On July 29, 1898, a string of headlines in The New York Times read:
A DEATH BY NOSTALGIA / The Case of Private Atkins, Who Died of Homesickness, Regarded as Remarkable / One of the Rarest of Diseases / Dr. E. C. Spitzka . . . Says It Is Next to Impossible for an American to Have It
The report goes on to explain that this “disease, which, translated into English, is homesickness, is regarded as so rare, especially among Americans, that” the case of this soldier stationed in Santiago, Cuba, “is causing considerable comment among physicians. According to a medical authority, ‘nostalgia is a form of melancholy brought about by an unsatisfied longing for home or home surroundings . . . and may even lead [through digestive problems, fever, and general debility] to . . . death’.”
Contrary to the surprised tone of this 1898 report, earlier cases of death by homesickness had, in fact, been reported. For example, a short item in the January 19, 1871 Times reads: “A Virginia girl of sixteen has died of home-sickness at a Richmond boarding school.” Indeed, worries about homesickness and its debilitating effects were common during the Civil War and earlier as described by Susan J. Matt in her new book, Homesickness: An American History.
Inventing a Disease
Matt describes the way doctors, over the course of the 19th century, came to interpret the symptoms of missing one’s home into a syndrome we now call homesickness. The condition was not new. American commanders during the Revolutionary War dealt harshly with soldiers who might desert because of their yearning for home. (European armies were more tolerant.) But during the 19th century, which was an era of general emotional intensification – see this earlier post – homesickness seemingly intensified; it was elaborated, examined, and medicalized. The military, in particular, repeatedly had to recognize and deal with it. Mostly, homesick young soldiers were told to, in effect, “man up.” (Women usually could be homesick without much embarrassment.) And, as we saw, some people purportedly died from it.
This emotional condition, discovered and intensified in the 19th century, cooled down in the 20th. American institutions developed systems of handling homesickness. The modern Army, for example, tries to bring the sights and sounds of home, such as the food and video games, to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Summer camps and colleges have deployed all sorts of techniques for distracting youngsters out of their homesickness – including trying to keep anxious parents from meddling too much. Today, we would think it weird that someone would simply die of being homesick.
Matt suggests that, in the modern era, when technology allows us to keep in touch with home, the same sort of feeling — a melancholy about a past connection has been lost — has become attached, not to places, but to past historical era. And so “nostalgia,” as we understand the term today, is more the emotion of our times than is homesickness. People may not die of what we today call nostalgia, as Private Atkins purportedly did, but it shapes the way many of us understand the past.
(This column was re-posted on The Berkeley Blog on September 7, 2011.)
Update (July 16, 2013)
John Tierney of The New York Times reports the research of psychologist Constantine Sedikides on nostalgia:
Nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety. It makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. Couples feel closer and look happier when they’re sharing nostalgic memories. On cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to literally feel warmer. Nostalgia does have its painful side — it’s a bittersweet emotion — but the net effect is to make life seem more meaningful and death less frightening. When people speak wistfully of the past, they typically become more optimistic and inspired about the future…. but Dr. Sedikides emphasizes that nostalgia is not the same as homesickness. It’s not just for those away from home, and it’s not a sickness, despite its historical reputation…. the feeling of discontinuity doesn’t seem to be a typical result of nostalgia, according to recent studies. In fact, people tend to have a healthier sense of self-continuity if they nostalgize more frequently.
Other research presumably shows that getting people nostalgic by playing old songs improves how they feel.
I am a bit skeptical of all this, but it does suggest that the professionals have come a long way from considering nostalgia as a potentially fatal disease.