- Read Part 1 and Part 2 of this review of “Immigrants and the Dream of Return”, a chapter in Susan Matt’s “Homesickness: An American History” about the impact of homesickness on immigrants between 1870 and 1920. Though the nature of immigration in that period differed from later ones, several of its characteristics apply to this day.
Shifting from Homesickness to Nostalgia
Despite the fact that they had been homesick for years, they discovered they could never really return home. When they arrived in their native lands, they found them different than they remembered. [They] had been homesick for a home that no longer (and perhaps never had) existed.
Immigrants, therefore, now longed not only for a place but also for a time. Homesickness gave way to nostalgia as immigrants “realized that true return was impossible.” So they returned to the United States, feeling that’s where the true home was.*
Those that returned and stayed felt ashamed about their homesickness and embarrassed at having failed to make it in America. Repatriated immigrants also found it hard to fit back in. They had become accustomed to another standard of living in the U.S. Many imported appliances, foodstuffs, or plants. Others tried to recreate some of the culture by establishing American clubs.
You Can Never Go Home Again
Travels between the old and new homes taught immigrants that “they could not really go home again The home they remembered no longer existed; it had changed and so had they.”
The emergence of nostalgia was one part of the experience. Once they were able to go back to the place they were homesick for, “they realized that what they yearned for was a lost era.”
The other aspect of return was placelessness:
If [Slovaks] missed [Slovakia] when they were in America, and missed America when they were in [Slovakia], where did they belong? If they moved back and forth, where was home? Where and what was one’s true self?
The “sense of not quite being a native of anywhere” became a norm for all Americans, not just immigrants. Being unable to go home again, immigrants
developed new ways of coping with homesickness. Faced with feelings of not being at home anywhere, they tried to make everywhere home. They maintained ties with their families and native lands, moved back and forth between Old World and New, and imported reminders of their homelands to the United States and mementos of the United States to their homelands.