Weber State Professor Explores Role of Homesickness in American History

As students recently returned to campuses for the start of spring semester, there is one especially nagging feeling many brought with them: homesickness.  Whether it’s missing family, pets, friends or the comfort of the familiar, the notion of homesickness is undoubtedly as embedded within higher education as Spring Break and Saturday football.

In her new book, Homesickness: An American History, Weber State University distinguished history professor Susan Matt traces the evolution of this longing sentiment from America’s earliest days.

In the Q&A below, Matt discusses some surprising truths about homesickness, its relation to college students and young adults and its status in the era of Skype, texts and tweets. 

To start, what does your book specifically explore, and what inspired you to tackle the subject?

The book examines how homesickness has changed over the last four centuries. Homesickness was once considered an illness that could affect people of all ages and could even kill them. Today, however, it is generally seen as a passing, temporary phase that children at camp and students at college experience and then get over. I wanted to understand why this change occurred and how earlier generations had dealt with the pain that comes from moving away from family and friends.

What led me to tackle the subject was my own experience with mobility. I wasn’t homesick in college,  but when I moved away from the Midwest, first for grad school and then for jobs, I found it much more difficult than I expected.  I wondered if I was the only one to feel this way. Our culture always portrays moving on as easy — think of all the stories about pioneers and Western settlement — and we seem not to dwell on the sadness that often comes with leaving home.

Since most of us have felt it at some point in our lives, we all probably think we fully understand the concept of homesickness. What is something about it that might surprise us or that we might not know?

Until fairly recently, physicians used the word ‘nostalgia’ to describe acute cases of homesickness, and considered it a dangerous and often deadly disease. They were convinced it could cause fevers, heart palpitations, skin problems, diarrhea and sometimes even death. During the Civil War, the U.S. Surgeon General concluded that 74 Union soldiers had died of nostalgia and that over 5,000 more were so seriously ill with the condition that they came to a doctor’s attention. To prevent more men from dying of it, doctors and army officials often sent soldiers home, since this was the only known cure for homesickness.

Has homesickness historically been linked mainly to young people going to school or starting out on their own?

Until the 20th century, people of all ages admitted to suffering from homesickness. Young people heading off to work or to school often experienced it, but so did pioneers, gold miners and immigrants, and they talked about it quite openly. Gradually, however, psychological theories about the emotion shifted and many came to believe it was primarily a condition of youth. Psychologists often describe it as something kids and adolescents go through at summer camp and at college and then get over. In reality, I think many adults continue to struggle with the emotion long after college, but there is a code of silence about it and people keep the feeling to themselves.

To read the rest of the piece, check out my USA TODAY College “Campus Beat” columnClick here or on the screenshot below.

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