We gather together A nation divided, a president in turmoil, and a historic campaign to embrace gratitude and grace

Denise Kiernan

Book - 2020

"From the New York Times bestselling author of The Last Castle and The Girls of Atomic City comes the fascinating story of America's national day of thanks and of the tenacious and inspiring Sarah Josepha Hale, a nineteenth-century woman who made establishing this holiday her life's mission--one brought to fruition by the wise support of Abraham Lincoln"--

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[New York, New York] : Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC [2020]
Main Author
Denise Kiernan (author)
Physical Description
294 pages ; 22 cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • And thus commenced ...
  • An evolution of gratitude
  • Media Madonna
  • Presidents and proclamations
  • Now more than ever
  • To these bounties
  • Of tragedy and gratitude
  • On a Thursday in November
  • Reasonable hopes
  • A tradition in question
  • My heartfelt prayer
  • Pomp and changing circumstance
  • Milestones and missteps
  • The pain of evolution
  • Choose gratitude.
Review by Booklist Review

Journalist and best-selling author Kiernan (The Last Castle, 2017) considers three aspects of the American holiday of Thanksgiving. First, she offers a biography of Sarah Josepha Hale, the prodigiously talented woman who petitioned six presidents before achieving a national day of Thanksgiving in 1863. Then, there's a history of Thanksgiving itself, from George Washington through a couple of centuries of evolving celebrations (first football game: Princeton v. Yale, 1876; first parade: Gimbel's,1920). The third strand addresses giving thanks, as Kiernan recounts the cultural, religious, and secular histories of thanksgiving festivals, including observances by Indigenous peoples and African Americans who feel that their involvement in history has been ignored, marginalized, or appropriated. Kiernan extols the psychological benefits of adopting an attitude of gratitude, and stresses the importance of staying connected during times of division, whether in 1860 or 2020. With engaging writing and fresh research, everything comes together in a thoroughly enjoyable package. Readers will find humor (Kiernan's take on turducken: "a poultry nesting doll with gravy"), pathos (public events were canceled during the 1918 flu pandemic), and surprises (Pilgrims weren't connected to the holiday until 1939, when FDR attempted to change the date). Lots to consider, especially with Thanksgiving just around the corner.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Journalist Kiernan (The Last Castle) examines the "cultural, ancient, religious, and secular customs" behind Thanksgiving, and the campaign to make it a national holiday, in this wide-ranging account. Noting that harvest festivals and "observations of thanks and gratitude" have taken place on nearly every continent throughout recorded history, Kiernan reveals that the 1621 gathering attended by Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians in Plymouth Colony wasn't actually "the first thanksgiving" in America--Indigenous peoples had been holding their own ceremonies for centuries, and European settlers and explorers held thanksgiving feasts as early as 1541. Though George Washington proclaimed the first national "Day of Thanksgiving" in 1789, it wasn't until 1863 that Abraham Lincoln, seeking unity in the midst of the Civil War, made it an annual holiday, thanks largely to the efforts of magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale (1788--1879), who had been imploring presidents to issue such a proclamation for years. Tracking how the myths and traditions of Thanksgiving have evolved (and sparked controversy) over the decades, Kiernan contends that the holiday should symbolize "one element above all": gratitude. Packed with vivid character sketches, intriguing historical tidbits, and lucid meditations on the psychology of giving thanks, this unique chronicle casts the holiday in a new light. (Nov.)

