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.

1000 miles in 1000 hours: the athletic feat of 1809

Walking a mile in a hour sounds straightforward. Walking ten miles in ten hours sounds reasonably doable, even leisurely. How about walking a mile in each of one thousand successive hours – ie walking a thousand miles at the stately pace of 1 mph, for hour after hour after hour after hour (continue up to 1000)?

Robert Barclary Allardice is aptly described in the opening line of his Dictionary of National Biography entry as:

Allardice,  Robert Barclay  [known as Captain Barclay]  (1779-1854), pedestrian
The DNB recounts his most famous achievement as follows:
Captain Barclay’s most noted feat was walking 1 mile in each of 1000 successive hours. This feat was performed at Newmarket from 1 June to 12 July 1809. His average time of walking the mile varied from 14 min. 54 sec. in the first week to 21 min. 4 sec. in the last, and his weight was reduced from 13 stone 4 lb to 11 stone. He was so little exhausted that he started for the Walcheren expedition on 17 July in perfect health
Wikipedia’s entry on the walk includes a contemporary report from The Times:
The gentleman on Wednesday completed his arduous pedestrian undertaking, to walk a thousand miles in a thousand successive hours, at the rate of a mile in each and every hour. He had until four o’clock P.M. to finish his task; but he performed his last mile in the quarter of an hour after three, with perfect ease and great spirit, amidst an immense concourse of spectators. The influx of company had so much increased on Sunday, that it was recommended that the ground should be roped in. To this, Captain Barclay at first objected; but the crowd became so great on Monday, and he had experienced so much interruption, that he was at last prevailed upon to allow this precaution to be taken. For the last two days he appeared in higher spirits, and performed his walk with apparently more ease, and in shorter time than he had done for some days before. With the change of the weather, he had thrown off his loose great coat, which he wore during the rainy period, and on Wednesday performed in a flannel jacket. He also put on shoes thicker than any which he had used in the earlier part of his performance. He said that during the first night after his walk he would have himself awoke twice or thrice, to avoid the danger of a too sudden transition from almost constant exertion to a state of long repose.
One hundred to one, and indeed any odds whatever, were offered on Wednesday; but so strong was the confidence in his success, that no bets could be obtained. The multitude of people who resorted to the scene of action, in the course of the concluding days, was unprecedented. Not a bed could be procured on Tuesday night at Newmarket, Cambridge, or any of the towns and villages in the vicinity, and every horse and every species of vehicle was engaged. Among the Nobility and Gentry who witnessed the conclusion of this extraordinary feat, were:—
The Dukes of Argyle and St. Alban’s; Earls GrosvenorBessborough and Jersey; Lords Foley and Somerville; Sir John Lode, Sir F. Standish, &c. &c.
Capt Barclay had a large sum depending upon his undertaking. The aggregate of the bets is supposed to amount to £100,000.—He commenced his feat on the first of June.

55 years later, Emma Sharp overcame various acts of skullduggery to become the first woman to achieve the same feat and thereby raise monies to buy a rug making enterprise:

Emma Sharp (1832–1920) was an athlete famous for her feat of pedestrianism completing a 1000-mile walk in 1000 hours, the event first completed by Robert Barclay Allardice in 1809.[1][2] She is thought to be the first woman to complete the challenge, finishing on 29 October 1864, having started on 17 September that same year.[3][4] This ‘arduous task’ was reported in the newspapers of the day,[5][6] in which she was described as having a medium build but an active frame, dressed in male clothing with the exception of her straw hat which was adorned with ‘feminine ornaments’.[7]

She rested in the Quarry Gap pub in between walking approximately two mile stints every 90 minutes and completing 14,600 laps of 120 yards over the course of 1000 hours.[8] It is reported that her food was drugged and people attempted to trip her to prevent her from finishing, for the last two days she carried a pistol to protect herself. At the end of the walk the weather was extremely wet. The event was heavily wagered upon both in Leeds and provincial towns.

One wonders when the last 1000 miles in 1000 hours walk took place? It strikes me as an event ripe for reviving….

