On Homesickness



'The Soldier's Dream of Home,' a Currier & Ives lithograph produced during the Civil War, was one sign of the great attention that soldiers' homesickness received. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

A few weeks ago I found myself accidentally enacting the drama of a book I was reading. The book was Homesickness: An American History, and I was reading it on the subway, somewhat embarrassed by the title, which, held up right in front of my face, was like a sign saying: Here in New York, I can’t cut it. I comforted myself with the idea that I was only a few stops from home, where I could read safe from potential pity. But when I got to my door, I discovered that I’d locked myself out.

I looked up at my windows. I wished I could use the bathroom, foreign bathrooms costing at least a coffee. But it struck me that I didn’t long to be in my apartment. My place, with its card table in the kitchen and mattress on the floor, is unsettled—I would feel as dislocated inside of it as out. I can’t imagine what feeling settled here would look like; the only settled place I’m familiar with is the home where I grew up.

How long does it take to cultivate the feeling of home? I’ve been in New York for three years, on the East Coast for eight, and I’ve never suffered from acute homesickness. But still, when I’m called to define “home,” I think of El Granada, a town of 5,436 that staked itself twenty-six miles south of San Francisco down the coast. I mean staked quite literally: between 1906 and 1909, Ocean Shore Railway, which was building tracks from Santa Cruz to San Francisco along what is now Highway 1, planted thousands of fast-growing, blue gum eucalyptuses with the hopes of flipping El Granada into a seaside resort for train-traveling San Franciscans. The railroad company also commissioned the eminent architect and city planner Daniel Burnham (famous for the Flatiron building) to plan the streets. They go in two directions, up the hills and around them, so that it looks from above as if a four-square-mile spider web has been draped over the thousands of trees. But the dream of El Granada was not to be. Two years later the railway company collapsed. The tracks were abandoned. Some speculators bought land, but the place never really caught on until computers did in the late eighties and nineties, and intrepid commuters from Silicon Valley bought BMWs and began building houses.

I spent my youth resenting El Granada: it was not San Francisco, where I went to school and where my friends all got to go to sleep. When I go back now, I love looking over the Pacific, love the light streaming into the house from every exposure, but I am an American and so, as Susan Matt tells me, every cultural cue has lead me to deny that I might miss it. That’s the history of homesickness in America, one of increasing repression: homesickness wasn’t adaptive to a nation ever on the move to push out its borders, a place where wealth wasn’t inherited but found—so long as you were willing to look far enough.

The word homesickness didn’t come into use until the 1750s. Before that, the feeling was known as “nostalgia,” a medical condition. It was first identified in 1688 by Johannes Hofer, a Swiss scholar, who warned that the condition had not been sufficiently observed or described and could have dire consequences. By Hofer’s description, the nostalgic individual so exhausted himself thinking of home that he couldn’t attend to other ideas or bodily needs. While nostalgia was embraced as a Victorian virtue, a testament to civility and the domestic order, extreme onsets could kill a person. And so they did during the Civil War. By two years in, two thousand soldiers had been diagnosed with nostalgia, and in the year 1865, twenty-four white Union soldiers and sixteen black ones died from it. Meantime one hundred thousand Confederates deserted, presumably motivated by memories of mom’s hushpuppies. The war just about ended what little romanticization of homesickness had survived in the wilds of early America. A sentiment that caused desertion and death could no longer pass as a force for social good. Instead it had far greater utility as a patronizing justification of racism. Some in favor of slavery began to claim that slaves loved their home more than anyone; that being the case, how cruel to then tear them from the plantation.

An immigrant seeking a fortune couldn’t afford any semblance of I can’t cut it. Nor could a pioneer moving westward, or a Yankee trudging to California with a pan in his hand. WWI’s national training programs, the first of their kind, were designed to stifle homesickness from the start. Men from the same community were deliberately assigned to different units across America, so that they couldn’t retreat into the comfort of local remembrances. The aim was to turn each unit into a national entity whose first allegiance was to the country. In the 1950s, the age of the organization man, corporations attempted the same thing. Relocations were part of the path to promotion. IBM, employees joked, stood for I’ve Been Moved. After all, in a given year during the Eisenhower Administration, roughly twenty percent of Americans had.