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Kirkus Book Review

Kiernan traces the history of the formalization of Thanksgiving Day while reframing the holiday's sense of gratitude. The author's overarching concern is the timeless role of gratitude in the practice of thanksgiving days scattered throughout the year. Her main character is Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879), who, as a magazine editor, became "an influencer…of fashion, manners, and the well-set table" as well as a force behind the publishing of such writers as Poe, Emerson, Hawthorne, and Whitman. In addition to penning "Mary Had a Little Lamb," she displayed a singular passion in championing the making of Thanksgiving Day a national holiday. She believed that in bestowing federal stature upon Thanksgiving, the citizenry would experience "a grand spectacle of moral power and human happiness," and she lobbied presidents to support her cause, beginning with Zachary Taylor. Hale emerges as an intriguing yet hardly revolutionary historical figure. "As tirelessly as Hale may have advocated, in action and voice, for women's education and marital rights," writes the author, "she stopped far short of being a suffragette. Hale would never lobby for the blanket rights of women." Throughout, the author attempts to burnish Hale's appeal, with mixed success. "Hope sprang eternal. Her pen would not rest," writes Kiernan, emphasizing her subject's ceaseless striving for "a coming day of thanks that would herald the virtue of gratitude in these cruel times." As the author admits, Hale was a traditionalist who felt that "anarchy is worse than despotism. The final third of the book is the most interesting, as Kiernan engagingly explores the economic, political, and cultural roots and consequences of holiday practice, including the connections between Thanksgiving and football ("never in her life would Hale have envisioned football being part of the national celebration"), war, pandemics, and relevant historical episodes such as the 1621 day of thanks between the Pilgrims and Wampanoag people. Not as riveting as Kiernan's previous books but still a bright tribute to Thanksgiving's expression of gratitude and grace. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Chapter 1 And Thus Commenced . . . Summer began to slowly yield to autumn with an earlier dip of the sun over the New Hampshire horizon and a dip of the mercury on the thermometer. It was a time for harvest, good or bad, one that might meet or fall short of expectations, needs, and wants. No matter that season's yield, this woman would, along with all the others in her place and time, take a moment, or even a day to stop and give thanks. She expected that the state's governor would, as was custom by this point in time, proclaim when this somewhat annual, yet always changeable, celebration and day of reflection would take place. Despite a life that had brought her so much upheaval of late, and no matter her precarious financial situation, and with all of her recent and still deeply resonating loss, she welcomed the opportunity to find something, anything, for which to be grateful. With her options severely limited and five young mouths to feed, the woman would do what she had always done. The one thing that brought her some measure of joy. She was tired. It was late. There was a hungry baby at her breast. Because of her gender she had little standing, but always a foundation on which she was willing to bravely stand. Her options were few. But she had a pen and a purpose and something to say. And so as she had so many times before, Sarah Josepha Hale sat down to write. Writing was never a vocation that a young Sarah had actively sought, despite her love of the written word and her rabid consumption of books-one of the few indulgences women were allowed. Even if writing had long been her goal, it was not the kind of calling encouraged in the young women of her time. No, she needed work and she needed money. Life thus far may not have provided her much in the way of opportunity, but it had prepared her well to make do and get by. Sarah Josepha Buell had spent her childhood in the late 1700s on a farm just outside of Newport, New Hampshire, which sat near the Sugar River. The year she was born, 1788, the recently liberated colonies had yet to elect their first president. Farm life instilled in young Sarah, as it did in many rural folk, a work ethic necessary for survival, especially in the harsh climate of the states' northern reaches. For Sarah, this drive also likely stemmed from witnessing as a child the struggles endured by her father, Gordon Buell, a Revolutionary War veteran who had fought under General Horatio Gates. Although her father survived those battles, he had returned to his family injured, with the use of his legs badly compromised. This in turn badly compromised his ability to run a farm. So he had long relied on his sons, Sarah's brothers, Horatio and Charles, to help him. Sarah also had a younger sister, Martha, named for their mother, and the young women helped their mother run the house. As for her two older brothers, Charles soon set out to sea and Horatio, whom they called "Race," was left on his own to help Gordon Buell with the manual labor the family's farm required. Given that Martha Buell had fed her children's minds in the best way she knew how-with ample helpings of books-it wouldn't be a surprise that Race's aspirations were to pursue college and law, not farming and agriculture. For young women not attending school, reading strongly shaped Sarah's early years as well. "Next to the Bible and Pilgrim's Progress," she later wrote, "my earliest reading was Milton, Johnson, Pope, Cowper, and a part of Shakespeare." But the book that made the biggest impression on her, at a mere seven years of age, was The Mysteries of Udolpho, by Ann Radcliffe. "Of all the books I saw," Sarah added, "few