Literary Reflections on Thanksgiving

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Readers who seek insight into the meaning of Thanksgiving can find a generous serving of literary criticism on the topic in the digital pages of Literature Criticism Online. Perhaps unsurprisingly, authors have found in the holiday a fruitful setting for explorations of family dysfunction and ruminations on the American national character. 

For many, the holiday is sure to stir memories of childhood. Truman Capote—whose short-fiction career is treated in Short Story Criticism, Volume 47—had a follow-up of sorts to his more famous “A Christmas Memory” with the story “The Thanksgiving Visitor.” In it, the young protagonist, Buddy, is subjected to vicious bullying at the hands of a poor acquaintance, Odd Henderson. Buddy is distraught when he learns that his older cousin, Miss Sook, has invited Odd to her annual Thanksgiving celebration, which, as Capote describes it, is a Southern feast featuring “an ample number of stuffed turkeys” ; “perfect ambrosia, transparent orange slices combined with freshly ground coconut”; “a dish of whipped sweet potatoes and raisins”; “a delicious array of vegetables canned during the summer”; and “a cold banana pudding—a guarded recipe of the ancient aunt who, despite her longevity, was still domestically energetic.” When the day comes, Buddy, hiding in a cupboard, spies Odd stealing a prized cameo, and he decides to humiliate his enemy by announcing the theft in front of the whole family. Miss Sook covers for the boy and later admonishes Buddy that “deliberate cruelty” is the “one unpardonable sin.” In SSC, Volume 47, Kenneth T. Reed notes that Miss Sook’s words “have far reaching implications in Capote’s system of values because they clarify some of the perplexities of evil and its origins that occur in the pages of In Cold Blood,” in which the murderers are “prisoners of their pathological childhood” whose crimes “are rendered understandable, but not forgivable.”

Of the many potential pitfalls of a Thanksgiving dinner gathering, the prospect of an unpleasant political discussion with relatives is among the most troublesome—and is only amplified in presidential election years. In Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 277, Brian Duffy provides an in-depth analysis of Richard Ford’s 2006 novel The Lay of the Land, which is set during Thanksgiving in the year 2000, when the outcome of the contested Bush-Gore presidential election was still uncertain. Duffy writes that “whatever the influence of the Florida stand-off on Ford’s decision about the year in which to set his novel, in setting it in 2000 he found a perfect backdrop to explore divisions in American society.” The novel’s protagonist, Frank Bascombe—who previously appeared in Ford’s novels The Sportswriter and Independence Day—has had a run of bad luck. He’s being treated for prostate cancer and his wife has left him. As Frank organizes a “damage control” Thanksgiving, he is forced to navigate the politics of his broken family. Duffy notes that in the novel “political division is merely the topical expression of a more widespread fragmentation of American society into individual and group identities. The phenomenon of disconnectedness begins in the family unit itself.”

The narrator of Philip Roth’s 1997 novel American Pastoral offers a different view, a farcically optimistic interpretation of the holiday, one that Michael Wood in CLC, Volume 119, calls “Thanksgiving as a form of ethnic truce”:

… when everybody gets to eat the same thing, nobody sneaking off to eat funny stuff—no kugel, no gefilte fish, no bitter herbs, just one colossal turkey for two hundred and fifty million people—one colossal turkey feeds all. A moratorium on funny foods and funny ways and religious exclusivity, a moratorium on the three-thousand-year-old nostalgia of the Jews, a moratorium on Christ and the crucifixion for the Christians, when everyone in New Jersey and elsewhere can be more irrational about their irrationalities than they are the rest of the year. A moratorium on all the grievances and resentments, and not only for the Dwyers and the Levovs but for everyone in America who is suspicious of everyone else. It is the American pastoral par excellence and it lasts twenty-four hours.

Whether your Thanksgiving gathering is an occasion for moral instruction, reflections on family, or even a fleeting embrace of cultural homogeneity, here’s to a happy one. And bring a book to retreat to, in case the political discussion gets too hot.


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