Some charming Thanksgiving cartoons by my first cousin thrice removed:
Some charming Thanksgiving cartoons by my first cousin thrice removed:
We have a thousand things to be thankful for; yesterday one of them was that the Duchess got the inspiration to book us at Chez Josephine for our Thanksgiving feast. The place is owned and operated by two of Josephine Baker’s adopted children Jean-Claude and Jarry Baker — I think it was Jean-Claude who greeted us at the door yesterday. The atmosphere is warm (in every sense), the cuisine is French, and the decor a kind of shrine to Ms. Baker and the Paris of the 1920s.
This is the first Thanksgiving dinner where I’ve gotten to enjoy my meal surrounded by pictures of a topless woman. And rightfully so. A topless Priscilla Alden would just make me uncomfortable. Nestled right on Theatre Row on the outskirts of the Deuce, the place was merry with the hilarious plinkings of a most eclectic piano player, who offered quiet, tasteful renderings of everything from the theme song to Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood to Ennio Morricone’s theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly to several disco hits. I don’t know if someone was playing “Stump the Piano Player” or the musician was just a great entertainer. Perhaps both. As for the chow, it was of the first water. Sweet, succulent scallops were my portion, with a crab cake and squash soup for openers. And to top it off a baked apple with cinnamon and caramel sauce, alongside vanilla ice cream. If they’d botched the job, we would have reported it! I think we’ve found our new “special place”.
Happy Thanksgiving. This seems a fitting day to recommend what I’ll now think of as the definitive account of the first English settlement in 17th century New England.
Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2006 Mayflower is easily the most vividly rendered, thorough and balanced account of that important history that I’ve come across. Not just exhaustively researched from primary sources, but digested, clearly contemplated, and then presented to the reader in such a way that he feels transported to that time and place. It’s a portrait that somehow manages to hit the story of 1620 from every angle, to portray the interior and exterior lives of all the players and how they influenced events. The title of the book is a symbolic play; it’s actually about all that that first Pilgrim voyage in 1620 would portend. Thus, though it starts in 1620 (actually several years before, as he fills in the backstory), Philbrick concludes his narrative in 1675-1676, the time of King Philip’s War, which effectively finished the Indians of Southern New England as a force to be reckoned with. (The latter event was one of the lures of the book for me. A climactic, tragic event of that two year war was The Great Swamp Fight, which was fought on Narragansett territory in my home town). This horrible war ranks as the worst in American history by some measures (e.g.,casualty rate) , and certainly it’s extremely most important in terms of precedent, but gets such short shrift in both the teaching of history and in American popular culture that I doubt that most Americans even know about it (as I doubt if they can name any other important Indian war either apart from Custer’s Last Stand). The ignorance is telling and needs to be redressed.
There are so many things this book does so well it’s hard to know where to begin. Chief is probably the three dimensional portrait of the Native Americans, which I found illuminating to the point of earth-shaking. Philbrick gets down into the capillaries of the politics of the era, the complex diplomatic relationships amongst the numerous tribes, and of those tribes with the Europeans, none of which were monolithic or homogeneous. Tribal leaders like Massassoit, Squanto, Alexander, Philip and dozens of others are treated as they undoubtedly were: as calculating, strategizing, thinking political creatures, neither helpless, naive pawns, nor treacherous savages. Massassoit and Squanto, invariably painted as “the friends of the Pilgrims” in children’s books, might better be described as “allies”. The Indians no less than the Europeans are given credit for brains, agency and motive. They come across as recognizable human beings; I’m not sure that I’ve ever encountered this anywhere before, at least not as well done as this. The book strikes me as quite revolutionary in this way. And likewise, just as Philbrick helps us navigate the different Native tribes, he also helps us understand the differences between the Pilgrims (or separatists) and Puritans, the nonformists who founded Rhode Island, and the people who were there for strictly economic reasons.
Philbrick seems to know just what to include to take us there, which details are important to make the experience real to us, and when to feed us numbers. (At which point are there 100 whites in New England? 50 (since a bunch died off the first winter)? 1,000? 20,000? 60,000?) After a long period (about a decade) of isolation, the early colonies grew really fast, altering the balance of power to an extent that must have been terrifying to the natives. Their backs to the wall, they banded together (some against their will) in an all-out effort to push the English back into the sea. Though they ultimately lost (in what would prove a sort of catastrophic template) this would be the one occasion when it might be said that the Natives really got in their licks; for a while they seem to have almost pulled it off. (According to Philbrick, by some measures, economically the colonies didn’t recover for almost a century after King Philip’s War).
Best of all (the dramatist in me says)…he makes you see it. What they wore, what they owned, what they ate, how they lived, how they traveled, what they felt like. Both sides. And, as you’ll see, there was so much complex interaction between natives and whites, for so many there were no sides at all. They were caught in the middle. And that’s the tragedy of it. Why should there be sides?
Every year at this time, I break out my copy of this handy Life Magazine coffee table book chronicling the history of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.The book is a souvenir from when we had an exhibition about the parade at New-York Historical Society back in 2001.