were written by Americans and none by women. But here was a work, the most fascinating I had ever read, always excepting Pilgrim's Progress, written by a woman. How happy it made me!" And so Sarah was educated, primarily in the only way a young woman could be at that time-through books and conversation, yes, but also by intellectually piggybacking on the educations of the males in her life, like her brother Race. Race thought it unfair his sister was denied a college education, and what he learned at school, he generously shared with Sarah, including philosophy and Latin. Between her mother's example and her brother's encouragement, Sarah's teeming mind and growing passion for reading and writing had well prepared her for some sort of work outside the home. That is, if she could get it. Race-with the benefit of traditional schooling-had been preparing to attend Dartmouth, with the intention of becoming a lawyer. Though his attendance there took him away from the Buell household and therefore placed added pressure on Sarah and her younger sister, Race's visits home to see his family offered Sarah even more advanced opportunities to continue her hand-me-down education. Race's visits home didn't give him enough time to provide the assistance Gordon Buell needed in order to keep the farm running, and so it became clear to Sarah's father that things had to change. He decided he had to seek other, less physically taxing options for work. With his energies waning and his resources drying up, he moved his wife and two daughters into town, where he decided to try his hand as an innkeeper. Gordon Buell opened the doors of the Rising Sun Inn on Newport's main thoroughfare in 1810. Sarah was twenty-two years old. Now living in the town of Newport, Sarah with her mind full of books and a thorough if secondhand education at her disposal, sought work as a teacher. This occupation was still considered primarily a job for men who had had the benefit of formal schooling, but exceptions were sometimes made if the need in the community was there. The nearby town of Guild had just such a need, and Sarah began teaching there to earn money for her family. There she was able to share what she had learned and observe the lives of the youngsters in her care. As she did-as she would continue to do-she made note of what she saw in her tiny schoolhouse day to day, and those experiences would inform her writing for years to come. Race was away at school, Gordon Buell had his inn, and Sarah had her job. Things in Newport were seeming settled, if challenging. The family had not heard from Sarah's older brother, Charles, for some time, long enough that he was presumed lost at sea. They all felt Race's absence. And now, not long after the Rising Sun Inn opened, on November 25, 1811, the Buell family encountered yet another loss. On that day, Sarah's sister, Martha, died of consumption, or tuberculosis. Adding to the family's grief, Sarah's mother passed away shortly thereafter. Now only Sarah and her father remained at home. Without his wife's efforts and support, and with Sarah now occupied with her teaching responsibilities, Gordon Buell was finding it increasingly difficult to maintain the inn. Living in town also meant that Sarah was interacting with more people and passers-through. And though 1811 had brought loss and turmoil to the household, it also brought something new and exciting to Sarah's life, in the form of a lawyer named David Hale. Taverns were indispensable locales in a small town: a place to meet; get food, drink, or lodging; find out the latest news. David had come to Newport to open his own law office and shortly after his arrival, the newcomer stopped into the Rising Sun Inn. And there he met Sarah. David was older than she, but the pair were impeccably well suited to each other. And though Sarah's father eventually sold the inn, it was there that the pair married on October 23, 1813. Sarah was a day shy of her twenty-fifth birthday. The two moved into a lovely two-story white-painted wooden house on the town's main street. It had plenty of windows and ample light, and sat across from several small streams that ran through the center of town and created small islets that residents would hop and traverse to get from one side to the other. The pair filled their house with those very objects they both cherished most: books. Sarah delighted in the evenings she and David spent sitting together to read and discuss the books that filled their shelves. They even devised a nightly program of study, lending goals and purpose to their favorite pastime. From eight in the evening until ten, the couple studied topics like French and botany. In some ways, David had taken up where Race had left off, sharing the benefits of his formal education with Sarah. "In all our mental pursuits," she later wrote, "it seemed the aim of Mr. Hale to enlighten my reason, strengthen my judgement, and give me confidence in my own powers of mind, which he estimated much higher than I did." And with David's encouragement, Sarah had also begun to dedicate more time to her writing. Her observations and notes evolved into poems and short stories. She did not, she would later say, want her personal life in the pages of her works. Yet her personal beliefs, her views, and her passions often infused her characters. The couple quickly grew their family. While pregnant with her third child, Sarah came down with tuberculosis, and it was feared she and the unborn child would die, victims of a disease that had already struck Sarah's own family. David refused to accept this. Against doctor's orders, he took his wife on a tour of New Hampshire. It was late autumn and brisk. David had heard that fresh air was healing and that "frost grapes"-wild grapes exposed to the first frost while still on the vine-were curative. The pair returned home and, somewhat miraculously, Sarah regained her strength and gave birth