In 1991, Anton Shammas wrote of a Palestinian immigrant who had come to the United States, secretly carrying with him plants, seeds, and seven birds native to the West Bank: "Maybe that's why Abu-Khalil can feel at home in California, surrounded by the artifacts of his lost Palestine. This country is big; it has enough room not only for the newcomers but also for their portable homelands. Among other achievements, Amerka [sic] has made homesickness obsolete" (300). Shammas suggested that as a result of America's space and immigrants' ability to import the things of home to the United States, there need be no more pain at parting, no more longing for a lost home. Is this true? If one can have in America the food, the clothes, the newspapers (if not always the birds and the plants) of one's native land, does distance no longer matter? Has homesickness become an outdated and unnecessary emotion?
The answer is complex. As cross-country and international travel has become faster, more comfortable, and more affordable, leaving home has come to be seen as a less consequential act, because it appears easier to return. The same transportation technologies that make it possible for people to leave and return home also make it possible to transport some of the tastes and sounds of home to a new location. Modern, global consumer society holds out the promise that returning home is easy, and that reconstructing home in a new locale is even easier. While the home one has left may be far away, the consumer economy provides the illusion that it is relatively close at hand. In such a context, homesickness may seem to some to be an emotional artifact of the past, inappropriate in a contemporary society that takes for granted the necessity of mobility. Those who suffer from homesickness, however, know all too clearly that even with such conveniences, distances between an old home and a new one are sometimes great, and often unbridgeable.
This article examines the history of homesickness and how consumer society has reshaped the emotion. The commercialization of travel has allowed for easier migration, which often has resulted in homesickness. On the other hand, the market economy gradually has been able to offer to immigrants a wide array of familiar consumer goods from the places they have left. These may provide some comfort to migrants that earlier generations could not find. Imported goods priced for the masses became widely available in the late nineteenth century, and for that reason, this article will trace the way that immigrants to the United States at the turn of the century used consumerism to reproduce in the new world some elements of their old lives. In doing so, they assuaged, but did not eliminate, their homesickness.
A Brief History of Homesickness
Homesickness was first recognized as a widespread problem by Johannes Hofer in 1688. A Swiss scholar, Hofer wrote a dissertation on the pain he witnessed among young people far from home and the physical symptoms they seemed to endure. To describe their condition he coined the word "nostalgia", combining the Greek word for pain, algia, with nostos, which means 'return home' (Hofer 381). Hofer's new diagnosis became popular in Europe in the eighteenth century, especially among doctors working with young soldiers. Physicians elaborated on his description of the disease, and added a host of new symptoms that they had observed. Many of them believed the disease could be fatal, if left untreated (Starobinski 81-103). While at first the condition seemed to strike only populations in Continental Europe, by the 1750s, the word "homesickness" had entered the English language (Oxford English Dictionary 330), and by the late eighteenth century, it had been carried across the Atlantic. British colonists in North America used it to describe their own emotions. By the nineteenth century, the idea that homesickness was a dangerous disease also had spread to America. …