Homesick Nation

In 1852, the first piano arrived in Stockton, California. Imported from Cincinnati, it was a gift to Mary Kroh from her father, a minister who had traveled west to preach to the thousands of gold miners in California. Shortly after receiving it, Mary began to play the piano and her listeners were transfixed:

[Father] had occasion to answer a call at the front door and before closing he accidentally looked out, and to his surprise the sidewalks and porch were filled with old and young men. Along the side of the house stood scores of men in the street as far as the eye could see and some were sobbing. On entering the room he said, “We have an immense congregation outside. Get out your familiar tunes — ‘Home, Sweet Home.’ Etc.” He then drew aside the curtains and raised the windows, ‘Now, my children and friends, give these homesick sons and fathers a few songs more.’

The prospectors came back again and again to the Kroh’s porch in order to hear the piano music, for it reminded them of mothers, wives, and homes left behind.

A hundred and fifty years later, another adventurer went in search of opportunity, and her thoughts also turned homeward.  In 2004, the writer Katherine Lanpher moved from Minnesota to Manhattan: “My first week ended with a sharp bout of homesickness.” To cheer herself up she decided to get a manicure. She told the Korean woman who was doing her hands, “I’m pretty homesick,” but encountered little sympathy. The manicurist, herself far from home, looked at Lanpher with impatience. “Her eyes narrowed, she sucked in some breath, and then she barked out an uppercase admonition: ‘DON’T BE BIG BABY.’”

How did we move from being a society in which grown men openly wept when they felt homesick to one in which few adults feel comfortable admitting to the emotion, for fear of being labeled “big babies”? In other words, how did we learn to leave home? The history of homesickness offers a way to trace this education in mobility. It fills a gap in our understanding, for while nationalist narratives depict mobility as an innate trait of Americans, something they do easily and naturally, since the nation’s beginnings men and women of all races and backgrounds have wrestled with homesickness.  Only over the course of the twentieth century have Americans mastered the emotional style of individualism—a style which requires them to cut ties, move on, and express no homesickness in the process. And even so, in daily life they continue to quietly affirm a set of communal values that run counter to this restless individualism.

In popular mythology, Americans have always been happy movers — immigrants flocking to American shores, pioneers heading west, miners rushing to California, self-made men leaving farms for cities. In reality, however, the process of moving has often been extremely painful.  Without doubt it was most painful for those, like slaves, who were forced to leave their homes against their will. Solomon Northup, a free man carried into slavery in 1841, recalled of his bleak situation, “Thoughts of my family, of my wife and children, continually occupied my mind. When sleep overpowered me, I dreamed of them – dreamed I was again in Saratoga — that I could see their faces, and hear their voices calling me. Awakening from the pleasant phantasms of sleep to the bitter realities around me, I could but groan and weep.”

While Northup’s homesickness was particularly acute because of his bondage, it was an emotion that white Americans experienced too, even when their migrations were of their own choosing. In 1809, Archelaus Putnam left New Mills, Massachusetts, where he had been working for his brother, to try his luck at his own business, an apothecary shop in Lynn, some six miles away. He spoke of his departure as if he were traveling hundreds of miles, lamenting, “[I am leaving my] birthplace & abode . . . where reside my brothers, sisters, & near & familiar connexions. . . . [I am being] transplanted into an untried soil where it is doubtful if I shall take root & live, much more grow & flourish.” He did not last long in this foreign soil; within eight months he was back home, once again working for his brother.

Putnam migrated only a short distance, but he still felt homesickness acutely.  Far more difficult were the migrations across the continent that so many pioneers undertook.  Joel Brown, a miner in California, wrote his wife in 1852, “I expect that you will think . . . that I am crying to see my wife. Well suppose I am and what then? I am not the only one that is crying to see the wife and baby.” Brown was right, for each year on the Overland Trail, the stream of pioneers heading west encountered a sizeable counter-stream of “Go Backers,” trekking eastward in order to return home.   Thousands more stayed on in the West, but nursed longings for home for the rest of their lives.

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