But the institution most successful at destroying localism, at least today, is the American college. Places like NYU, Brown, Skidmore, and Harvard draw students from across the country, from around the globe, and in four formative years remagnetize the fresh new adults to the pole of the liberal arts university. No longer are their wants local; they’re national. Lifelong friendships and rivalries persist largely between classmates rather than childhood neighbors. If there’s one locality overwhelmingly represented at these liberal arts institutions, it’s New York, wherein so many of their graduates will subsequently settle.

New York is the colonial American experiment on speed, a holding pen for immigrants. Graduates—immigrants in sweatpants with big boxes of books—arrive every summer; they try to adjust and to profit; they either adapt or return home. In the 1920s and 1930s, parents prepared their children for such moves by sending them to frontier-themed summer camps where they would play pioneer. (Although camps today tend to be more hippie than hard-scrabble, their purpose may not be much different.) And where kids have camps to build resilience, college grads turn to New York as the ultimate test, not only of resilience but of that trait resilience is supposed to serve: ambition. Certain Manhattan hard-liners, the people who announce that “New York is the only city; though Paris is pretty,” think the only reason to leave New York is if you fail out.

A successful artist friend of mine recently decided to move back home to Boston after weathering New York for four years. He hated drawing, was tired of all the parties, and his gallery job, which was pleasant enough, would never give him a good salary. What he wanted was his home city, and a well-paying office job, where at 5 P.M. he’d be released to romp around with his young nephews. Among my friends his honesty was polarizing: some, like me, admired it; while many others felt threatened by his resignation from the rat race and what was perceived as a regressive retreat into familiarity.

But the problem with homesickness isn’t just that it impedes ambition; it’s that the object of longing, home, is not as fixed as one might think. After the Civil War, for instance, “the transcontinental railroad and steam-powered ocean liners,” Matt writes, “made it easier to return to a physical home and thus, at least theoretically, easier to assuage homesickness. Upon traveling back, however, they found they had not arrived, and never could, for the same technologies that had brought them home had also disrupted traditional ways of life.” The schedules and even the clocks of hometowns had been recalibrated to train schedules and standard time; certain commodities, like ice, reshaped the diet. Traveling back revealed that “home” had been vanquished by time, and a word necessarily arose to define this longing for what was lost: nostalgia.

While homesickness was suppressed in America, nostalgia was allowed to flourish. In 1899 New Hampshire figured out a way to profit off of it, and began throwing annual “Old Home Weeks.” These festivals, wherein the town might display old photographs and antiquated town artifacts while concessionaires in old-timey clothes served up regional specialties, were conceived of as reunions, meant to draw former residents back to their birthplaces. By 1903, these weeks were attracting half a million people, and today quite a few New England towns still throw them—such as Freedom, New Hampshire, which hosts one every August. Neither early El Granada nor my El Granada of the 1980s and 1990s had enough of a community to justify an antiquarian street fair. But America’s comparative acceptance—embrace, even—of nostalgia makes sense to me. It’s safer than homesickness because it’s neutered; it can’t be realized and won’t get in the way of work; it asks you to long only for something that no longer exists.

Which brings me back to my stoop on a sunny fall Saturday. I was out there for an hour, reading, before I finally decided to retrieve a key from my roommate near Penn Station. I caught the F train above ground, and the car elbowed around Gowanus before going under. My roommate handed me his keys outside the Pennsylvania Hotel, and I headed back to my apartment.

I thought about home home as I unlocked my door. In El Granada, my father had installed wireless and the eucalyptuses were being sawed down, while our neighbors’ nasty redwood hedges were growing taller and taller, strangling out ocean from our windows. Here, though, in my apartment, everything was static. My mattress was still on the floor, my card table still in the kitchen. The only thing that had changed was the light outside.

Francesca Mari has written for The New Republic, The New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, and other publications.