“Shakespeare was the NASCAR of its day” : 5 greatest bar brawls in American history

A while ago there seemed to be a vogue for rather pompously titled (albeit often quite entertaining) books on various drinks / foods / animals / trees / whatever that “changed the world” / “shaped history” / “transformed how we X” and so on. Any few years back  Christine Sisimondo chronicled five illustrious bar brawls that Changed America! . Here is the second, wherein The Scottish play’s reputation for ill luck was burnished:


2. The Astor Place Riots, 1849
An estimated 25 dead and the “Scottish” play’s reputation further damaged.

Hard to believe that one of New York’s most shocking riots started over rival interpretations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Apparently, the bad-luck Scottish play came by its reputation honestly.

In 1849, it was opening at the freshly-minted, hi-falutin’ Astor Opera House on Broadway, with William Macready on the marquee. Macready was a staid, traditional British actor, who had long feuded with American thespian Edwin Forrest, the people’s choice for Macbeth.

Five Points saloon-keeper Isaiah Rynders saw this as an opportunity for mischief, since theatergoing was one of his patrons’ most passionate pastimes. Shakespeare was the NASCAR of its day and Forrest, who had debuted at the Bowery Theater, was the working classes’ favorite actor.

Rynders, one of the most powerful men in the city thanks to his control of the gangs of New York, bought tickets to the Astor House performance and distributed them to every ruffian in his network of watering holes. But not before winding them up on booze and anti-British sentiment.

The drunken mob descended on Astor Place, took their seats, and began pelting the stage and audience with rotting fruits and eggs, forcing actors to pantomime the rest of the show, since nobody could hear the dialogue. As they say, though, the show must go on, and, three nights later, Macready took the stage again. This time, Rynders’ crew had swelled to some 10,000. This brought out the militia and, in the end, a reported 25 deaths before the riot was quelled. The Astor Place became known as the Dis-Aster Place and was converted into a library not long after.

This Be The Best

In 2013 I entered this in one of the Spectator’s poetry competitions, if memory serves a version of a well-known poem endeavouring to convey the precisely opposite message. With apologies to Philip Larkin:

They raised you well, your mum and dad,

You might not think so, but they did.

They made the most of what they had

And tried their utmost for their kid.

They were well brought up in their turn

By dedicated caregiver, teacher, and so on.

I am glad the soldiers were made return,

So our children could afford this glorious dawn.

Man hands on incremental progress to man

All rising, clear shore to sunny beach.

Reproduce as quickly as you can

And always enthusiastically teach.

Ember Days and nature connection

Today, Friday and Saturday are Ember Days. I had never heard of these (though “embertide” rings a faint bell) until I came across this tweet

In a way Fr Schrenk explains it well in this thread so unroll it for the full explanation, or look here or here. Essentially, Ember Days are 3 days in an “Ember Week”, which occurs four times in a calendar year and mark the commencement of seasons. The December days are the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday after St Lucy’s Day (13th December)

They are marked by practices such as fasting and abstinence, though specifics seem a little different depending on the online source.  One site I came across suggested “minor” fasting, ie one full meal and two light meals (which sounds closer to a healthy intake than to a fast to me) as well as marking the day with appropriate prayer.

Traditionally, clergy were ordained during Ember Weeks.



“Ember” is not a reference to fire but a corruption of the Latin Quatuor Tempora meaning “four times.” In Irish, they are Laethanta na gCeithre Thráth  – “days of the four times” – which preserves the sense of the Latin.  Ember days seem to have got a little more attention in recent times as a form of collective repentance related to recent crises in the Church. 

Separate from any theological or ecclesiastic practice, I am struck by the wisdom of observances that are tied with the cycle of the seasons and thereby of growth, death and renewal that follow the year. And I am struck by the wisdom of periods of restraint in consumption (which is what fasting is, as opposed to self-punishment) and of contemplation that relate fundamentally to the changes of the seasons. It is a cliché to bemoan the overcommercialisation of Christmas but it is salutary to recall that Advent was supposed to be a time of reflection, self-denial and preparation.