to a healthy baby. A fourth followed soon after. And since they had seemed to work, Sarah would continue to eat grapes for the rest of her days. Sarah was now busy taking care of the home and, as her mother had for her, educating her children. David was occupied with his practice and active in the Newport community, and had been elected Worshipful Master of the Corinthian Lodge of the Masons. Sarah's father, Gordon, had died just five years after his daughter married, so this was Sarah's family now, save for visits from her brother Race, who, like her husband, was now a lawyer. Growing in experience if not in confidence, Sarah began to take on larger and larger writing projects, with David encouraging her to submit those pieces to the local newspapers or other outlets that might publish them. Sarah's experiences as a teacher, the settings and rhythms of life in New England, as well as her cherished role as a mother-which she considered her first vocation-informed and inspired some of her earliest writing. And her children comprised her earliest audience. When it was time to put her four youngsters to sleep, Sarah would share her own poetry with them. "Good night," she'd say. Good night-and peace be with you- Peace, that gentlest parting strain; Soft it falls like dew on blossoms, Cherishing within our bosoms, Kind desires to meet again: Good night-Good night. Good night-Good night-but not forever, Hope can see the morning rise, Many a pleasant scene before us, As though angels hovered o'er us, Bearing blessings from the skies: Good night-Good night. Good night-Good night-oh, softly breathe it! 'Tis a prayer for those we love; Peace to-night and joy to-morrow, For our God, who shields the sparrow, Hears us in his courts above: Good night-Good night. In 1822, at the age of thirty-three, Sarah was expecting her fifth child. What she was not expecting, not so early into their marriage, not with a child weeks away from being born, was that David would take ill. It was late September, the air was turning cold, and David was returning home from visiting a client. Wintry weather was unexpected on this, an early fall day, but it arrived nonetheless and David found himself caught in it. At first, he was struck by a cold, but then his symptoms advanced. David soon succumbed to pneumonia, an illness Sir William Osler, the father of modern medicine, would later dub "the most fatal of all acute diseases." And so it was. David did not recover. Sarah had not yet been married ten years. The couple's fifth child, William, entered the world just two weeks after his father's departure from it. Sarah had donned her mourning black for David's burial at Pine Hill Cemetery in Newport, and she would wear it the rest of her days. Sarah Josepha Hale was now a thirty-four-year-old widowed mother of five. She had never earned enough of a living from her writing to support a family. "Till my husband's death . . . I had never seriously contemplated being an authoress," Sarah later wrote. With a lawyer for a husband, she had not needed to. But as with most paths taken in life, Sarah's was partially forged by necessity. Now, she needed money. "My husband's business had been large for the country," Sarah wrote later, describing the relative success of a lawyer working outside of a major city such as Boston or New York, "but he had hardly reached the age when men of his profession begin to lay up property and he had spared no indulgence to his family. We had lived in comfort, but I was left poor," she wrote, adding, "for my children I was deeply distressed. I care not that they should inherit wealth, but to be deprived of the advantages of education was to make them 'poor indeed.' " Sarah's first attempt to rebuild her family's finances was to go into business with David's sister Hannah and open a millinery in town. The local Masons, in the wake of David's sudden death, offered to help set up the pair in a shop of their own. The two women placed an ad in the local newspaper, Spectator, to announce their new business and offerings to the residents of Newport: figured gauze, hats for daily wear, silk mourning bonnets, brown cambrics, headdresses, and more. They assured potential customers they offered "the latest and most assured patterns." As for payment, they would happily take currency or even feathers. But there was plenty of competition as well. And Sarah simply did not want to make mourning bonnets. She wanted to write. Nights proved the most opportune time to get writing done. Her days were packed with work at the shop, as well as caring for her four children and newborn William. But she made the most of the time she could spare, and Sarah's steady commitment to her writing netted her an accumulation of poems that she thought might make a nice collection. Within a year after David's death, in 1823, and again with the fortunate backing of the Masons, Sarah published The Genius of Oblivion; and Other Original Poems. The title page described the author simply as "A Lady of New Hampshire." Despite its mediocrity, its publication was a major accomplishment for Sarah. Nevertheless, the book garnered little attention or critical praise. Undeterred, she decided to submit her work to more widely read publications, and almost immediately the United States Literary Gazette, the Atlantic Monthly, and the Boston Spectator and Ladies' Album snapped up her work. In fact, the latter published seventeen of Sarah's poems, two short stories, and a review-in one year alone. She was beginning to get noticed. Several of her poems were also included in a popular gift book, The Memorial. Momentum was hers, and she was eventually able to wish her sister-in-law well and leave the millinery behind. Excerpted from We Gather Together: A Nation Divided, a President in Turmoil, and a Historic Campaign to Embrace Gratitude and Grace by Denise Kiernan All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.