James Carroll

Thanksgiving in hindsight

By James Carroll
November 22, 2010

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THIS IS nostalgia week — for many, quite literally, since nostalgia comes from the Greek for “returning home.’’ Thanksgiving is America’s communal event when memories of a golden past come unbidden. How much to be preferred were those good old days, defined first by the Pilgrim feast when our settler-forebears still took for granted both nature’s infinite bounty and a universal friendliness, extending even to native peoples, embodied in Massasoit.

The good old days are more intensely present when turkey and the laden table unlock the more personal memories of feasts at Grandma’s house, over the hill and through the dale. We learned to love and celebrate by imitating the affectionate family that passed the stuffing, spilled the gravy, and laughed at the same old stories. More than any other observance, Thanksgiving makes our vast and diverse population a nation as, in one generation after another, we all appropriate the Pilgrim myth, claiming those odd-hatted settlers as relatives, and repeating their ritual in our own kitchens.

For the simple reason that New England historians monopolized the writing of American history for two centuries, Massachusetts origins trumped Virginia’s — and, for that matter, Florida’s — as the founding national myth. During the savage Civil War, when the United States was most sorely in need of renewed bonds of affection, Abraham Lincoln made the holiday official. Once a year, we are all New Englanders, Pilgrims, parties to the feast, heading home, preferably through a covered bridge.

Of course, the good old days were never golden. American self-understanding may give primacy of place to that shining image of tolerance, pluralism, religious freedom, and liberalism. Yet we know that, however oppressed for their beliefs in England, the Pilgrims were no more committed to freedom of conscience than their oppressors were. Their disputes — think Anne Hutchinson, Mary Dyer, Roger Williams — fully anticipated the blue-gray divide of Lincoln’s era, and even the red-state/blue-state divide of our own. Massasoit’s children included Metacomet, known to whites as King Philip. The English-Indian war named for him was, proportionally, one of the most violent ever fought. If the 1620 arrival of Europeans is remembered as innocent, that is because the 1619 arrival of the first African slaves, in Virginia, is forgotten.

More personal memories tend equally to delete complexity and even suffering. “Happy families are all alike,’’ Tolstoy wrote. “Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’’ Families that have been wracked with troubles, whether though illness or ill fortune, have every right to seek escape from the burdens of hurt memory, and for them the embrace of an imagined past can be protective. Yet a deeper truth is that happy families, too, have their unhappiness. That may in part account for why Thanksgiving, initiating the nostalgia bash of the holiday season, seems universally tinged with the sweet sorrow of loss. Measuring our present experience against what Proust called “lost time’’ inevitably leaves us feeling diminished, as if the here-and-now represents decline. In truth, it rarely does. By holding up a fancied golden era of yesteryear (Grandma’s as much as the Pilgrims’), we can devalue where we are and who we have become. Thanksgiving aims at gratitude not for what was, but for what is.

This tension between unsullied past and present complexity underlies the disappointment many Americans feel today about politics. The election of Barack Obama two years ago has taken on a golden hue, as if his astounding election night appearance on that platform in Grant Park in Chicago was a transcendent replay of Pilgrims stepping onto Plymouth Rock, nothing less than a restoration of American innocence. Now, frustrated by partisan wrangling, inconclusive wars, and economic dread, the nation once more measures present complexity against a previous purity, and feels disheartened. American innocence lost yet again. Sure, today’s public problems are truly burdensome, but, no, yesterday’s were not lighter. The hope Obama sparked looks in hindsight like hallucination. To punish the difficult present by comparing it to a misremembered bygone (deleting its wars, economy, and malign wrangling) is unfair to Obama. Worse, it perverts the American dream, which, even in Plymouth, was never about the past, but about the future — the true content of our thankfulness.

James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.