Out of the Zoo: “A Perfect Fit”

Kalamazoo to mechan

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie talks about matters familiar to the readers of this blog. 🙂  –JF

I spent the first 18 years of my life in the same small town near Kalamazoo, Michigan. For 18 years I lived in the same old white farmhouse, climbing the same trees and sledding down the same steep hill in my backyard. For thirteen years I went to the same school district, graduating with many of the kids that were in my kindergarten class. My family switched churches a few times while I was growing up, but I was always surrounded by the same community of believers that helped raise, support and mentor my triplet siblings and I from the day we were born to the day we moved off to college. “It takes a village,” my Mom would always say. 

You can probably imagine that leaving my “village” and moving nine hours away to Messiah wasn’t easy. During my first few months at school I constantly caught myself thinking about home, sometimes to the point that it was hard to focus on schoolwork. As time passed it got easier, and I got used to life away from my family and friends back in Michigan. I learned to talk  about my feelings instead of bottling them up inside, and more importantly to trust the Lord when I was struggling. Even so, homesickness remained a familiar affliction for quite some time.

Homesickness was also a familiar feeling for Philip Vickers Fithian, the eighteenth century protagonist of The Way of Improvement Leads Home. This past week my “Age of Hamilton” class read Professor Fea’s essay that inspired the book. We read about Fithian’s life–his upbringing in rural New Jersey, the education he received at Princeton and his experience tutoring in Virginia, as well as his return to Cohansey. In class we compared his coming-of-age story with Alexander Hamilton’s, and discussed their shared desire to rise up and better themselves. However we also learned that Fithian, unlike Hamilton, was constantly burdened by homesickness–whether he was studying at Princeton, tutoring in Virginia, or performing duties elsewhere. While I am not a student at Princeton, nor do I live in the 1700s, I did find Fithian’s story to be strikingly similar to my own.

As historians, our task is to step into the shoes of the people we study–to empathize with their struggles and see the world through their eyes. Sometimes this proves a more difficult task than we expect. We get discouraged and find ourselves, like Cinderella’s wicked stepsisters, trying to jam our toes into glass slippers that are far too small. Or perhaps more frequently the shoes fit, but we find them uncomfortable or unfashionable and toss them aside.

Other times though, the historical narrative makes this an easy task. Instead of laboriously trying to squeeze our feet into a pair of slippers, we find they’re a perfect fit. When I read Professor Fea’s essay on Fithian, I felt like I could have been reading an excerpt from my own biography.  I read about how Fithian missed “hearing good Mr. Hunter preach,” (478) and was reminded of how hard it was for me to be away from home last Easter. Fithian wrote about missing Elizabeth Beatty and I thought about my own long distance relationship that began a few months after moving to school. Fithian would set aside his studies to look out the window towards home, just like I would swipe through old pictures from Michigan when I felt homesick. When I read about Fithian, I knew exactly what he was going through. I found it easier to step into his shoes not because I’m academically skilled or an expert historian, but because I’ve worn them myself.

Homesickness in the Continental Army

ThacherOver at Boston 1775, J.L. Bell tells the story of Dr. James Thacher at the Battle of Springfield, New Jersey in June 1780.  As someone who has written a bit about homesickness, I was attracted to this part of Bell’s post (and Thacher’s diary):

As for other soldiers, Thacher noted another curious condition: 

Our troops in camp are in general healthy, but we are troubled with many perplexing instances of indisposition, occasioned by absence from home, called by Dr. [William] Cullen nostalgia, or home sickness. This complaint is frequent among the militia, and recruits from New England. They become dull and melancholy, with loss of appetite, restless nights, and great weakness. In some instances they become so hypochondriacal as to be proper subjects for the hospital. This disease is in many instances cured by the raillery of the old soldiers, but is generally suspended by a constant and active engagement of the mind, as by the drill exercise, camp discipline, and by uncommon anxiety, occasioned by the prospect of a battle.

As at summer camp, staying busy helped alleviate homesickness. As did the prospect of being hit, or even nearly hit, with a cannon ball.

Read the entire post here.  I am hoping to include Thacher’s account of the Revolutionary War in Springfield in my current project on New Jersey and the American Revolution.

It All Seems So Unnatural

eacac-fithian2bbookMy daughter left for college last week.  So did most of her friends.  A group of kids raised in a central Pennsylvania town who have spent their lives together in church, on the athletic field, in the classroom, and at weekend backyard bonfires are suddenly, in a blink of an eye, ripped from that environment and sent off to various locations around the country to pursue higher education and find themselves as “individuals.”

It all seems so unnatural.

I understand why we send our kids to college.  We want them to chart their own path, become independent, and learn things about the world that we cannot teach them. We don’t want them to be too provincial or parochial.  I get it. I am paid to initiate students into this modern way of thinking.  I also understand that much of what I am writing here is born of the sense of loss I feel right now.

