Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thank your editor today

Being from Massachusetts, I'm aware of some of the controversies surrounding the myths of the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving. For one, I know how much of a disappointment it is to actually see Plymouth Rock and realize it is, after all, just a rock... and one which likely has no connection to that fateful day in the year 1620. It's also broken in half. Oops. I also know that the Pilgrims didn't even land in Plymouth first, but first set foot on New World soil in what is now Provincetown, Massachusetts (a town which now has a Pilgrim monument which is much better than a broken rock). I also know that 1620 is a stupid date to celebrate, considering America wasn't "found" that year; it was already settled by millions of natives (who quickly started dying out when paranoid white men deemed them "savage" and also introduced exotic diseases, not to mention slavery, to their land).

But, here's the good news: today's Thanksgiving has less to do with the Pilgrims and 1620 and much more to do with poetry.

Edgar Poe would have to appreciate the influence that a poet/magazine editor would have, considering how much he wore those hats himself. But I would argue that no magazinist ever had as much influence as Sarah Josepha Hale, the woman who steered the most popular magazine in the United States for half a century.

Godey's Lady's Book was a powerhouse. Its circulation was incomparable, partly because it was so inoffensive (Hale herself is now mostly forgotten, but her poem about "Mary's Lamb" survives as a nursery rhyme; I consider it the most famous poem in the English language). No doubt, the hand-colored fashion-plates made a difference too; they can still be found in spades at online auction sites and at antique shops, sometimes even framed.

Before Sarah Hale got involved, Thanksgiving was a minor holiday, celebrated by a few states in the Union on no particular date, at that state's discretion. In the midst of the Civil War, Hale campaigned for a national Thanksgiving. She approached no less a figure than President Abraham Lincoln. In her letter to him, she reminded him of the holiday's distinctly American origin, its sentiment, and how the disintegrating country could use some sort of unifying holiday. Lincoln agreed, and Thanksgiving became a national holiday.

Of course, this was after Poe's lifetime and, one could argue, during his life Poe had little for which to be thankful. I disagree.

I think Poe would have embodied the spirit of Thanksgiving fairly well. Though he struggled, he had a loving wife, good friends, and was writing amazing works of literature. For some of those works, he could even thank the "editress" (as she called herself) Sarah Josepha Hale. For Godey's Lady's Book, she published Poe's "A Tale of the Ragged Mountains" (1844), "The Oblong Box" (1844), "Thou Art the Man" (1844), "The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade" (1845) and, of course, the now iconic tale "The Cask of Amontillado" (1846).


Christina said...

I liked learning about this. I'm watching some Thanksgiving history on The History Channel now. Who knew the first Thanksgiving had lobsters and no forks? (They were too extravagant. Spoons and knives were okay.)

Christina said...

Hey! They just talked about her and her role on this show!

S.J. Chambers said...

Best Thanksgiving content I've seen in a while. Thanks, I really enjoy the context.