Godfrey Hodgson: Affectionately exploring how Thanksgiving changed through time

Historians in the News

With its celebration of bounty and goodwill, not to mention its endearing lack of commercialization, Thanksgiving may be the most beloved of American holidays.

But is the Thanksgiving Americans celebrate today mere myth-making, resting on ahistorical stereotypes?

Take the fabled turkey, for example. Did it even inhabit eastern Massachusetts in 1621? And the much-venerated Thanksgiving meal: Was it a bountiful celebration of fraternal cooperation or more a series of "backwoods diplomatic encounters" to ease tensions between the new English arrivals and the long-established Algonquian-speaking residents?

If you answered "no" to the first question and "yes" to the second - the first Thanksgiving meal more likely incorporated raccoon stew than cranberry sauce - you may think you know where British author and journalist Godfrey Hodgson is taking readers in his new book, "A Great and Godly Adventure: The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving" published by PublicAffairs.

But in fact, Hodgson's aim is not so much in correcting the historical record as in affectionately exploring the ways a beloved national celebration with strong religious undercurrents has reinvented itself over time.

And indeed, as Hodgson makes clear, Thanksgiving has always expressed "deep religious impulses."

"Christians recognize in it an echo of the breaking of bread that is at the heart of their observance," he writes, "while Jews have often seen it as a kind of seder, in that it commemorates, by a shared meal, a journey toward salvation."

Hodgson, 72, lives in Great Britain and is an associate fellow at Oxford University's Rothermere American Institute. He makes it abundantly clear, both in the book and in person, that he loves Thanksgiving.

"It's a quiet celebration," Hodgson said recently in an interview in New York City to promote the book, "but it's inclusive, and it's been terribly important in American history."...
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