This is a wonderful book I heartily recommend, indeed re-reading the review I hope the warmth of my recommendation is clear. The balance Susan Mat strikes between mastery of the academic and theoretical framework and what could best be called common sense (and readability) is highly impressive.
In this review I didn’t have space to expand on the parallels between the State Associations Mat describes (for instance Minnesota or Wisconsin Societites in Chicago or New York) and County Association in Ireland. My father was active in the Sligo Association in Dublin, and at his funeral I was very touched by the many who came to me having been involved in it and also the Galway or Mayo Associations (evidently Connacht folk stick together!) with fond memories of him.
Here is the original link
The wonderfully named French physician Louis-Alexandre-Hippolyte Leroy-Dupré wrote that acute homesickness “becomesmore rare each day thanks to rapid communications which modernindustry is beginning to establish among people who will soon benothing more than one big happy family.” One might imagine thatthis observation was written for the age of Facebook, Skype andTwitter, but it is fact over one hundred and fifty years old, datingfrom 1846.Susan J Matt is a historian at Weber State University in Utah; herspecialty is the history of the emotions (a previous book is entitled“Keeping Up With The Joneses: Envy in American ConsumerSociety 1890-1930”) This admirably lucid book, based on primarysources such as diaries, letters and personal interviews, is anoverview 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 placewithout demur. This archetype finds different forms; theimmigrant, the cowboy, the “Organisation Man”, the pilgrimsettler, but all have in common a sense of perpetual motion andfreedom from ties.As with all archetypes and grand narratives, the details of realitywere very different. Very many pioneers and immigrants returned,despite the social pressures to remain. Matt places centre stagethe men and women who actually lived these experiences, andwho were often beset by overwhelming homesickness. This wasespecially so for women, less in control of their destiny than men.From the first settlers on, thoughts of home contended with thevarious religious, political and economic motives for perpetualmotion. While official rhetoric emphasised the importance offorging on with the pioneer spirit, diaries and letters allow Matt toreconstruct the emotional lives often lost to history.In 1865, twenty –four Union soldiers officially died of nostalgia [2019 note – I should have said “the official cause of death for 24 Union soldiers was nostalgia].Among the American forces in World War 1, only one casualty hada cause of death listed as nostalgia. Matt records the varyingopinions of psychiatrists, alienists on physicians on the causes andmanagement of nostalgia-as-an-illness. Contemporary concernssuch as racial and ethnic purity (“weaker” ethnicities such as theIrish and Southern Europeans were often held to be moresusceptible) and venereal disease were implicated as risk factorsfor nostalgia cases.Over the later nineteenth century and into the twentieth, publicattitudes to homesickness hardened. Once, children who crossedthousands of miles to return from boarding schools to familieswere celebrated. Their attachment to home was seen as evidenceof a tender sensibility. How homesickness was addressed by themilitary in the various wars in the era Matt’s history covers isrevealing. Armies have to balance the motivating power ofattachment to country with the demotivating power of separationfrom that same country. In the American Civil War, homesicknessamong soldiers was seen as evidence of a nobility of nature. Thisattitude persisted through the century. The sole nostalgia fatality ofthe Spanish-American War of 1898 was treated with greatsympathy bordering on glorification by the contemporary media.The inter-war years saw the cultural shift gain momentum. Thiswas the era where the child rearing “expert” began to opine inthe popular press; no less a figure than the seminal behaviouristJohn Watson weighs in on the importance of avoiding excessiveaffection with one’s children. The following fifty years saw thedenigration of homesickness gain pace. Where the home-lovingchildren of previous eras were celebrated, now over attachment toparents and to home was seen as “sissifying” and a manifestationof “Momism.” An ethic of universal cheerfulness which celebratedthe “can-do” spirit further cast homesickness into disrepute. Theinterests of corporate America were in creating a mobile workforce,ready to cross the continent at short notice. While this is not amatter that Matt discusses, this aspect did get me thinking howthe anti-family jeremiads of R D Laing and David Cooper ironicallydovetailed neatly with this corporate imperative. Perhaps, as theMarxists say, there are no accidents.Anti-homesickness rhetoric persists today, although the picture iscomplicated by the rise of technologies which allow instantaneouscommunication, and the global availability of familiar brands. Yetthese developments are palliatives for homesickness, not cures.Skype, Facebook and similar technologies allow a certain abolitionof distance, and Matt shows how they have perhaps helped in therehabilitation of homesickness as a valid public emotion. Indeed,one of her themes is “the surprising persistence of the extendedfamily” and how emotions and their expression can be mouldedand shaped by social forces, but are also strangely resistant to themIndeed, this is a history of the resilience of homesickness, despiteeverything. So many approaches in contemporary humanitiesemphasise the contingent and socially constructed nature ofthings; what Matt manages to do is to acknowledge the role ofsocial and economic pressures while making a strong case thatemotions are less fungible than theorists, pundits and socialengineers of all political hues would believe. There is also very littleof the jargon and theoretical ballast which many contemporaryhistorians freight their workMatt’s title clearly indicates that this is an American history ofhomesickness, but the book is of great interest to an Irishreadership too. The Irish immigrant experience abroad is of course
familiar to most of us; a sizable chunk of Irish popular music iseloquent testimony to the force of homesickness. Morefundamentally, homesickness is a universal emotion; all readers willfind someone to identify with among the lives Matt describes. Wemay not always go through the same social transformations asAmerica at the same time, but we always seem to get round tothem sooner or later. In our age of ghost estates and resurgentemigration, many of the concerns of the book seem all toorelevant.Academic careers rival medical careers in demanding frequentmoves (and in requiring a certain insouciance as the properresponse.) In her acknowledgements, Matt salutes her husbandand observes “since we met in Ithaca, New York, in 1990, we havelived in six different states and travelled many places, but no matterwhere we are, when I am with him, I am home.” It is a poignantnote, and one which sets the tone for a humane and thought-provoking work.