In the summer of 2010, I was lucky enough to participate in a week-long workshop for community college faculty in Plymouth, Massachusetts, sponsored jointly by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Community College Humanities Association. We spent a week listening to scholars discuss various topics, such as the relationship between the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims and the intricacies of Calvinist philosophies, and we toured sites such as Pilgrim Hall and Plymouth Plantation, where we also had access to archival materials and other reference materials. And on one of our last nights, we spent a fun evening at Pilgrim Hall for their “Rum and Revolution” tasting party.
To complete the program, we were each to undertake further research or to develop course materials to take back to our classrooms. I chose Thanksgiving as my topic because of the richness of the story and the possibility of exploring so many avenues with students. I read James Baker’s Thanksgiving: A National History and was especially interested in his statement that our modern story of Thanksgiving comes largely from the fiction of Jane Goodwin Austin.
Intrigued, I did an Internet search for her name and came across the now-defunct website of a library sciences student (Megan Fox at Simmons College) who had chosen Austin as the subject of a research project. Fox claimed that Austin knew Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and that she published numerous novels and short stories in popular periodicals of her day. As I continued to dig into the story, I found more and more of interest. I was already thinking about finishing the PhD I had started more than a decade earlier, and this discovery gave me the perfect impetus.
Fast forward to the present day, and I have now completed my doctoral dissertation on Austin. In the process, I discovered the multitude of ways that America’s Pilgrims have been imagined and re-imagined over the centuries. Each time the focus shifted to suit national identity and purpose.
After the Pilgrims at Plymouth joined the Massachusetts Bay Colony settlement in 1691, less than a century after the Pilgrims arrived in the Mayflower, their identity as a separate entity was largely effaced. For much of the eighteenth century, only their direct descendants celebrated the Pilgrims as the “first” to settle New England. Plymouth Rock, believed to be the place where the Pilgrims first stepped onto shore, was formally identified in 1741 and later moved to the town’s square (more on that story in another post). Early nineteenth-century descendants, such as Daniel Webster, began to champion the Pilgrims more publicly, using Plymouth Rock as a symbol of their solidarity, integrity, and values and a foundation of America. Now you can visit the John Carver Inn in Plymouth and soak in the Plymouth Rock hot tub, after a slide down the Mayflower’s water slide.
John Seelye writes in Memory’s Nation: The Place of Plymouth Rock that the usefulness of the Plymouth Rock myth only lasted through the nineteenth century when it was largely supplanted by the myth of the “First” Thanksgiving. As a holiday, Thanksgiving held regional importance throughout the Puritan years and had eventually morphed into something of a national celebration, losing its connection to Puritan theology along the way. Sarah Josepha Hale, often called the “godmother” of Thanksgiving, celebrated the holiday’s New England roots but never connected the celebration to the Pilgrims. As I intend to explore in this blog, Thanksgiving was imagined in a variety of media, from literature to art, throughout the nineteenth century, just as the Pilgrim myth evolved on a separate trajectory.
When Jane Goodwin Austin connected the then-popular holiday with the Pilgrims’ “first” celebration in 1621, the nation was primed to accept the origin story. She had already published short stories on the Pilgrims in addition to novels when Standish of Standish was published in 1889. In less than a decade, her imaginative account of the first Thanksgiving was reprinted in a popular magazine as fact, and by the early twentieth century, it had become a fact in the public’s mind.