U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Heading Home

In 1914, a year before The Birth of a Nation debuted in movie theaters, D.W. Griffith directed a 56-minute four-reeler called Home, Sweet Home.[1]  The film presents a heavily allegorized “biography” of two subjects: the 19th century American expatriate writer John Howard Payne, and his most famous work, the song “Home, Sweet Home,” written for the stage in 1823. The entire narrative of the film is structured around the power of that song to call wandering prodigals back “home” — back to loved ones, back to a life of morality, fidelity, chastity, back to America. Indeed, this early Griffith feature perfectly captures and capitalizes upon the central place which both the song “Home, Sweet Home” and the sentimentalized story of its author had come to hold in the popular imagination as the locus classicus for Americans’ sentimentalized construct of home at the beginning of the 20th century.

The Griffith film is perhaps one of the last, but arguably not the most unusual, “usable pasts” made through a pairing of the life story and literary output of John Howard Payne. By 1939, with The Wizard of Oz, we get an invocation of the lyric without the lyricist, and “There’s no place like home!” becomes associated henceforth with that film.  But in terms of linking John Howard Payne and his song, I think the palm for “most unusual use of the dead writer and his lyric” would have to go to William Wilson Corcoran, who bankrolled and choreographed John Howard Payne’s disinterment from the American consulate in Tunis, where Payne had served as the American consul, and his reburial in a cemetery in Washington D.C. almost thirty years later.  But that’s another story for another blog post – indeed, for a whole series of posts.

In fact, barring a reader mutiny or a blog impeachment, that’s what I’m going to do – a series of blog posts on the place of “Home, Sweet Home” in American cultural history. I hope to use the (once) oft-paired stories of John Howard Payne and his most famous lyric as a lens to look at (among other things) ideas of nationhood and nativism, personhood and performativity, cultural capital and capitalist culture, family and home, mortality and meaning.  I would like to trace these constellations of ideas over a longish arc (for Americanists) stretching from the Early Republic to the Great Depression. In the process I will probably toggle back and forth, a bit roughly and recursively, between these various themes.

Longtime readers of this blog may recall that the cultural history of “Home, Sweet Home” was my original dissertation topic. So I’ll be drawing from a lot of work that I have already put in on this subject — writing and research from my master’s program, early attempts at chapters for the dissertation-that-was-not-to-be, conference papers, and so forth.  I guess that’s my own “usable past” of scholarly roads not taken.  But I’ll be adding plenty of fresh verbiage as well.  I hope the result is both sufficiently bloggy and sufficiently substantial for our readership. At the very least, I’d like to provide some more opportunities to open up conversation here about earlier periods of U.S. intellectual and cultural history than the Age of Fracture, or the Jumping of the Shark, or whatever you want to call the last 25 years or so of the American century — which is where most of us at this blog (including yours truly) often camp out.

The first task facing me, following the prompt of D.W. Griffith, is deciding which “biography” to pick up first — the story of the song or the story of the songwriter.  I suppose that’s a bit of a Foucaultian (Foucauldian?) problem, and I don’t have a perfect solution, since both “biographies” became so heavily entangled throughout the 19th century, a fact which Griffith put to good use in his film.  But before picking up either of those threads from within Griffith’s film, or even before looking too closely at the film itself, it is probably a good idea to make sure that when I mention the song “Home, Sweet Home,” people have some general notion of what I’m talking about.  (So I suppose I’ve come down on the side of Foucault here. Who would have guessed!)

The lyrics for “Home, Sweet Home,” written by John Howard Payne for his 1823 melodrama Clari, Maid of Milan (more about that later) go like this:

‘Mid pleasures and palaces, though we may roam,
Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home!
A charm from the skies, seems to hallow us there,
Which, seek through the world, is ne’er met with elsewhere!

Home, Home, Sweet, Sweet, Home!
There’s no place like Home!
There’s no place like Home!

An exile from home, splendor dazzles in vain!
O give me my lowly thatched cottage again!
The birds, singing gayly, that come at my call—
Give me them! — and the peace of mind dearer than all!

Home, Home, Sweet, Sweet, Home!
There’s no place like Home!
There’s no place like Home![2]

Here’s a recording of soprano Alma Gluck from 1911, sentimentally singing this anthem of sentimentalism

That’s the song as Griffith’s audiences would have known it in 1914.

For a different, delightful take on this familiar melody, check out this rendition by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs:


Anyhow, that’s the song — words and melody.  That song provides one strand of a story I want to trace or tell through about 125 years of American history. In my next post, I’ll have more to say about the D.W. Griffith film and how it picks up another strand of the story, the life and career of John Howard Payne.

[1] D.W. Griffith, Home, Sweet Home, 1914, in The Directors. Rare Films of D.W. Griffith, Vol. 2. (DVD), Pleasanton, Calif.: Classic Video Streams, 2009.

[2] Source: Rosa Pendleton Chiles, “John Howard Payne: American Poet, Actor, Playwright, Consul and the Author of  ‘Home, Sweet Home,’ Records of the Columbian Historical Society, Vol. 31/32, 1930.


EDITED 5:46 p.m. — I found a copy/paste error in the second paragraph of this post, and have made the appropriate corrections/additions.  The original text is retained in strikethrough font, followed by additions in italics.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. O give me my lowly thatched cottage again!
    The birds, singing gayly, that come at my call—


    It’s interesting that Payne combined what some (at least today) might view as two distinct notions: Nature and Home. He wants a finely constructed abode, but also hopes to keep the animals within earshot. I guess one might deduce that these are caged birds, and therefore, technically inside his artificial dwelling (that, or he’s an American version of Dr. Doolittle).

    I wonder if the changing conceptions of “nature” are intertwined in this tale?

    I have to admit, the Alma Gluck rendition had me fading off to slumberland. The theme itself (“going home”) seems to have various manifestations that should be interesting to trace, such as M?tley Crüe’s variation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3WAZ60xA9wo.


  2. Mark, thanks for the comment. Yes, the variations on the theme of going home, and even specific riffs on the title “Home, Sweet Home” are almost endless. At some point (as I implied above with the Oz nod, I think that point has a lot to do with cultural turnings in the late 30s/early 40s), the idea of home, and going home, gets an updated set of sentimental associations. I’ll try to parse some of that out in a subsequent post.

    On the lyrics, there are a few different versions — it is sung more than once in the play. And the song (again, in some slightly different versions) became an instant hit separately from the play, ending up as one of the most popular songs in America throughout the 19th century. (Again, more on this later.) The lyrics above are from the arrangement that would have been familiar to Griffith’s audience, as you heard from Gluck’s soporific rendering. (I wondered if maybe somebody should have been cranking that gramophone a little faster.)

    Also, I fixed a copy/paste error in paragraph 2 above — had published with a sentence in mid-revision. Reads more clearly now. The story of Payne’s second funeral — the fact the he had one, and how it all came about — is such a weird historical episode. More on that later…

  3. Thanks for this post. I’m really intrigued by this idea of looking at the history of “home, sweet home.” The possibilities are already swirling in my head. Can’t wait to read more!

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