By Susan J. Matt
It’s that time of year again, the season when It’s A Wonderful Life pops up on every single television channel. Viewers seem not to tire of watching the story of George Bailey, the man who never left home but still managed to find meaning and a measure of success among friends and family in Bedford Falls. For Americans, known for their restlessness, George Bailey seems an improbable hero, and It’s a Wonderful Life an unlikely hit. After all, we are among the world’s most mobile people; our national icons are more often rugged individualists—pioneers, cowboys, immigrants—men and women willing to cut ties and move on, to leave home, and the past behind. Not so George Bailey, who despite his dreams for a life elsewhere, just stays put.
While viewers identify with Bailey in the movie, for much of the 20th century, and now in the 21st, Americans generally have regarded the George Baileys of the world as failures. Indeed, Bailey sees himself that way, longing to wipe the dust of his “two bit town” off his feet and go on to greater things. That Bailey thought of himself as a failure and that modern viewers might see him that way too reflects ideals of personality and success that emerged only in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Contemporary culture frequently portrays mobility as natural and easy, as a longstanding part of the cultural DNA of Americans, but the idea that one had to move away from home in order to be a success is of surprisingly recent vintage.
Until the start of the last century, there was no shame in staying home. Unlike today, those adults who remained close to the family hearth were not labeled as unambitious. And those who felt homesickness when they were far from home were not considered immature and backwards as they are in contemporary society. Instead, love of home marked one as a refined and moral being, and homesickness was a sign of a virtuous and sensitive nature.
Notwithstanding such views, Americans in earlier centuries left home quite frequently. During the first half of the nineteenth century, Americans moved in unprecedented numbers, with close to 50% of the population migrating across state lines. Yet despite these peripatetic patterns, and despite our mythology of forward-looking, optimistic and highly individualistic pioneers, in reality these Americans did not find migration easy or natural. Many believed that mobility carried with it myriad risks, not least of which was homesickness or nostalgia as it was then known.
Considered a disease, it could prove fatal. During the Civil War alone, the Surgeon General attributed 74 Union deaths to nostalgia, and diagnosed over 5000 other soldiers as suffering from severe cases of the malady, the symptoms of which ranged from heart palpitations to “hectic fever” to incontinence. Soldiers were not the only ones to feel the pain of nostalgia, and newspapers routinely carried news of the sorry victims of the condition. “Victim of Nostalgia: Priest Dies Craving for a Sight of his Motherland,” reported San Francisco’s Evening Bulletin in 1887. “Died By His Own Hand: Pangs of Nostalgia Drove Lonely Native to Meet Awful End,” reported the San Jose Evening News in 1901. To earlier generations, leaving home often carried a hefty emotional toll, a toll that was widely acknowledged. Mobility was not an unambiguous sign of ambition and success; instead it was often recognized as a source of pain.
Americans began to change their perspectives on home and homesickness only in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as new views of mobility emerged. Nostalgia disappeared as a medical diagnosis, and the word’s meaning slowly changed. Rather than signifying a longing for a distant place, it came to be identified as a yearning for an unrecoverable time. As the diagnosis disappeared so too did sympathy for the homesick. Social Darwinists suggested that those who suffered from homesickness showed an inability to adapt to new environments. Early psychologists like G. Stanley Hall characterized homebodies as “provincial, plodding, and timid,” and later behaviorist psychologists insisted that those who could not leave home painlessly showed an alarming “infantile dependence.” They certainly would have wagged a warning finger at George Bailey, and characterized his loyalty to his mother and his hometown as vaguely pathological.
By the early decades of the twentieth century then, the conventional psychological and sociological wisdom had coalesced around the idea that the ambitious and successful moved on; the inferior, the dependent, the sissies, the failures stayed put. Part of proving one’s maturity, modernity, and fitness for the capitalist marketplace was demonstrating the ability to cut home ties. Children were sent to summer camps to learn how to conquer homesickness; adults were told to repress it if they continued to feel it. Only by moving away from home and its emotional entanglements might one be truly mature and truly succeed.
Yet this lesson is something that George Bailey never quite mastered, despite himself. He kept trying to shake the dust of Bedford Falls off his feet, but obligations to family and community required him to stay. Just as Bailey was unsuccessful at internalizing the demands of modern capitalist society, so many Americans have likewise discovered that the psychological mold of the rugged individualist does not accommodate their local affections and communitarian sentiments. And perhaps that explains the movie’s continued appeal, for it reminds us that America has never been only a nation of individualists, that our past provides us with other personality types worth celebrating, and that love of home, loyalty to community, and a deep investment in a particular place need not be a source of shame nor a sign of failure.