On Homesickness

From The Paris Review:

HomesicknessThe word homesickness didn’t come into use until the 1750s. Before that, the feeling was known as “nostalgia,” a medical condition. It was first identified in 1688 by Johannes Hofer, a Swiss scholar, who warned that the condition had not been sufficiently observed or described and could have dire consequences. By Hofer’s description, the nostalgic individual so exhausted himself thinking of home that he couldn’t attend to other ideas or bodily needs. While nostalgia was embraced as a Victorian virtue, a testament to civility and the domestic order, extreme onsets could kill a person. And so they did during the Civil War. By two years in, two thousand soldiers had been diagnosed with nostalgia, and in the year 1865, twenty-four white Union soldiers and sixteen black ones died from it. Meantime one hundred thousand Confederates deserted, presumably motivated by memories of mom’s hushpuppies. The war just about ended what little romanticization of homesickness had survived in the wilds of early America. A sentiment that caused desertion and death could no longer pass as a force for social good. Instead it had far greater utility as a patronizing justification of racism. Some in favor of slavery began to claim that slaves loved their home more than anyone; that being the case, how cruel to then tear them from the plantation.

An immigrant seeking a fortune couldn’t afford any semblance of I can’t cut it. Nor could a pioneer moving westward, or a Yankee trudging to California with a pan in his hand.

More here.

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