Review of “Homesickness: An American History” by Susan Matt, Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine, 2012

Review of “Homesickness: An American History” by Susan Matt, Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine, 2012

This is a wonderful book I heartily recommend, indeed re-reading the review I hope the warmth of my recommendation is clear. The balance  Susan Mat strikes between mastery of the academic and theoretical framework and what could best be called common sense (and readability) is highly impressive.


In this review I didn’t have space to expand on the parallels between the State Associations Mat describes (for instance Minnesota or Wisconsin Societites in Chicago or New York) and County Association in Ireland. My father was active in the Sligo Association in Dublin, and at his funeral I was very touched by the many who came to me having been involved in it and also the Galway or Mayo Associations (evidently Connacht folk stick together!) with fond memories of him.

Here is the original link


The wonderfully named French physician Louis-Alexandre-
Hippolyte Leroy-Dupré wrote that acute homesickness “becomes
more rare each day thanks to rapid communications which modern
industry is beginning to establish among people who will soon be
nothing more than one big happy family.” One might imagine that
this observation was written for the age of Facebook, Skype and
Twitter, but it is fact over one hundred and fifty years old, dating
from 1846.
Susan J Matt is a historian at Weber State University in Utah; her
specialty is the history of the emotions (a previous book is entitled
“Keeping Up With The Joneses: Envy in American Consumer
Society 1890-1930”) This admirably lucid book, based on primary
sources such as diaries, letters and personal interviews, is an
overview of the history of a particular emotion, homesickness.
American society is famously built on the archetype of the pioneer,
the rugged individualist, cheerfully moving on from place to place
without demur. This archetype finds different forms; the
immigrant, the cowboy, the “Organisation Man”, the pilgrim
settler, but all have in common a sense of perpetual motion and
freedom from ties.
As with all archetypes and grand narratives, the details of reality
were very different. Very many pioneers and immigrants returned,
despite the social pressures to remain. Matt places centre stage
the men and women who actually lived these experiences, and
who were often beset by overwhelming homesickness. This was
especially so for women, less in control of their destiny than men.
From the first settlers on, thoughts of home contended with the
various religious, political and economic motives for perpetual
motion. While official rhetoric emphasised the importance of
forging on with the pioneer spirit, diaries and letters allow Matt to
reconstruct the emotional lives often lost to history.
In 1865, twenty –four Union soldiers officially died of nostalgia [2019 note – I should have said “the official cause of death for 24 Union soldiers was nostalgia].
Among the American forces in World War 1, only one casualty had
a cause of death listed as nostalgia. Matt records the varying
opinions of psychiatrists, alienists on physicians on the causes and
management of nostalgia-as-an-illness. Contemporary concerns
such as racial and ethnic purity (“weaker” ethnicities such as the
Irish and Southern Europeans were often held to be more
susceptible) and venereal disease were implicated as risk factors
for nostalgia cases.
Over the later nineteenth century and into the twentieth, public
attitudes to homesickness hardened. Once, children who crossed
thousands of miles to return from boarding schools to families
were celebrated. Their attachment to home was seen as evidence
of a tender sensibility. How homesickness was addressed by the
military in the various wars in the era Matt’s history covers is
revealing. Armies have to balance the motivating power of
attachment to country with the demotivating power of separation
from that same country. In the American Civil War, homesickness
among soldiers was seen as evidence of a nobility of nature. This
attitude persisted through the century. The sole nostalgia fatality of
the Spanish-American War of 1898 was treated with great
sympathy bordering on glorification by the contemporary media.
The inter-war years saw the cultural shift gain momentum. This
was the era where the child rearing “expert” began to opine in
the popular press; no less a figure than the seminal behaviourist
John Watson weighs in on the importance of avoiding excessive
affection with one’s children. The following fifty years saw the
denigration of homesickness gain pace. Where the home-loving
children of previous eras were celebrated, now over attachment to
parents and to home was seen as “sissifying” and a manifestation
of “Momism.” An ethic of universal cheerfulness which celebrated
the “can-do” spirit further cast homesickness into disrepute. The
interests of corporate America were in creating a mobile workforce,
ready to cross the continent at short notice. While this is not a
matter that Matt discusses, this aspect did get me thinking how
the anti-family jeremiads of R D Laing and David Cooper ironically
dovetailed neatly with this corporate imperative. Perhaps, as the
Marxists say, there are no accidents.
Anti-homesickness rhetoric persists today, although the picture is
complicated by the rise of technologies which allow instantaneous
communication, and the global availability of familiar brands. Yet
these developments are palliatives for homesickness, not cures.
Skype, Facebook and similar technologies allow a certain abolition
of distance, and Matt shows how they have perhaps helped in the
rehabilitation of homesickness as a valid public emotion. Indeed,
one of her themes is “the surprising persistence of the extended
family” and how emotions and their expression can be moulded
and shaped by social forces, but are also strangely resistant to them
Indeed, this is a history of the resilience of homesickness, despite
everything. So many approaches in contemporary humanities
emphasise the contingent and socially constructed nature of
things; what Matt manages to do is to acknowledge the role of
social and economic pressures while making a strong case that
emotions are less fungible than theorists, pundits and social
engineers of all political hues would believe. There is also very little
of the jargon and theoretical ballast which many contemporary
historians freight their work
Matt’s title clearly indicates that this is an American history of
homesickness, but the book is of great interest to an Irish
readership too. The Irish immigrant experience abroad is of course
familiar to most of us; a sizable chunk of Irish popular music is
eloquent testimony to the force of homesickness. More
fundamentally, homesickness is a universal emotion; all readers will
find someone to identify with among the lives Matt describes. We
may not always go through the same social transformations as
America at the same time, but we always seem to get round to
them sooner or later. In our age of ghost estates and resurgent
emigration, many of the concerns of the book seem all too
Academic careers rival medical careers in demanding frequent
moves (and in requiring a certain insouciance as the proper
response.) In her acknowledgements, Matt salutes her husband
and observes “since we met in Ithaca, New York, in 1990, we have
lived in six different states and travelled many places, but no matter
where we are, when I am with him, I am home.” It is a poignant
note, and one which sets the tone for a humane and thought-
provoking work.