This whole process–a relatively new one in the annals of human history I might add– can come with gut-wrenching pain for parents and homesickness for the child.  It might even prompt us to wonder whether such an initiation into modern life is really worth it.

The historian Gordon Wood, writing about the eighteenth-century, perhaps put it best: “local feelings were common to peasants and backwards peoples, but educated gentlemen were supposed to be at home anywhere in the world.”  To be too wedded to our local attachments is a “symptom of narrow-mindedness, and indeed of disease.”

As I said in my last post, I wrote a lot about all of this in The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.  I know that my telling of Philip Vickers Fithian’s story was shaped by my own experience as a first-generation college student.  Now I am starting to see the story I told from the eyes of a parent.

As an eighteenth-century first-generation college student from rural southern New Jersey, Philip Vickers Fithian struggled with homesickness every day.  Even after he graduated from the College of New Jersey at Princeton in 1772 his longing for home, family, the social connections of his youth, and the very soil of the place where he was raised remained strong.  “Strong & sweet are the bands which tye us to our place of nativity,” he wrote from his bedroom on Robert Carter III’s Virginia plantation where he found post-graduate work as the family tutor.  “If it is but a beggarly Cottage,” he added, “we seem not satisfied with the most elegant entertainment if we are totally separated from it.”

During his stay in Virginia, Philip suffered acute bouts of homesickness.  He felt “uneasy,” “bewildered,” and “haunted” about his decision to leave Cohansey.  He made a habit of gazing out the window of his room and then turning to his diary to write about home. “I went to the window before I was drest….I could not help casting my Eyes with eagerness over the blue Potowmack and look homewards.”  Today kids who have such pangs of homesickness usually find their way to the college counseling center where they are told that time will heal all the wounds of homesickness brought on by the first days and weeks of their college experience.

But for Philip, living in an eighteenth-century world still on the cusp of modern life, time spent away from home did not seem to help.  For example, the longer he stayed in Virginia, the more intense his homesickness became.  One cold Sunday morning in January 1774 Philip skipped church services and wrote, “I feel very desirous of seeing Home; of hearing good Mr. Hunter Preach; of seeing my dear Brothers & Sister; Indeed the very soil itself would be precious to me!–I am shut up in my chamber; I read a while, then walk to the North window, & look over the Potowmack through Maryland towards Home.” Some would say that Fithian was sick.  He had a case of homesickness that probably needed a few more counseling sessions.  Maybe.

Philip knew he was now an educated gentleman–a Princeton graduate.  Such longings for home were irrational and not fitting with the cosmopolitan outlook he had learned in class with Princeton president John Witherspoon.  “This may seem strange,” he wrote in June 1774, “but it is true–I have but very few acquaintances [in Virginia], & they easily dispense with my Absence–I have an elegant inviting apartment for Study–I have plenty of valuable & entertaining Books–and I have business of my own that requires my attention–At home my Relations call me proud and morose if I do not visit them–My own private business often calls me off & unsettles my mind…All these put together, when they operate at once, are strong incitement to divert me from Study.  Yet I love Cohansie!  And in spite of my resolution, when I am convinced that my situation is more advantageous here, yet I wish to be there–How exceedingly capricious is fancy!  When I am Home I then seem willing to remove, for other places seem to be full as desirable–It is then Society which makes places seem agreeable or the Contrary–It can be nothing else.”

By August 1774 Philip had come to the point where he was “low Spirited” and could not “eat nor drink” because he was thinking “constantly of Home.”  He even felt, using the theological language of his Presbyterian upbringing, that “Sometimes I repent my having come into this Colony.”

If Joseph Fithian, Philip’s father, felt the pain of losing his eldest son to the modern world we do not have his thoughts in writing.  We know that we was skeptical about Philip going off to school.  He needed his son on the family farm and had to be convinced that Philip’s break with a tradition was a good thing.

But this was not the case with Philip’s mother Hannah Fithian.  As Philip tried to fit into the intimidating and foreign academic culture of the College of New Jersey he found comfort in Hannah’s letters.  She did her best to sympathize with her son.  “I suppose you are uneasy about your Gown,” she wrote (Philip did not yet have this essential part of a Princeton student’s daily wardrobe), but “this is perhaps a small Cross & you must my dear Son take your Cross Daily & follow Christ if you will be his disciple.”  Hannah had great affection for her oldest son. “I hope that the Lord hath Work for you to do in the World,” she prayed, “O that he would furnish you with every necessary Grace & Qualification for his Service.”