It seems a pity that the Ember Days practice has fallen into disuse in general. And again separate from any specific religious belief or affiliation, one wonders if the practice of Ember Days did help to connect people with the progress of the seasons (and if their abandonment is yet another marker of disconnection with nature) and whether for this reason observance of Ember Days is due a revival.

New Geneva, a (failed) Genevan colony in Waterford, designed by James Gandon

Recently I came across the placename Geneva Barracks, near Passage East in Waterford. Obviously a slightly unusual name, I wondered was it an Anglicisation of something – but in fact it turns out to be quite a literal name with a very interesting story, totally new to me.

From An Taisce:

New Geneva Barracks was identified as the proposed site for a planned colony for artisan and intellectual Genevan settlers, who had become refugees following a failed rebellion against a French and Swiss government in the city. Ireland had been granted a parliament separate from London in 1782 and it was thought that the creation of the colony would stimulate new economic trade with the continent. James Gandon, who designed the Custom House, was comissioned to create a masterplan for the site overlooking the Waterford Estuary. The plans for the colony eventually collapsed, however, when the Genevans insisted that they should be represented in the Irish parliament but govern themselves under their own Genevan laws. It then became a barracks following the United Irishmen Rebellion in 1798.

Wikipedia has a bit more on Gandon’s plan:

James Gandon, the celebrated architect, was commissioned to prepare a plan for the town which would have been almost rectangular in shape with a vast shallow crescent 2,700 ft long overlooking Waterford Estuary. A rectangular site for a church was to be positioned at each end of the crescent which was to be backed by streets and terraces of houses. A central square was to have been overlooked by a central church with an apse and was surrounded by terraces of houses which were said to have been ‘under construction’. There were to be two other open squares, one to the south overlooked by the Academy with the Market in the south west corner of the ‘city’. Another courtyard to the north was to be overlooked by the Town Hall. A prison or hospital was to be located at the north west corner of the city. The city has many similarities with the French city of Richelieu. The Barracks wall which exists today bears little resemblance to this ambitious plan. The original James Gandon drawing of the proposed city still exists.

There is even more on Padraig Rooney’s site:

Ami Melly was the de facto leader of the Genevan exiles. An advance group disembarked at Waterford. They wanted representation in the Irish parliament (Temple’s “very unreasonable in their demands”), a franchise even the Catholic Irish didn’t have at that time. They also demanded the right to their own laws. Thus the project fell foul of Swiss and Anglo-Irish intransigence: neither side was prepared to make concessions. The august tradition of Swiss democracy came up against English colonialism in its back yard. “Some few of the Genevese came over to Ireland, but they soon returned, rather chilled by the prospect before them,” Egan tells us.

It was not just watchmaking that the people of Ireland missed out on. P. M. Egan’s county history cites a local farmer who reminds us of Waterford’s lost industry of silk weaving:

You see, sir, these people that came here were great silk waivers,’ and they expected, of course, to go on well at their trade. Myself doesn’t know, but as I hears. They set a lot of mulberry trees to feed the silk-worms, but sure you know they wouldn’t grow, the climate was too damp, so they gave up the place and went back again to their own country.

There’s more at the Wooly Days blog. I am looking, so far unsuccessfully, for an illustration of Gandon’s town plan online.

The site became a barracks, one of some notoriety in the memory of the 1798 rebellion. Here is a local story from the National Folklore Collection’s Schools Collection :


In the year 1798 when the soldiers were in Geneva Barracks, there was a cowboy working with a neighbouring farmer named Pat Gough. There were some Croppies prisoners at the time in Geneva Barracks.

One night the cow-boy made a rope ladder and went out to Geneva Barracks and got up on the wall and lowered the ladder down and helped eight Croppies to escape.

When he had the last one up he shouted down, “Is there any other down there”, and a voice answered “There is one other.” This was an officer and he wanted to shoot the eight Croppies and the cow-boy.