Poem: Magheragallon

Poem: Magheragallon

A while back I posted a link to Non-Binary Review’s call for submissions for pieces inspired directly by Dante’s Inferno. Unfortunately (or not) my own efforts in this line were rejected. So I will inflict one on my readers here. Perhaps I should have anticipated this rejection given that I have to explain that Magheragallon is a graveyard in Gaoith Dobhair, Donegal :

E ‘l duca lui: “Caron, non ti crucciare:
vuolsi così colà dove si puote
ciò che si vuole, e più non dimandare.
Inferno, Canto III.
Dúirt mo threoraí: “A Charóin, ná bí ina thinneas.
Toilíodh an cúrsa so san áit ar féidir
Gach a dtoilítear, ‘s ná déan t’fhiafraí a thuilleadh.”
Ifreann, Dán III (translation Padraig de Brun)

Here we are, on the rocky edge of the edge of Europa,
Far from where what is willed is done and
Far from where the inevitable and necessary
Forge together; far from where the living
And the dead never meet, where the boundaries are
Never crossed, where the ferryman holds a hard border.

We are far from there. Here is a place of stone
And sea, of island and mountain.
A battered place, tattered rocks mark memory,
Memory that lies in ruins.

Across the waters there are islands that defy the census-taker;
Who knows if they are inhabited or not? Sometimes they are deserted,
Sometimes they ring with another language, not that of
This poem. The teanga echoes each fainter and fainter.
And still it echoes. Sometimes that echo is a roar.

Ruined, overgrown, overthrown,
Far from where what is willed is done,
An edgeland of sharp stones,
Of marram grass grazed bare, of sand-dune mazes.
Here ruins still shape a form,
The overgrowth is marked by the old shape,
Things seeming fallen are only resting.

Again, I step away, making a distance,
From where, in this world, what is willed is done.
I turn my back on our Babel of one tongue.
Faced with death, I speak with Virgil:
Toilíodh an cúrsa so san áit ar féidir
Gach a dtoilítear, ‘s ná déan t’fhiafraí a thuilleadh.

Nan Shepherd on going barehanded and barefooted

From “The Living Mountain”:


The hands have an infinity of pleasure in them. When I was a girl, a charming old gentlewoman said something to me that I have never forgotten. I was visiting her country home, and after lunch, going for a walk with her niece, I picked up my gloves from the hall table where I had laid them down. She took them from me and laid them back on the table. ‘You don’t need these. A lot of strength comes to us through the hands.’ Sensation also. The feel of things, textures, surfaces, rough things like cones and bark, smooth things like stalks and feathers and pebbles rounded by water, the teasing of gossamers, the delicate tickle of a crawling caterpillar, the scratchiness of lichen, the warmth of the sun, the sting of hail, the blunt blow of tumbling water, the flow of wind—nothing that I can touch or that touches me but has its own identity for the hand as much as for the eye.

And for the foot as well. Walking barefoot has gone out of fashion since Jeanie Deans trudged to London, but no country child grows up without its benediction. Sensible people are reviving the habit. They tell me a tale up here of a gentleman in one of the shooting lodges who went to the hill barefoot: when he sat down for lunch the beaters crowded as near as they dared to see what manner of soles such a prodigy could have. But actually walking barefoot upon heather is not so grim as it sounds. I have covered odd miles myself here and there in this fashion. It begins with a burn that must be forded: once my shoes are off, I am loth to put them on again. If there are grassy flats beside my burn, I walk on over them, rejoicing in the feel of the grass to my feet; and when the grass gives place to heather, I walk on still. By setting the foot sideways to the growth of the heather, and pressing the sprays down, one can walk easily enough. Dried mud flats, sun-warmed, have a delicious touch, cushioned and smooth; so has long grass at morning, hot in the sun, but still cool and wet when the foot sinks into it, like food melting to a new flavour in the mouth. And a flower caught by the stalk between the toes is a small enchantment.

