Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving Day

Thanksgiving again.

Because I put up a fairly lengthy post last year on the "first Thanksgiving" and its history and foodways, I'll take a somewhat different tack here.

It is a interesting holiday this year in particular because my co-teacher Laura Wenk and I, in our course on "learning how to think and teach like a historian," have included a unit on the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving, built around The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony, by James and Patricia Scott Deetz. Student background knowledge appears to be about what one would expect: a general conviction that history idealized and transfigured the Pilgrims, coupled with heightened sensibility to the wrongs done to Native Americans; belief in the overwhelming influence of religion in that day: beyond that, little if any specific knowledge in most cases.

Both the Deetzes' book and Nathaniel Philbrick's more recent and much more popular (indeed, bestselling) Mayflower (from which we assigned an excerpt) make the key point that the typical vision of Colonial New England begins with the Pilgrims and then commences again only on the eve of the Revolution, with nothing much in between. For Philbrick,
the story of the Pilgrims does not end with the First Thanksgiving. When we look to how the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags maintained more than fifty years of peace and how that peace suddenly erupted into one of the deadliest wars ever fought on American soil, the history of Plymouth Colony becomes something altogether new, rich, troubling, and complex. Instead of the study we already know, it becomes the story we need to know (p. xii)
For the Deetzes,
While we use the 'first Thanksgiving' as our point of departure, and consider the myths, familiar to millions of Americans. that have emerged concerning the 'Pilgrims,' we then look back to the events that led up to the settlement of Plymouth Colony and, more significantly, the years following that event through 1691, providing glimpses of life in the colony. These years are particularly important because to large numbers of people the early settlers sailed across the Atlantic on the Mayflower, had a big dinner the following fall, and disappeared. In truth, Plymouth Colony has an ongoing story that is worth recounting in all its colorful detail, enlivened and expanded by contemporary archaeology, cultural research, and living history. (p. xv)
Philbrick draws upon a panoply of primary and secondary textual sources to craft a highly engaging narrative with a strong political lesson, but we chose the Deetzes' book because its use of a wider variety of source material—including court records, probate inventories, architectural and archaeological evidence, folkways and material culture—as well as its analysis of the challenges and techniques of museological portrayal at Plimoth Plantation, seemed ideally suited to the methodological concerns of the course. As a case study of social and cultural history in an early modern rural setting, it moreover forms a perfect complement to our earlier explorations of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's A Midwife's Tale and Natalie Zemon Davis's The Return of Martin Guerre.

We've already given the students a rundown on some features of the original feast: venison and probably waterfowl but no turkey; lots of beer and gunfire. The feast marked a traditional English harvest festival and was in no sense a special day of thanksgiving; indeed, the original one-paragraph account does not even mention prayer. We've asked the students to discuss the first reading assignment when they visit their families for the holiday this week.

It should be interesting, and I hope to report later on some of the results.

In the meantime, a few links to Thanksgiving-related topics:

• Art Buchwald's classic attempt to explain Thanksgiving (le Jour de Merci Donnant) to the French: "Le Grande Thanksgiving"

• Mark Knoller, "History of the Presidential Turkey Pardon" (from CBS)

Proof that birds descended from dinosaurs (including the analysis of a roast turkey; from YouTube)

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