Jul 052012

While nineteenth-century observers celebrated the railroad, steamboat, postal service, and telegraph as working wonders, contemporary Americans express the same optimism about computers, cell phones, airplanes, and cars. Some celebrate the abundance of products available everywhere, created by the machinery of corporate capitalism. As consumerism has become pervasive in American life, the ability to buy a sense of home has become easier. Chain stores and brand names have made the material world more homogeneous and in some ways more familiar. These innovations, from fast transport to global marketing to instantaneous communication, offer the seductive promise that leaving home and returning to it will be easy and painless. With the assurance that they can stay in touch with family and home, many have set off. Although the home one has left may be far away, the consumer economy provides the illusion that it is close at hand. Yet those who have suffered from homesickness know that even with such conveniences and technologies, the distances between an old home and a new one are great, and often unbridgeable. Despite the new inventions and economic connections, homesickness has not disappeared from the panoply of human emotions….

Americans in their migrations have consistently affirmed a set of values that counter lonely individualism, that embrace community and connection. The culture in which we live is a homesick culture; the ideology of rugged individualism that holds sway, however, denies the relevance of the emotion, and so its many signs and artifacts frequently are not seen for what they are.

The wealth of communication technologies and their extraordinary popularity, the diversity of international goods on grocery store shelves, and [ethnic] programming available on satellite television are potent symbols of the emotional connections Americans try to sustain as they move on. Yet, in the end, those technologies, devices, applications, and products cannot make men and women forget about the miles that separate them from home. They are the next best thing to being there, but they are not the same as being there. They are not sufficient to make homesickness disappear, for in the end, easy travel, inexpensive communication, and name brands available worldwide, obscure but do not erase the fact of distance.

—Susan Matt in “Homesickness: An American History”

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