"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" (1914) by Jennie A. Brownscombe; Illustration by Bloomberg View

Thanksgiving Myth Redeems History Even as It Obscures It

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Nov. 22 (Bloomberg) -- The original Thanksgiving, in which the new neighbors sat down to share bonhomie and barbecue with the local homeowners association, is apparently something of a myth. Who could’ve guessed?

Yes, some manner of extended, post-harvest celebration occurred in 1621 at a new housing tract called Plymouth Plantation. The recent arrivals to the New World having been temporarily delivered from starvation, “for three days we entertained and feasted,” wrote a grateful Edward Winslow. The incumbent Wampanoags were sporting guests; at some point they went off and killed five deer. They never made it back for pie.

Some contend that the gauzy layers we apply to such history obscure a shameful past, absolving the sins of the forefathers and holding the heirs blameless. We understand the sentiment. But mythmaking is a more complicated business than just that. There is a moral logic to it, one that evolves with the nation.

Consider Jennie Brownscombe’s 1914 oil painting of the scene at Plymouth. She depicts a long table elegantly laid in a field where nature has been tamed. Robust white settlers command the eye, with a few high-ranking Indians wedged down at the table’s remote end; their lower-status colleagues sit on the ground. (True, they’re Plains Indians in elaborate Western headdress, but at least they’re protected against the New England winds, unlike the bare-chested heathens featured in other iconic Thanksgiving portraits.) As two settlers approach with additional food, a white man raises his hands, inviting the blessings of his God.

By the time Brownscombe painted this idyll, the national holiday was well situated, while the tribes had all but vanished from the continent. The painter’s broad, generous sky, which arches above the sacred feast, gives no hint of the equally expansive violence that will unfold beneath it.

Does such a romantic vision distort harsh truths? Certainly. But it’s a mistake to focus too resolutely on Thanksgiving as whitewash. Our desire to imbue previous generations with our best intentions reflects a slow accretion of moral discernment. It’s a quality as evident in self-lacerating histories as in self-serving myths. In history, dangerous radicals are transformed into courageous reformers, detested minorities are recast as virtuous strivers, the powerful and exalted reappear as murderous and corrupt.

As Americans re-enact the Thanksgiving tableau in a million variations today, we unwittingly mark the Pilgrims’ progress. Through a deft use of moral perspective, we repaint the original landscape, bringing previously obscured parties to the foreground. In the process, we grant the nation’s forebears a wisdom that transcended their time. We can only hope that, 300 years from now, our descendants provide a similarly indulgent cover for us.

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