The book is an invaluable tonic to swallow in preparation for actually viewing the parade, which really can only be done properly in person. Non-New Yorkers might refer to their television sets, but I must tell you the difference between the experiences is one of apples and oranges. The televised parade is, to me, like fingernails on a chalkboard: all hideous, moronic, superficial chatter delivered by bubble-headed pseudo-celebrities, interlaced with unbearable, plastic, lip-synced Broadway show-tunes (which in reality are commercials for current hit shows), intertwined with innumerable parade baloons and floats that are commercials for tv cartoons, feature films, toys and breakfast cereals….intercut every five minutes, it feels like, with three minutes of actual television commercials.
The live experience is so much nicer, if only because it is so much less a barrage of aggressive, predatory marketing overkill. Much remains in the parade that is charming and pure…not just the marching bands that come from all over the country….not just the army of clowns (many of whom are friends and acquaintances of this reporter), but because there still remain dozens, scores of balloons and floats that pre-date the shameless commercial prostitution that now dominates.
If there is one name I hope you take away from this post, it is Tony Sarg. Sarg was a puppeteer and illustrator, and he became the parade’s first designer in those early years of the 1920s and 30s. Having no precedent for such an event, he drew solely from one place, nowadays unthinkable: his own imagination. It’s always been a given that the overall parade exists to promote Macy’s. But in the early days there were no marketing tie-ins. The balloons and floats existed only to be admired in and of themselves. This tradition went on at least until the 50s. When you see a balloon or a float that is just a clown, an elf, a fireman, a dog….and not Mickey Mouse, Spiderman or the Honey Nut Cheerios Bee…that’s what I’m talking about.
I like to think that, just like this parade, America has a purer foundation, some remnants of integrity that aren’t somehow calculated and harnessed to shill for some faceless, soulless, inhuman corporation. But perhaps that, too, is a balloon over-ripe for bursting.
Here’s a charming if problematic object to contemplate this Thanksgiving Day: my 1925 copy of “The Land of the Pilgrims” by one Jay Earle Thomson, Principal of School #3, Jersey City, NJ. This is just the type of strange book, acquired from yard sales and the like, that I used to while away my summer days reading, forever warping my character and making me generally unfit for contemporary society.
The pleasures of this odd book are manifold. One, from a modern perspective, it is difficult to tell just what sort of textbook it is supposed to be. It dates from those holistic days when your teacher was just your teacher. He or she might teach you many things, some practical, some factual, some moral, and so on. It was before the god-awful assembly-line modern education system, where each subject is a different specialized branch of human knowledge with no apparent relationship to any other. “The Land of the Pilgrims” starts out as a history book, laying out the facts of the English settlers coming to the Plymouth colony in 1620. Then it becomes a sort of travel guide to modern Plymouth, pointing out all the places the historical tourist can visit. Finally, it re-prints the entire text of “The Courtship of Miles Standish”, along with a short biography of that poem’s author, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. History, English, geography, and what to do on your vacation, all rolled into one course. Oh, and elocution, for it recommends memorizing and reciting certain passages of prescribed doggerel.
I call the book “problematic” because it cheerfully embellishes on the known facts in a way that is at once charming and disturbing. There is a distinct effort to paint a Homeric gloss on the story that those of us who are products of a modern history education find easy to see through and somewhat difficult to stomach. If Miles Standish takes a search party out into the woods, the men are inevitably described as “fearless”. The description of the English village from which the Pilgrims originally hailed is the pretty sort of picture one imagines might be painted before a lady’s gardening society, stressing how neat and proper it all is, as though to say, “Even though it’s only England, it is the most lovely and picturesque and proper little village in all of England, as only the village our ancestors came from CAN be!” The concerted effort to mythologize the events, to make of this band of 100 travelers the most noble group in the history of the world is palpable. And to modern eyes, a bit perplexing. Yes, it took bravery, yes, it was indescribably hard…but why can’t they have been (as they undoubtedly were) ORDINARY brave people undergoing hardships? And, as might be expected, the portrait of relations with the Indians is a bit tough to swallow. Periodically, we read an account of the settlers stealing corn from the natives, feeling bad about it, and promising to pay them for it later. The account ends before the promised repayment, and also before the Indians are finally wiped out in King Philips War a few decades later. Sometimes history is in what you leave out.
Most delightful of all, the book is inexplicably full of staged photographs depicting the events of 1620. They were clearly produced especially for the book, 300 years after the events pictured, but nowhere is there a disclaimer saying the people in the photograph are modern actors. On the one hand, it feels kind of neat, just as in the historical films of D.W. Griffith–as though you were looking at an actual photo of an impossibly long-ago era. On the other hand, a naive or uneducated person would have no reason to suspect that that wasn’t actually the case! Anyway, here are some of my favorites (just click on them to enlarge):
Have a Happy Thanksgiving!
A brief follow up to my earlier post about the earlier, less commercial days of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Here’s documentary testament to some of the remnants from that purer era: a couple of my personal favorites, the pirate and the fireman. Of course, we saw the parade in Times Square, hardly a refuge from commercialism. Pix are by photographer Cashel.