Hannah also maintained a constant concern for Philip’s soul–exhorting him to remain pious amid the worldly distractions of college life. “Youth is a dangerous Time,” she wrote, and “it is not possible for you to know it until Experience teaches you…flee youthful Lusts.”  She also feared that Philip’s exposure to book learning might puff him up and jeopardize his spiritual relationship with his Savior.  She urged him to recall the moment of his conversion and God’s providential care for his life. “It is easy to profess Religion,” she wrote to Philip at Princeton, “but it is hard to be a Christian.  Without holiness no Man Shall see the Lord…Remember what the Lord hath done for you & let it humble you.”  This is how one eighteenth-century parent dealt with homesickness and the pain that comes with their son’s initiation into modern life.

I should probably end this post by saying that my daughter is a bit homesick and anxious, but she is doing fine.  She is probably doing a lot better than I am.

It all seems so unnatural.

On Homesickness: Then and Now

62a78-fithian2bbookI was thinking about homesickness today.  And of course it had nothing to do with the fact that my oldest daughter recently left for college. (OK–it had everything to do with this!)

As I wrote about Philip Vickers Fithian in The Way of Improvement Leads Home (the book, not the blog) I tried to empathize as fully as possible with the sense of homesickness he felt in 1770 as he left his father’s farm in the South Jersey countryside and headed off to the College of New Jersey at Princeton.  Here is what I wrote:

...as Philip basked in his newfound participation in the republic of letters, he still cound not detach himself from passionate longings for his Cohansey home.  The fostering of cosmopolitan affection was harder than he thought it would be.  As he neared the end of his study at Princeton, Philip reflected with uncertainty about his life after college, wondering wistfully if the way of improvement he was traveling would ever lead him home.  He began to feel “stronger than ever” about his “obligations” to his family no doubt a reference to the work required on his father’s farm.  He longed to “see my near Connections” in Cohansey.  During this period of homesickness Philip, as he would do time and again along his way of improvement, took solace in his faith.  He tried to convince himself, as Witherspoon was teaching him, that true happiness came not from a particular place, “nor is it the Presence nor Abscence of Relations & Friends, tho’ most near & tender to us, that can give us, for any length of Time, either substantial joy, or Grief.”  Philip instead found comfort in “the favoring Presence of our Common Father, who is the Almighty God.”  God alone, Philip believed, could serve his deepest human needs, especially if he had to remain removed from his beloved homeland for an extended period of time.  He was beginning to learn that a life of improvement often came with a measure of loss–a condition cured only be placing his trust in an omnipresent God who transcended any particular locale.

There is a lot more about homesickness in the book.  Philip was often plagued by it.  But after my daughter left for college I began to think about Philip’s leaving home (which I call a betrayal of eighteenth-century “family values”) from the perspective of his parents–Joseph and Hannah Fithian.  I was not thinking about if from this perspective when I wrote the book, but it now seems quite relevant.

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.

More on Homesickness from Susan Matt

Near the top of my pile of books I need to read and blog about is Susan Matt’s Homesickness: An American History.  I have been fascinated with the idea of homesickness in American history ever since I wrote The Way of Improvement Leads Home and spent some time exploring the homesick longings of Philip Vickers Fithian.  (I am flattered that Matt found some of my musings on Fithian useful).

Here is a taste of a review of the the book posted yesterday at Slate.

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.

Read the rest here.

Can You Go Home Again…And Preach?

Over at Call & Response blog, Louis Weeks, the president emeritus of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, writes about returning to Memphis to preach a sermon to the members of the congregation in which he was raised.

As I read Weeks’s account his home going, I could not help but think about another Presbyterian minister–this one from the 18th century–whose “Way of Improvement” also led him “home.”

Here is what I wrote about Philip Vickers Fithian return to his home pulpit–the Greenwich Presbyterian (NJ) Presbyterian Church–in January 1775:

The real test of Philip’s pulpit skills would come later in the month when he preached several sermons at the Greenwich Presbyterian church. The prospect of delivering a sermon at Greenwich was daunting for several reasons. Greenwich was the largest Presbyterian congregation in southern New Jersey. It was the church in which he had been baptized and catechized and where his spiritual mentor, Andrew Hunter, had served the Presbyterian faithful for thirty years. It was also the place where evangelical heroes such as Whitefield , Tennent, and Finley had preached during the First Great Awakening, a fact that most likely did not escape Philip’s historically sensitive mind. As he looked over the pews from his perch in the Greenwich pulpit he could see that the “House was very full” with people eager to hear Cohansey’s favorite son expound on the Scriptures. Philip made it through his first sermon at Greenwich with little problem, but the following week the congregation was sprinkled with “several Strangers of Note,” a scene that made the young preacher “dashed & terrified.” Later in the month, with Hunter seated in the front of the congregation, Philip developed a case of the jitters so great that it temporarily paralyzed him the pulpit. During the course of his message before a packed Greenwich meetinghouse he went into a panic. His thoughts escaped him, his speech failed him, and he came “within an Inch,” he claimed of losing his sight. “How unwelcome, how distressful, how unpopular is this involuntary flutter!” he wrote.