“This is the avocado game”

(edit 17th May – welcome to my page, those who have wandered here to read about the avocado game go right ahead…. and perhaps you may be interested in my  thoughts on The Berenstain Bears and moralistic children’s literature  or self-sacrifice in the Octonauts  or helping those who don’t want to be helped (and the Octonauts) or my favourites from #Inktober … or perhaps not)


I was in a primary school which initially had an equal enough boy-girl mix, but for some reason boys tended to leave to go an all boys school around 4th class. Thus in my last three years of primary school myself and two or three other boys were in a class of 25 or so girls. This, naturally enough I would say, caused the boys to gravitate together. This paradoxically meant, looking back, that while I was aware of girls’ enthusiasm for clapping games, I never knew the details.

And at home I was the youngest of two boys so had no sororial influence. All this is by prelude to my noticing a clapping game my daughters have begun playing, like, two hundred times a day which they picked up at summer camp. It turns out that “the avocado game” is a well-recognised clapping game, at least if having videos on YouTube is a sign:


but the above seem to have quite a different wording and gameplay to the version I have heard – and clapping is optional, as opposed to the essential element of the game above.

The version my daughters (and son at times) play goes like this:

(both players chant and [optionally] clap) “This is the avocado game / If you lose I will change your name”

Both players recite alphabet, whoever finishes first is the winner, and they get to give the loser a name beginning with the letter the loser got to.

Variants I have heard include saying “if you lose you will change my  name” 

Which is more similar to this video (though note the inevitable Angry Comments which seem to crop up on even the most innocuous YouTube video):

Anyway, none of the YouTube avocado game videos are exactly in the billions of hits range, and my children picked it up at camp, so there is life in the old fashioned “viral” transmission of games and chants etc.

The Go Betweens : Cattle and Cane

“Icnoic” is a hugely overused word. Everything famous or even just well-known (ish) seems to be dubbed iconic. Yet it is the word that keeps coming back when I think of The Go-Betweens’ “Cattle and Cane.”

I think it is the other sense of icon, in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, a stylised yet somehow living representation. Stylised in that there is a formal, repetitive pattern to the song, and living in that Grant McLennan’s memories become our own.

As this post by Thom Hickey evokes brilliantly, “Cattle And Cane” is a tapestry of childhood memories and longings tied together by an immortal, driving, sensitive-yet-oddly-hard riff.

And I didn’t know it was written on Nick Cave’s guitar.

The Immortal Jukebox

What are we made of?

Well, you could say we are mainly Oxygen, Carbon, Hydrogen, Nitrogen, Calcium and Phosphorous.

Add some pinches of Potassium, Sodium, Sulphour, Chlorine and Magnesium.

Just the tiniest amounts of Boron, Chromium, Cobalt and Copper.

Traces of Flouridine, Iron, Iodine, Manganese, Silicon, Selenium, Vanadium, Molybdenum, Tin and Zinc.

Scientifically that’s absolutely the case.

Still, I prefer to think we are, each of us,  a whirling constellation of dreams and memories.

Dreams beget memories and memories beget dreams.

We are star shine, dreams and memories.

Just before you go to sleep – a shimmer in the mind.

Just before you wake up – slow spools of overexposed film.

A Life lived in a landscape of dreams and memories.

Sometimes pin sharp with hallucinatory detail.

The grain of the kitchen table, the fragrance of your mother’s perfume, the bark of a long dead dog, the leathery feel of your…

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The wisdom of silence

Adam de Ville has a particularly good post on Eastern Christian Books on Terry Eagleton’s book on sacrifice. This is an especially rich post covering a range of topics… but I will only quote a brief excerpt which echoed with this post inspired by a phrase of George Steiner’s from “The Portage to San Cristobal of A H”:

In addition to his work on Marx, Eagleton has also read Freud (and Lacan, inter alia) very perceptively, which most people today seem incapable of doing. This allows him to say–without, alas, developing it to the extent I wished–that the silence of the Father faced with His Son on the Cross “may be compared to the silence of the psychoanalyst who refuses the role of Big Other or transcendental guarantor” (41). (One thing it took me a long time on the couch to realize was that such silence was not neglect or lack of interest on the part of the remarkable woman who was my analyst. It was, rather, the very condition of freedom, and a very necessary reminder that the responsibility for the authorship of our lives must not mindlessly be handed over to others, tempting though that often is for many of us–cf. both Fromm and Winnicott on this point–as well as Adam Phillips.)