He had a gun under his coat and when he was half way up the ladder the cow-boy saw the gun and let the ladder drop and he and the eight Croppies escaped.

The Croppy Boy , one of the famed ballads of 1798,  features Geneva Harbour in its last verse – although a lot of versions I have come across seem to replace it with Duncannon (or, quite geographically incongruous, Dungannon):

At Geneva Barracks that young man died
And at Passage they have his body laid
Good people who live in peace and joy
Breathe a prayer and a tear for the Croppy Boy

Among the Dungannon versions seem to be the Dubliners’ and the Clancy Brothers. Here is Delia Murphy giving Geneva Barracks  it’s due:


One of the nice things about growing older is that you lose some of the inhibitions about admitting you haven’t read a particular writer. One of the less nice things is that your tastes can become a bit ossified and (internally) predictable.

All of which is prelude to saying that I haven’t read the works of Henry Miller, and up to now he he has been a writer I wasn’t terribly interested in reading. Why did I have this prejudice (a literal pre-judging)? I guess what I had read about did not incline me to read more, and in my mind he was conflated with  a certain rather self-conscious American-in-Paris literary pose which grates. Not very edifying on my part, although I do suspect that all our literary tastes have such not very reasonable lacunae.

However recently I have been reading the wonderful blog of Lee Watkins and his discussions / summaries of some of Miller’s work.  The highest praise one can surely give to a literary blog is that it makes you want to read the works featured, and in Watkins’ case it is even better – he makes me want to read a writer that not only I have not read, but one I would not have thought I would ever want to read.

This post by Watkins encapsulates what is it about Miller (or, more properly, what Watkins captures about Miller) that attracts: a commitment to truth and an awareness of his own flaws:

Occasionally people will ask about Henry Miller: was he even a real writer? Wasn’t he a fraud who fooled the world into believing he was the real thing?

Miller’s books are, on the one hand, like nothing else that had ever come before: sprawling and spiralling things without beginning middle or end, so that nothing he wrote could ever be called a “novel” or even really an “autobiography”. Miller found himself unable to write a story and so he played to his strengths and created his own way of expressing himself in writing.

On the other hand, Miller’s books can seem derivative of the avant-garde that had arrived long before him – Dada and Surrealism, for example – so that you could ask yourself: What did Henry Miller really contribute as an artist?

Miller’s books speak to me directly as almost no other writing does. And so I know that Miller was the real thing. But it’s interesting to see that Miller doubted himself as much as his critics did.

He knew that he was capable of lies and fraud, and he spent a lot of time bluffing his way through life before he succeeded as a writer, as we see in his “Rosy Crucifixion” trilogy (SexusPlexus, and Nexus).

The elevator attendant in Chapter 7 of Nexus is bizarrely rude to Henry. We wonder what exactly his problem is. Still, it’s strange to see Henry march back up to him and confront him with “Why do you hate me?” It seems like a sure way to start a fight.

But the encounter is quite revealing. The elevator attendant, a war veteran, has seen through him, he says. He knows a fake when he sees one, and literally has the scars to prove it. Henry is terrified and feels that the man has seen right into his soul

For all that Miller may have used tricks to get by – both in his writing and in his daily life, borrowing and stealing – we see throughout Nexus what it is that he really wants: to find the truth in himself and express it to the world. He is miserable for as long as he is forced to lie and pretend and play a part, and he has to become a writer not because of the expectations of others – since almost no-one expects him to succeed anyway – but because he must do it for himself, to raise himself up to a higher spiritual level. He needs to be able to tell the truth, and to live truthfully.

Miller’s books are an answer to a serious question he posed for himself, and answered truthfully as he could: Who am I? And because he struggled honestly, earnestly, and for so long with this question, a question we all ask ourselves from time to time, he was able, finally, to write books that are really worth reading.

Anyway, here is a Christmas with Henry Miller. I found this story moving for its very ordinariness, and also subverting my (and Watkins’) expectations about what a Christmas with Henry Miller might be like!