home is still pervasive. You hear it in the disdainful way some college-educated people refer to “townies.” According to this view of things, those who remain where they grew up must lack curiosity or ambition. But while leaving home may be an American legacy, it’s not human nature. For the bulk of human history young people didn’t leave friends and family and everything they knew to set up different lives hundreds or thousands of miles away. Is homesickness really something we should aspire to overcome? If you love your home, why bother to re-create it elsewhere?

These days, while it’s not as permissible as it once was for an adult to muse about, say, missing her parents, it is more than permissible to indulge in casual nostalgia for one’s childhood.  Specifically, we miss the brands of our childhoods. We fetishize that old Commodore 64, we lament mix tapes having disappeared. We dress like the ‘80s–no, the ‘90s–again, and recycle the past ever faster. Matt wonders if, in the face of rapid change, we have sublimated our longing for home, for the way things used to be, into a passion for retro objects. This type of nostalgia lets us signal cultural hipness instead of the rootlessness and neediness we feel deep down.

I was homesick after I moved to a new city for my first job, and I never did get over it. My husband and daughter and I now live in the same 2-square-mile town in the New York City suburbs where I grew up. The tiny downtown is still just two streets long, except now the corner bar is being converted into a yoga studio. I came back here after 11 years in Washington, D.C., because I still missed this place and because my husband and I were having our first child. My husband missed his family in Chicago, too, but New York won out, in part because that’s where the work was. We looked at other towns nearby, but the closer we got to where my parents live, the closer I wanted to be.

Some of my favorite people from high school also came back to town, or never left, and this is becoming less unusual. A 2008 Pew study of census data found that contemporary Americans are more likely to stay in one place than any group since the government began tracking such behavior in the late ‘40s. A lot of factors influence this trend, including an aging population, an increase in two-income households (accommodating two careers makes relocation harder for many families), and, recently, a dearth of the kinds of job opportunities that often induce people to move. Data shows that multigenerational households are also on the rise. (In the houses on either side of us, whether by necessity or desire, three generations live under one roof.) As sociologist Claude Fischer has pointed out, the notion of a “modern rootlessness” exacerbated by technology and economic change is simply a myth.

In 1862, as Matt’s history recounts, an American newspaper told the story of two girls, Alice and Lotty, who ventured to a nearby farm only to discover they missed the comfort of everything familiar. They hustled back home and were relieved to find the old familiar things still there: the scent of flowers and the sound of ice tinkling in the milk-pitcher, the raspberries and sponge cake on the tea table, their mother dressed in white. “How delightful,” the girls concluded.

Maybe we haven’t changed so much over the years. Maybe Alice and Lotty had it right. And maybe, as more of us settle down near our childhood homes, rootedness may come to be viewed not as a sign of emotional stuntedness but as an expression of a basic human craving: continuity with the past.