Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Thanksgiving with Twain and Thoreau

{Photo by rocketlass.}

In his autobiography, Mark Twain--in one of the rambling asides that, taken together are the autobiography--writes briefly of Thanksgiving:
The original reason for a Thanksgiving Day has long ago ceased to exist--the Indians have long ago been comprehensively and satisfactorily exterminated and the account closed with Heaven, with the thanks due. But from old habit, Thanksgiving day has remained with us, 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 at the old stand.
Twain can always be counted on to prick self-regard, be it national or personal. But even a pricked Thanksgiving can be a source of joy: even family sans illusions remains family, and seeing them a pleasure. The holiday falling late this year, you might, if you remember, follow your meal, and football, and shopping, with a toast on Saturday to Twain himself, who, had he the physical immortality to match his literary life, would be turning 178.

Thoreau is another to turn to as Thanksgiving approaches; for all his grumbling and unsociability, gratitude was an emotion he understood. On December 12, 1851, the thirty-four-year-old Thoreau wrote in his journal,
Ah, dear nature, the deep remembrance, after a short forgetfulness, of the pine woods! I come to it as a hungry man to a crust of bread.

I have been surveying for twenty or thirty days, living coarsely even as respects my diet,--for I find that will always alter to suit my employment,--indeed, leading a quite trivial life; and tonight, for the first time, had made a fire in my chamber and endeavored to return to myself. I wished for leisure and quiet to let my life flow in its proper channels, with its proper currents; when I might not waste the days, might establish daily prayer and thanksgiving in my family; might do my own work and not the work of Concorde and Carlisle, which would yield me better than money.

(How much forbearance, ay, sacrifice and loss, goes to every accomplishment! I am thinking by what long discipline and at what cost a man learns to speak simply at last.)
For those on the East Coast, facing a storm that dealt Chicago but a glancing (if frigid) blow, a more prosaic entry may be in order, like this one from November 24, 1857:
Cold Thanksgiving weather again, the pools freezing.
Freezing it may be, overblown and self-regarding it may be, contemplative and restorative it may never wholly be--but ever since 1996, when I spent my one and only Thanksgiving out of the country, and thereby fully realized for the first time how much I appreciated the simple pleasures it offers of family and food, I've been a devotee, if not an evangelist. Have a good Thanksgiving, folks. May your family be well, and your life flow in its proper channels.

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