By Susan J. Matt
Lately, loneliness has been attributed to our digital technologies, but its real, root cause is our mobile individualism. America’s mobility rates have declined over the last few decades, but we still move more than most other industrialized peoples. This longstanding pattern in American life means that our social networks are often disrupted, leaving us uprooted and alone. While Americans have long struggled to connect with each other, the contemporary generation faces particular challenges.
First, we have learned since childhood that we aren’t supposed to be too attached to particular places or people. We should be cosmopolitan citizens of the world, able to leave one place for another with no heartache. Consequently, when we feel isolated and lonely, we are loathe to discuss it for fear of appearing maladjusted and immature. That may make us feel even more alone, for our silence on the subject prevents us from realizing how pervasive — and normal — the emotion is. Another result of our collective silence is that we lack the social resources, institutions, and traditions that earlier generations (less tight-lipped about loneliness, used to cope with the emotion).
Today when we’re lonely, we often rely on screens: iPads, phones, or TVs. They comfort us, and simultaneously keep our loneliness hidden from those around us. Online, we connect with distant friends equally hungry for connection and have reunions of sort with people from across the country and across the years of our lives. We sit alone in our living rooms or offices, but feel some sort of link to those far from us. Or perhaps we turn to the TV screen, which offers what Robert Kubey and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi have termed “parasocial experiences.” TV offers comfort to the lonely because its “programs are well stocked with familiar faces and voices and viewing can help people maintain the illusion of being with others even when they are alone.”
Earlier generations were more likely to turn to each other. In some ways, they had an easier time of maintaining connections than modern Americans do because they often moved en masse. Before the automobile and the airplane, wagon trails and railroad lines funneled traffic to particular locations. Families that knew each other in New England often migrated west together, settling near each other in new towns. African Americans leaving the South for the North in the early twentieth century did the same, traveling on trains from Hattiesburg, Mississippi to Chicago, for instance — and maintaining neighborly bonds in the process. Today, however, internal migrants are more likely to scatter when they move, following less predictable paths, ending up in new places with few old neighbors nearby. This makes it difficult to re-establish home ties.
Contemporary Americans also lack the organizational impulse of earlier generations who worked diligently to recreate social networks they had left behind. To fight off feelings of loneliness, Americans in the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century joined organizations, held picnics, dinners, parades, often with people from their hometowns or states. So, for instance, in the 1840s and 1850s, the Sons of Maine organized themselves in Boston, the Sons of New England gathered in Philadelphia and Sacramento, and the Sons of New York held annual festivals in Wisconsin and in Keokuk, Iowa. Although not terribly far from home, New Hampshire migrants to Boston held a “Festival of the Sons of New Hampshire,” over which native son Daniel Webster presided. The group, numbering over 1500, assembled 7 November 1849, marched through the streets of Boston, and then held a banquet in a hall above the Fitchburg train station. The evening concluded with the vow that the event would be repeated. In 1853, 2,000 “Sons of New Hampshire” marched through the streets of Boston and 1,700 dined at a banquet that followed.
Immigrants did much the same, creating thousands of organizations across the country. A Lithuanian language newspaper reported on one in 1905, “A branch of the Lovers of Fatherland Society was organized on Sunday, January 15, on the North Side of Chicago. The first meeting was held with songs and declamations…. Miss Aldona Narmunciute recited the poem, ‘I am a Lithuanian Child’ and sang ‘I am Reared in Lithuania.’ Miss Antigona Aukstakalniute recited the poems: ‘Wake up Brother Ancestor’ and ‘As Long as You are Young, Loving Brother, Sow the Seed’; she also sang two songs ‘Hello Brother Singers’ and the ‘Love of Lithuania.’
So great was the desire for connection that these gatherings could grow to enormous sizes. In the late nineteenth century, transplanted Easterners and Midwesterners in southern California eagerly formed state associations. Iowan C.H. Parsons, a driving force behind them claimed they “liquidated the blues.” Parsons was inspired to organize these groups because he “so frequently heard the expression, ‘If I could only run into some one I know,’ in the streets of Los Angeles.” The state associations met just such a need, holding social events where lonely men and women could meet others from their home states and sometimes even their hometowns. The Iowa association did this most successfully, holding Iowa picnics, which grew from 2,000 to 3,000 Hawkeyes in a park in 1900, to a gathering of 30,000 picnickers in 1917, to 45,000 in 1926, and to more than 100,000 in 1935. These picnics testified both to the vastness of the metropolis the migrants were joining, and the widely felt need for connection.
Today, hometown associations flourish among immigrants, who gather together for parties, dinners, holidays. But native-born Americans have largely abandoned such gatherings. We have become so accustomed to mobility and cosmopolitanism that many of us believe we shouldn’t be overly tied to home, to place, and are convinced our identities no longer derive from a state or a town. And yet, in reality, our identities are still profoundly local — on our Facebook pages are links to hometowns. There childhood friends mingle, and high school classes reassemble if only virtually. In our efforts to suppress our loneliness in public, we often appear as though we don’t care about the places and people we’ve left behind, but every day, when we go online in the privacy of our homes, we show that the opposite is true.
Susan J. Matt is Presidential Distinguished Professor of History at Weber State University, in Ogden, Utah. She is the author of Homesickness: An American History. Read her previous posts “Home for the holidays” and “How loneliness became taboo” on the OUPblog.