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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Billings, The Iroquois, Lydia Maria Child on Thanksgiving

Morgan Meis’s recent post about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s eerie tale “John Inglefield’s Thanksgiving” reminds us that “it can be hard to give thanks unless you know why you’re doing it.” The short Hawthorne tale concerns the all-too-brief return of a prodigal daughter for Thanksgiving dinner. Before long, she is called away by “some dark power,” something she cannot resist. As Meis writes:
It is a strange story by any standard; for a Thanksgiving story it is stranger still. But Hawthorne was committed to that strangeness in everything he wrote. He wanted to produce an American literature that was deeply moral without being moralistic. It would show human beings as the inscrutable creatures that they are, struggling to make decisions in situations they can never fully comprehend.
A generation before Hawthorne the brilliant tanner-composer William Billings invoked Psalm 148 as “An Anthem for Thanksgiving.” Here the forces of darkness are vanquished:
Ye dragons whose contageous breath,
People the dark abodes of death,
Change your dire hissings into heav’nly songs,
And praise your maker with your forked tongues . . .
Many of Billings’s beautiful four-part choral pieces appear on challoweenm’s Thanksgiving classical playlist.

Anna M. Blanch has been posting a series of Thanksgiving poems on her blog. One of the most popular (generating more than 200,000 Google results) is the Iroquois Thanksgivings transcribed by Harriet Maxwell Converse at the Iroquois Green Corn Festival in New York in 1890. Among the lines celebrating the Great Spirit:
We thank Him for the darkness that gives us rest, and for
the kind Being of the darkness that gives us light, the
We thank Him for the bright spots in the skies that give us
signs, the stars,
We give Him thanks for our supporters, who have charge of
our harvests.
We give thanks that the voice of the Great Spirit can still be
heard through the words of Ga-ne-o-di-o.
The notes in volume 2 of American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century tell us that “our supporters” refers to “three sisters of great beauty, who delight to dwell in the companionship of each other as the spiritual guardians of the corn, the beans, and the squash.” Ga-ne-o-di-o is Handsome Lake, prophet of the Longhouse religion.

On a lighter note, many readers may not know that “The New England Boy’s Song,” by Lydia Maria Child, originated as a Thanksgiving, not a Christmas, song. The original second verse is:
Over the river, and through the wood,
To grandfather’s house away!
We would not stop
For doll or top,
For ‘t is Thanksgiving day.
If you don’t remember the tune, you can find the music here.

Related LOA works: Nathaniel Hawthorne: Tales and Sketches; American Religious Poems: An Anthology by Harold Bloom (includes William Billings’s "An Anthem for Thanksgiving"); Four Centuries of American Poetry

1 comment:

  1. This post identified for me Ga-ne-o-di-o in Converse's poem, which I am using in a poetry workshop for middle school girls this Thanksgiving. Thank you!


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