Happy Historical Thanksgiving!

When I was 7 or so, my dad, who worked at the University of Denver, went to a library sale and came home with a gift for me. It was a beautiful old book, from 1858, bound in letter, embossed with gold leaf on the edges and printed in twisting vines on the front. Inside were poems organized thematically, and within each theme, alphabetically. It was a Victorian coffee table book, a “poet’s repository.” For the most part, the poems were the usual popular Victorian stuff that we would probably consider “sing-songy” and trite.

Inside the front cover was an engraving of a pretty woman wearing the kind of froufrou little girls, still living in the in the “dress ups” moment of life, lust after. Long full skirts, lace and gewgaws. This book was one of my most precious treasures, but I gave it away in 1983 to a visiting English professor from Chengdu who also fell in love with it and had a use for it.

In 1974 I was nearing the end of my schooling for my BA in English and was taking my “seminar.” It was an one of the first woman’s studies courses and our senior paper needed to involve a woman writer. I had NO idea about whom I should write. It was a confused and unhappy time in my life. I was married to a man who kicked and hit me at odd intervals; my dad had died two years before; my mom and I didn’t get along. I needed friends and didn’t have any. School seemed so unimportant.

I went to the Norlin Library, under an inscription from Cicero, “Who knows only his own generation remains always a child,” and wandered around the stacks. In reaching up for a book, I hit another book from the shelf. It fell open in front of me and there she was. The same pretty woman in the beautiful dress, lace and gewgaws. I picked it up. It was The Lady of Godey’s a biography of Sarah Hale. I read it, finding not only my senior project, but my masters thesis. She was a spectacular woman and as I read (on microfilm) through issue after issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book, focusing on her editorial purpose, “listening” to what she had to say about her world, I found a friend, the second of many “dead friends” I’ve found in my life.

The result was a poorly written 45 page paper. I got an F. The comments were, “Your research, needless to say, is very fine. Your writing, however, needs work to flow smoothly and clearly to your reader. The overall organization of your essay lacks focus. A clear thesis statement would help this.” I cursed the teacher, ripped up the paper, cried and went to sleep. The next morning I woke up with a clearer head, and the necessity of taping the paper back together. I went to her office hours with this mess in hand — erasable typing paper the texture of onion skin — shards taped together with masking tape, telling a story with great eloquence.

She let me revise it — something almost unheard of back then — and I got a GREAT lesson on clear writing and fell more deeply in love with that kind of research and that kind of writing.

I entered the University of Denver a few years later to work toward a masters and wrote my thesis on the fiction and poetry during the first 15 years of Godey’s Lady’s Book.

Every Thanksgiving I remember Sarah Josepha Hale for good reason. It is because of her efforts lobbying for a national holiday that we have this holiday. She ran the most successful popular periodical in the world; she had a voice and popular support for many of her ideas and projects. She had pushed for a day of thanksgiving for years, but it was not until 1863, when we were in the middle of a civil war, that she was able to get the President to take the idea seriously. Her argument to Lincoln was that the people on this continent needed a reason to stop what they were doing and reflect on what brought Americans together.

Because of Womens Studies (mine was one of the first such classes) we know a lot more about what women did “back then” and other people have discovered Sarah Hale and the story of Thanksgiving is available for anyone willing to look on the Internet.

From Sarah Josepha Hale, “Editor’s Table,” Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1858


“All the blessings of the fields,
All the stores the garden yields,
All the plenty summer pours,
Autumn’s rich, o’erflowing stores,
Peace, prosperity and health,
Private bliss and public wealth,
Knowledge with its gladdening streams,
Pure religion’s holier beams —
Lord, for these our souls shall raise
Grateful vows and solemn praise.”

We are most happy to agree with the large majority of the governors of the different States — as shown in their unanimity of action for several past years, and which, we hope, will this year be adopted by all — that the LAST THURSDAY IN NOVEMBER shall be the DAY Of NATIONAL THANKSGIVING for the American people. Let this day, from this time forth, as long as our Banner of Stars floats on the breeze, be the grand THANKSGIVING HOLIDAY of our nation, when the noise and tumult of wordliness may be exchanged for the laugh of happy children, the glad greetings of family reunion, and the humble gratitude of the Christian heart. This truly American Festival falls, this year on the twenty fifth day of this month.

Let us consecrate the day to benevolence of action, by sending good gifts to the poor, and doing those deeds of charity that will, for one day, make every American home the place of plenty and of rejoicing. These seasons of refreshing are of inestimable advantage to the popular heart; and if rightly managed, will greatly aid and strengthen public harmony of feeling. Let the people of all the States and Territories sit down together to the “feast of fat things,” and drink, in the sweet draught of joy and gratitude to the Divine giver of all our blessings, the pledge of renewed love to the Union, and to each other; and of peace and good-will to all men. Then the last Thursday in November will soon become the day of AMERICAN THANKSGIVING throughout the world.

8 thoughts on “Happy Historical Thanksgiving!

  1. There is a wonderful book out by a Vermont author of both English and Indian descent. It’s called Will Poole’s Island, and it shows clearly the more realistic relationship between the natives and the settlers. If you want to know more about it, you can go to VPR’s web page, at the following site, http://digital.vpr.net/post/vermont-novelist-seeks-complicate-thanksgiving-myth and find a wonderful article about and interview of the author and what he discovered in his research. I hope you’ll at least look at it, because it certainly opened my eyes.

  2. I like this a lot !!!
    I’d give my back teeth (all present and correct, as well as the front ones) to have a project meaningful to me that required research.

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