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Sad New World

AMERICA IS A land of hardy individualists who overcame every obstacle, a country of restless spirits who cheerfully traversed the oceans, conquered the West, defended freedom, and invented the modern world. Right? No, that is not quite the whole of it, argues Susan J. Matt in her indispensable new book, which belongs on the shelf of important works of American revisionism for, if nothing else, its brilliant selection of supporting quotations. In her methodical march across the nation’s history, Matt shows that we are reluctant immigrants, hesitant pioneers, unenthusiastic warriors, and ambivalent modernizers who really would have rather skipped all the unpleasantness and stayed home.

It started early, with the colonists. “And to speake the truth I stay to get what I have lost and then god willing I will leave the Countrey: for this is the worst yeare here that … [ever] I saw like to bee,” wrote Edward Hill to his brother in England on April 14, 1623. The rebels who fought on behalf of the revolution were not too pleased with their lot, either. George Washington complained about his soldiers’ “unconquerable desire of returning to their respective homes,” which “not only produces shameful, and scandalous Desertions among themselves, but infuses the like spirit in others.” Matt shows that desertion rates hovered around 25 percent until the army became more professionalized in the later stages of the war. The Civil War was rife with what was then referred to as “nostalgia.” Some 5,537 Union soldiers were treated for the “disease” and 74 were recorded to have died from it, an unsurprising fact during an era when, as Matt writes, Americans “endlessly extolled domestic life as the chief sources of happiness and virtue.” One of the woeful was William B. Greene of Berden’s Sharpshooters, who wanted nothing better than to return to his home in New Hampshire. Matt quotes from letters sent to him by his mother and other relatives. “Willie for the love of God & your friends, let it never be said that Willie Greene brought disgrace upon himself by deserting his regiment or that he died the deserter’s death,” wrote his cousin in 1862. Matt tells us that he hung tough and was still in the army in 1865.

The settlement of the West was also a melancholy affair. The pioneers set out under “a façade of optimism and adventurousness,” but underneath lurked “regret and a deep longing for home and family.” We hear the uninspiring story of the would-be “Forty-niners” who had second thoughts along the rugged Overland Trail and were thus cursed as “Go Backers,” preventing them from ever having a football team named after them. The advent of cheap postal rates and pocket-sized daguerreotypes gave the transplants something to cry over. Observers noted the “novel” sight of long lines gathered in front of the post office. “It was interesting to mark the countenances and conduct of men as they turned away from the delivery windows at the horrible announcement, ‘Nothing for you, sir,’ or as they gasped and broke open letters which brought news from home,” wrote a clergyman. Another minister found that miners were so starved for the hearth fire that they lined up outside his home—“scores of men in the street as far as the eye could see and some were sobbing”—hoping for a taste of the familial atmosphere inside.

In a bravura chapter on the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century immigrants from Western and Eastern Europe, Matt reveals that many wanted to take the first boat home. “As we were crossing from New York to Chicago, we saw a lot of ugly … wooden houses. We always had stone houses in Italy. … My ma says … Oh, I’m sorry we came here,” wrote an immigrant from Tuscany. The return rate for Italians was 50 percent. Even Jews fleeing the active oppressions of the era “would rather run the risk of massacre in Russia with friends and family and among familiar scenes than to die among strangers in a foreign land, for they are certain that they are going to die if they stay,” said an officer with a Jewish charity in 1906.

Those who had no choice but to remain created ethnic enclaves that enabled them to close their eyes and imagine Wexford, Calabria, Hamburg, Bialystok, or Helsinki. In 1914, it was unnecessary to speak any language but Finnish in the town of Chisholm, Minnesota, which had “five saunas run by the Finns,” according to Eleanor Rantanen. But many of those lucky enough to return to the Old World found themselves homesick for the world they had become accustomed to in America, Matt tells us in her counterintuitive conclusion to the chapter. “The stores were poorly kept,” said a returnee upon arriving back in Greece. “The food was unappetizing. Sanitation was lacking.” There is no pleasing some people.

From the 1930s to the ’70s, Americans were required to “subsume their desires and their movements to the larger civic and organizational goals,” Matt observes. They needed “to be free of family ties and emotional claims in order to advance within the governmental systems and corporate bureaucracies that were everywhere.” But still they wept. Matt digs up a quote from FDR’s Secretary of War Henry Stimson, who claims that “no country need ever fear a United States Army of occupation” because the typical solider is “the most homesick creature when he’s at war in foreign land.” Even the “organization men” of the 1950s and ’60s, she writes, were not always willing to subsume themselves to the advance of capitalism, noting the “psychic toll” that the constant relocation of white-collar workers exacted on “the predominately male workforce and, even more so, on their wives.” And life in the suburbs wasn’t so great. In 1960, a Westchester County marriage counselor (it’s a living, and a good one) described in Cosmopolitan how the “suburban housewife is separated from the support she had when she lived in the city—the support of her own mother, who possibly lived in the same neighborhood, the support of many childhood women friends.” So some went “running for the shelter of a mother’s little helper,” as Jagger and Richards wrote six years later.

Since the ’70s we have shown less loyalty to institutional superstructures. “Family life exerts a greater and greater pull on Americans, native and foreign-born alike,” Matt says. “Families who live within the United States increasingly cluster together.” The arrival of BlackBerrys, iPhones, Facebook, and Twitter accounts promised to end homesickness forever. The soldier with access to Burger King and computer terminals would never complain about the rigors of wartime separation. The immigrant with cheap calling card minutes wouldn’t have to be present to chart the moods of his hometown. “Yet those who have suffered from homesickness know that even with such conveniences and technologies, the distances between an old home and a new one are great, and often unbridgeable,” Matt concludes. “Despite the new inventions and economic connections, homesickness has not disappeared from the panoply of human emotions.”

But it remains decidedly un-American. In a piece for The New York Times written in 2004, the radio host Katherine Lanpher described getting her nails done in Manhattan to ease her unhappiness over missing her former home in Minnesota. Speaking for centuries of dissenters from the Yankee ethos of cheerful individualism, she tells the Korean nail technician, “I’m pretty homesick.” In response, she hears the barking voice of the hegemon: “Don’t be big baby!”

Peter Duffy is an author and journalist in New York.