Jun 052012
  • 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

Even after they decided to stay stateside, a significant portion of immigrants continued to want to return. The longer they stayed, the more difficult the return. Matt writes,

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.


  • Source: Susan Matt, “Homesickness: An American History”, New York: Oxford University Press, 2011 – BUY NOW
  • Image credit: marc e marc
  • * At the time of writing I spoke to a Czech immigrant named Barbara, owner of a Czech bakery in Beaverton, Oregon, who expressed the same sentiment.

  4 Responses to “Homesickness and the Dream of Return: The Problem With Going Home”

  1. I am second and third generation Slovak. At times I feel homesick for Slovakia even though I have never been there. Different things come up in my life that point me in that direction. But financially I could not even visit even though I would love to. I enjoy your website,I am thankful I came across it. I have learned so much from you. Thank you,Barbara

    • @Barbara: Thank you so much for your kind word. I hear you on the cost of traveling to Slovakia. Another factor is short vacations in the U.S. My wife, who is American, and I get to go only every three years, after literally years of saving up for it. But when we do go, we stay for 3 weeks at a time!

  2. I’m 3rd generation American-born on my dad’s side, but still never really felt ‘American’ the whole 33 yrs that I lived there (only Portland, Oregon, where I lived for 8 yrs came *close* to feeling like some type of ‘home’ for me). My dad’s grandparents were Czech, Slovak, Polish, & Ukrainian, all met in Chicago, and I can easily say that the Slavic mentality/traits remained in our family, long after multilingual abilities unfortunately faded.

    In 2006 I moved to Prague, with not much money, no job, and no friends in the region. It was difficult, to say the least, but I settled in quickly, started a family, and have come to think of ‘home’ as anywhere I hang my hat. I’m still hit with culture shock by small things, when I least expect it, which is why it’s termed ‘shock’, I guess. Still, even when things are rough here, I think about what it would be like to raise my daughters in the USA and I start to feel like Central Europe is really ‘home’ — a safe place, where people may not smile nearly as much but seem to respect each other more.

    Ultimately, it comes down to this: the ‘American Dream’ can be loosely defined as ‘freedom’ and ‘opportunity’, both of which I’ve found far more of — at this point in time — in Europe. If I think about my great-grandparents leaving their native lands for Chicago, because at that point in time things were much different, I should be willing to do as much as they were willing to do, even if it takes me back to the places they left behind.

    Thanks for your blog, Peter. I discovered it via Olinka Broadfoot’s interview. She’s a wonderful lady, great friend, and a big inspiration art-wise. Next time you’re in the area, give me a shout and let’s connect for some 400-yr-old Czech microbrews. ;)

    • @Jason: Thanks for sharing your story. What an amazing arc, to immigrate to the place your grandparents emigrated from, from the place they immigrated to. Pure novel material, if your attention span ever allows.

      The same goes for you: if you ever find yourself in Portland again, holler and let’s sample the good old Pacific NW brews.

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