Susan Matt Talks About Homesickness

Over at History News Network, Robin Lindley interviews Susan Matt about her new book Homesickness: An American History.  As I have written here before, I have long been fascinated with the subject of homesickness. After I discussed the topic in The Way of Improvement Leads Home, I thought that some day I might write a book on the subject. But Matt has beat me to the punch. I am not sure I would have anything new to say or be able to say it as effectively as Matt.  Kudos!

Here is a taste of the interview:

How did the recognition of homesickness or nostalgia come about? It seems those terms weren’t used before the seventeenth century.
The word homesickness did not enter the English language until the 1750s. There were German and French words but no English word. And there was no medical diagnosis of it as a physical or psychological illness until 1688 when Dr. Johannes Hofer coined the term nostalgia from two Greek words: “nostos” for “return home” and “algia” for “sorrow or pain.” In his medical dissertations on the topic, he offered case studies of the condition, giving, for instance, the affecting story of a young man who traveled 60 miles—from Berne to Basel, Switzerland. He nearly died of nostalgia in the process, and had to be transported home on a hospital litter for fear that he would expire if stayed in Basel. He magically revived when he returned home to Berne. So [Hofer] wrote up his clinical case studies and quickly the term spread and caught on. 

The earliest [American] reference I could find was in Benjamin Rush’s work from the 1780s where he described American troops in the Revolution as suffering from nostalgia. But even before those words [nostalgia and homesickness] hit American shores, people were talking again and again about how much they missed home. You see all sorts of terms and expressions of that longing, from “a hankering desire to see Old England,” or a yearning for home, or a servant’s poignant plea to parents to redeem him so he could come home. Their vocabularies were different but these longings were very present in colonial America. 

Did you find anything specific to the Puritans on homesickness or their desire to repress the desire to return home?
There was the sense that if colonists were really committed to the mission to America, they would be able to conquer their homesickness. When people went back to England, there was a great deal of consternation and condemnation. Roughly one in six Puritans returned during the seventeenth century, and those people were often seen as lacking the moral fiber to heed God’s call to stay in Massachusetts. There was shame in succumbing to homesickness among Puritans. 

Many colonists who stayed wrote that they were able to bear the homesickness in America precisely because they felt they were obeying divine will. I think that’s true for a lot of groups that moved for religious reasons. Religious fervor didn’t completely conquer homesickness but it mitigated it by giving them a sense that there was a divine purpose to their migrations.