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Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday.

Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday. By James W. Baker. (Durham, N.H.: University of New Hampshire Press, 2009. 288 pages. Cloth: $26.95).

The Pilgrims did wear buckles on their shoes, had no shirts with ruffled collars, and may not have feasted on turkey (wild or otherwise) at a harvest feast held in 1621. Such matters are very important to print reporters the day before the annual calendric holiday of Thanksgiving. In recent years the organizing trope about Thanksgiving is point/counterpoint, myth and reality (often presented as "top ten myths about Thanksgiving"). The myth versus reality approach turns the study of the shifting cultural significance of a holiday important to American civil religion into a mini-version of Trivial Pursuit. There are facts to refute the myths in this book, many of which have to do with what people ate, wore, and how they dined in November of 1621. The actual purpose of this book is to prove once again that one of the nation's beloved holidays is an "invented tradition," discontinuous in its history and varied in the types of ways it has been celebrated. Baker examines a vast range of cultural materials from postcards to children's books to Hollywood films of the 1990s. There is evidence about how people actually celebrate this holiday, but it is not as important as the theme of myth-making and contested history. Baker demonstrates the commonsense; not just that myths take on a life of their own but that in speaking to "hopes and fears," myths are much more emotionally satisfying than truths.

Baker examines the evolution of the holiday since 1621, giving the greatest attention to the evolution of Thanksgiving in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A one time only special event became an annual celebration in several New England colonies by the 1680s, although not yet permanently penciled into the calendar. Preoccupied with their own family circumstances, New Englanders in the early nineteenth century did not pay much attention to remembering the Pilgrims. A written account about the first Thanksgiving reemerged in the 1840s, which offered the Pilgrims as role models of Christian comportment for a patriotic nation. By the late nineteenth century the Pilgrims became America's revered ancestors, described as far more tolerant than the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay. During the Progressive era the Pilgrims were transformed into costumed celebrants suitable for performance at school pageants, dooming them apparently to history lessons for children, and apparently irrelevant to adults. As the research director at the outdoor history museum, Plimouth Plantation, Baker is especially interested in the historical celebration in the town of Plymouth. Massachusetts. After World War II the old tack factories and woolen mills had gone out of business. A Boston investment broker gave the Pilgrim Society money to establish a museum, which cleared land for a historical reconstruction which would serve as a companion site to the other main historical attraction, Plymouth Rock. The town added a parade to increase tourism, disproving the notion that Thanksgiving is a holiday that has not been commercialized.

The two most interesting features of the book have to do with Native American history, in the late nineteenth century and again about a century after that. As late as the 1890s Indians on Thanksgiving were portrayed as lying dead in the snow, shot before they violently attacked the log cabin of a Pilgrim. Only after the tragedy of Wounded Knee and the certainty that Indians west of the Mississippi had been militarily vanquished did the image of the peaceful Indian guest become an untroubled and central element of Thanksgiving iconography. In the late 1920s and 1930s some Wampanoags joined public celebrations on Thanksgiving in Plymouth, Massachusetts. But they were not the Cape Cod branch of the group, who were quite suspicious of the Plymouth celebration, but instead members of the tribe who lived in Maine. The placidity of the fifties as a time of national consensus is confirmed here in popular willingness to accept the myth of Indian/Pilgrim amity at the first Thanksgiving. The combination of the militant Indian takeover of Alcatraz and Vietnam War protest led to the first Native American protests against the holiday in Plymouth in 1969; in this case, the troublemakers really were outside agitators. Thereafter the Plymouth police every holiday had to keep apart protestors and townspeople gathered for the annual parade. Liberal teachers in Washington state, intent on multiculturalism, have done the most to create a new mythic Thanksgiving where the Wampanoags come close to paying host to Pilgrim guests. This version of the hallowed holiday is now replete with (an entirely fictional) Thomas Mather the Elder who gives thanks for smallpox which decimates the local Indians. In this version of history the Pilgrims are portrayed as hapless and starving (actually, they were still relying on supplies they had brought with them) and as genocidal, celebrating mainly after returning from the Pequot War in 1637 in which they had massacred Indians and reduced them to slavery. Baker points out that the Pilgrims did not actually go to the war against the Pequots in 1637, although they did celebrate when the war was concluded. Paranoia on (or from) the web seems to have crept into the negative image of the Pilgrims, in which the religious settlers offer the Wampanoags food and drink and poison 200 of them. The one absence in this thorough and readable history is of Norman Rockwell's "Freedom from Want." It is not only the iconic image of Thanksgiving in the last sixty years but also the image most parodied for that very reason. Baker is sanguine about the post-1970 cultural war over Thanksgiving, since he believes the holiday has won out and is firmly planted on the sentimental side of any domestic ledger. He thinks the very fact that people want to fight over the meaning of Thanksgiving shows how much they hope their version of it will triumph.

Elizabeth H. Pleck

University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign
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Author:Pleck, Elizabeth H.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2011
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