Dying of homesickness

Over at the Centre for the History of Emotions blog, Centre director Thomas Dixon has a fascinating talk with Susan J. Matt of Weber State University about her new book, Homesickness: An American History. Here's an excerpt:

Susan J. Matt: I was surprised at how many Americans died of homesickness, or nostalgia as it was called. I knew there had been European epidemics of nostalgia in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, but didn’t know of American ones. But indeed, the disease of nostalgia was widely known in the United States–during the Civil War, there were 74 deaths from it on the Union side, and more than 5,200 cases of it in the Surgeon General’s records

It became such a problem that army bands were sometimes prohibited from playing “Home, Sweet Home,” which at that time, was the most popular song in the country. In peacetime, civilians suffered from nostalgia as well. The prevalence and intensity of nostalgia and homesickness throughout U.S. history – from the colonial era to the present -ultimately led me to question whether we were and are the individualists that we are so widely reputed to be. I think we’re not.

Thomas Dixon: I’ve been struck too by the great power of the passions in earlier periods – to cause illness, madness or even death. Medical sources of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries abound with fatal bouts of emotion. Is it possible to pinpoint a date after which this changed – when homesickness and nostalgia became mere feelings rather than powerful and potentially fatal mental conditions?

Susan J. Matt: It gradually disappeared as a dangerous disease in the first half of the 20th century. The U.S. Army provides a useful gauge in its records. One soldier in the American Expeditionary Force reportedly died of nostalgia during World War I. Increasingly during the War, however, many of the symptoms associated with nostalgia came to be defined as signs of the newly established syndrome of shell shock. While the diagnosis of nostalgia stayed on the books up through World War II, and while there were many reported cases of it among soldiers in that war, there were no deaths. In short, from the early twentieth century on, the number of cases of deadly nostalgia declined, although less lethal cases of homesickness continued (and continue) to abound. It seems worth noting that as nostalgia’s cultural meaning underwent this transformation, the tolerance for the acutely homesick declined, since their condition was now seen as less dire.