What to be truly thankful for about Thanksgiving
Mark Twain, that most American of American national treasures, celebrated what was to be his final Thanksgiving, in Bermuda on November 25, 1909. Already in failing health — he died the next March at the age of 74 — Twain dined with his Bermuda hosts, the Allen family, at their Pitts Bay home, Bay House , but generally spent a tranquil, unhurried holiday on the island he called his “peaceful refuge”.
The man who remains among America’s greatest writers, social critics and moral visionaries noted in a letter: “I am declining all social invitations to be out at night or late in the afternoon, but I am going to Government House [the day after Thanksgiving], for that invitation has the quality of a command.”
While that Bermuda Thanksgiving was marked by fellowship at the Allen dinner table, Twain was ambivalent about the holiday celebrated across the United States on the fourth Thursday of November.
The platitudes about gratitude and community — as ubiquitous as turkey — did not move him. In the lead-up to the holiday in 1905, he had mused about what God might possibly have to be thankful for in an annus horribilis when “His most noble creation” had allowed so many moral imperatives to be entirely eclipsed by the darker aspects of human nature. “One is justified in fearing that the Deity’s Thanksgiving day is not as rosy as ours will appear when the Thanksgiving sentiments blossom out in our journals and that if He, now voiceless, should utter a sentiment, it would be tinged with a pathetic regret.”
There had, after all, been a bloody renewal of anti-Semitic pogroms in Russia that year. “The servants of the government in patriotic obedience to its commands have lately killed and wounded 50,000 Jews by unusual and unpleasant methods ... Doubtless, the most that He can be thankful for is that the carnage and suffering are not as bad as they might have been.”
And the news of atrocities in what was then the Belgian Congo would also have done precious little to lighten the Deity’s mood on Thanksgiving Day, 1905. “He has observed that King Leopold’s destruction of innocent life in the Congo is not as great this year as it was last, by as much as 100,000 victims ... without doubt He is Himself thankful that matters in the Congo are not as irretrievably bad as they might be, and that some natives still are left alive.”
Two years later in an autobiographical notation, Twain rued the founding myth of American Thanksgiving, the fateful meal shared by the indigenous peoples of Massachusetts with the starving English Pilgrims in 1621. Rather than a feast, the modern celebration, he muttered, should be a day of atonement and reflection, one marked by fasting to underscore how the settlers had turned on their native hosts and benefactors once the starvation was past.
“But from old habit, [a festive] Thanksgiving Day has remained with us,” he dictated, “and every year the President of the United States and the Governors of all the several States and the territories set themselves the task, every November, to advertise for something to be thankful for, and then they put those thanks into a few crisp and reverent phrases, in the form of a Proclamation, and this is read from all the pulpits in the land, the national conscience is wiped clean with one swipe, and sin is resumed ...”
Twain’s sceptical view of Thanksgiving is probably widely shared in 2016. Certainly there seems little to be thankful for, as America and the world stumble towards the end of a particularly inglorious year, punctuated by human suffering and misery.
From Syria to South Sudan, crises continue to unfold, with about 50 million people displaced in recent times and tens of thousands killed by war.
And the emergence of anti-globalism as a powerful force in politics, along with the re-emergence of populism, nationalism and xenophobia, has shaken many of the prevailing social and cultural orthodoxies. A dismaying array of carnival barkers demonstrating a bemused disdain for the facts and running on near-incoherent platforms have successfully leveraged feelings of cultural and economic estrangement for political advantage throughout the world in 2016, most recently and most notably in America.
As it marked Thanksgiving, the US had just emerged from the most corrosive and divisive presidential election in memory. With a volatile and highly polarising figure who often appealed to America’s worst fears about both its place in the modern world and its own self-image — routinely referring to the country as a “hellhole” on the campaign trail — emerging victorious, many of the old certainties about the American culture and character suddenly appear to be on the brink of receding into history.
However, unlike many of today’s commentators, Mark Twain would not have been surprised by the ascent of Donald Trump. He noted more than a century ago that when it came to their politics, Americans “like men who talk straight out in plain unmistakable language ... we not only know that such a man means something, but we know what he does mean” as opposed to “talky men who make a sounding and ostentatious pretence of saying a thing and yet don’t say it after all” — talky men or, as he might have said about this year’s election, talky women.
Nor is it likely he would have viewed the election’s outcome as a rupture between America’s past and future, although he would have been dismayed by the incoming President’s recklessly irresponsible disregard for the truth and incendiary rhetoric.
While he distrusted, and dissected, everything false and faithless in American life, everything cruel and deceptive and pompous, Twain retained an abiding affection for his countrymen and a sense of optimism — his cynicism always tempered by idealism.
For those facets of the American spirit most often celebrated by Twain — and for which he is celebrated today — were the primacy of the individual in society, independence of mind, honesty, integrity and moral courage. These, he believed, were the lasting hallmarks of not only American society but any just community. By way of comparison, the crude, often angry hand-me-down opinions that we hear every election year soon fade from memory as, eventually, do the politicians who used them to gain office.
He routinely used American Thanksgiving as an opportunity to draw attention to some of the evils we should be more aware of all year. But his recognition that we were willing to focus on such evils even while distracted by food and obnoxious relatives and, in some instances, act to end them, underscored his faith not just in the nature of Americans but in human nature. During this Thanksgiving period, we should perhaps be giving thanks for the likes of Twain.
While conscious of humankind’s failings, such moral pathfinders have always reminded us of our capacity to recognise and repair our faults and apply the lessons of hindsight to our affairs by way of foresight.