Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Reading Between the Lines

Much of what we think we know about the traditional Pilgrim Thanksgiving is myth. Clothing, food, traditions and guests are largely a mish-mash of Victorian romantic poetry and pageantry.
According to Karin Goldstein, a curator at historic Plimouth Plantation, “Thanksgiving school plays, as well as images of a single long table from textbooks and art, have become part of our holiday traditions. From a tool used to teach school children and immigrants, this simplified view of Thanksgiving has become a familiar symbol in American culture, used in all sorts of media from cartoons to greeting cards. It is important to remember that this view is part of the history of the holiday, rather than historic fact.”
What took place at Plymouth in 1621 was a traditional English harvest celebration – without buckled shoes, cornucopias, farm factory turkeys, cranberry relish or Native Americans wearing (mistakenly Plains Indian style) headdresses. This simple event did not turn into a national Thanksgiving holiday until the nineteenth century.
The Pilgrims, Wampanoag and Thanksgiving were first linked together in 1841, when historian Alexander Young rediscovered Edward Winslow’s account of the 1621 harvest celebration. The account was part of the text of a letter to a friend in England, later included in A Relation or Journal of the Beginning and Proceedings of the English Plantation Settled at Plimoth in New England, a narrative published in 1622. Although Young isolated the description of the harvest celebration, and identified it as the origin of the New England Thanksgiving, at this point Young’s claim had little impact on the popular concept of Thanksgiving.
Our modern perception of the mythical Pilgrims is actually due in large part to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, author of the epic poems “Courtship of Miles Standish” and “Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.” When “Courtship” was published in 1858, the poem was an overnight success, casting a dramatic glow on the Pilgrim story and feeding popular imagination. It was based on a narrative originally set down by Rev. Timothy Alden in 1814.
Ten thousand copies of “Courtship” were sold in London in a single day! Women swooned over the image of handsome bookish John Alden being asked by his friend Captain Standish to plead his case with the maid Priscilla Mullins, Alden’s own secret heart song. Priscilla’s gentle rebuke, “Why don’t you speak for yourself, John Alden?” passed into folklore as “Courtship” brought the Pilgrims to life for American readers and gave them new roles in the historical drama of the young nation. Miles, John and Priscilla put a youthful romantic face on the previously stern Pilgrim fathers and mothers.
Other than Rev. Alden’s traditional anecdote, no historical basis for the soap operatic story of New England’s famous first love triangle appears to exist. Researchers tracking the life of Captain Standish and genesis of the “Courtship” poem trace its antecedents to a bit of doggerel attributed to a Moses Mullins that appeared in a Boston magazine in 1843, fifteen years before Longfellow expanded it into the Victorian equivalent of a TV mini-series.
Writing for the Harvard Alumni Bulletin in 1976, Rev. Peter Gomes had this to say about Longfellow’s influence on the popular perception of American history in general and the Pilgrims in particular: “Had Henry Wadsworth Longfellow devoted himself to the Romance languages, of which he was Smith Professor at Harvard, rather than to mediocre but memorable verse, the perception of American history may well have been quite different. Paul Revere would have remained an unknown Boston artisan, and the Pilgrims of Plymouth would be little more than aggregate virtue. It was Longfellow’s disciplined meters and undisciplined history that launched them both into immortality.”
All of which only reinforces the librarian’s creed when it comes to recognizing the difference between belief and knowledge...and being able to research the turkey’s true giblets. 
When the family I married into gathered around the Thanksgiving table in years past, there was a flesh and blood link to the first Plymouth feast. My late mother-in-law’s ninth great grandfather was Mayflower passenger Francis Cooke (1583-1663). It was a thrill to see his name on the National Monument to the Forefathers while visiting Plymouth in 2005.
Besides Eleanor Cross Wendt, other famous descendants of the venerable Pilgrim Cooke include three presidents (Franklin D. Roosevelt, George Herbert Walker Bush and George W. Bush), artist Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma” Moses, the Beach Boys brothers Wilson, and actors Orson Welles, Richard Gere and Dick Van Dyke.
That’s OK.  The forebears of my Germanic great grandfather, Friedrich Wilhelm Adam, were celebrating their own Erntedankfest (“harvest festival of thanks”) long before the Pilgrims passed through Holland on their way to the big rock. 
Sie sind willkommen!
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