Monday, November 22, 2010

The Radical Firebrand Behind America's Favorite Thanksgiving Poem

By Nancy Mattoon

Is there any American holiday more old-fashioned and more traditional than Thanksgiving? And does any bit of poetry sum up its virtues better than these familiar verses?

Over the river, and through the wood,
to Grandfather's house we go;
the horse knows the way to carry the sleigh
through the white and drifted snow.

Over the river, and through the wood,
to Grandfather's house away!
We would not stop for doll or top,
for 'tis Thanksgiving Day.

Over the river, and through the wood-
oh, how the wind does blow!
It stings the toes and bites the nose,
as over the ground we go.

Over the river, and through the wood
and straight through the barnyard gate.
We seem to go extremely slow-
it is so hard to wait!

Over the river, and through the wood-
when Grandmother sees us come,
She will say, "O, dear, the children are here,
bring a pie for every one."

Over the river, and through the wood-
now Grandmothers cap I spy!
Hurrah for the fun! Is the pudding done?
Hurrah for the pumpkin pie!

These words were originally published as a poem, entitled A Boy's Thanksgiving Day, in 1844. The woman who wrote them, Lydia Maria Child, was best known at that time for writing the first cookbook in America which was produced for the middle class and the poor. Until the publication of The Frugal Housewife (1829), cookbook writers assumed their reader was a wealthy lady of the manor with servants, cooks, and perhaps even slaves.

The Frugal Housewife,
Dedicated to Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy.

By Lydia Maria Francis Child.
Boston: Carter and Hendee, 1830.
(Image Courtesy of Michigan State University Libraries.)

The Frugal Housewife, later entitled The American Frugal Housewife to avoid confusion with a British book of the same name, was the 19th century equivalent of The Joy of Cooking. In the New England Quarterly, historian Herbert Edwards describes it as "one of the most popular . . . books published in New England in the 1830's.... it had gone through fourteen editions by 1834, and for years continued to be one of the most treasured books of the average New England household." According to Michigan State University's excellent website devoted to historic American cookbooks, "The book went through at least 35 printings between 1829 and 1850 when it was allowed to go out of print because of the publication of newer, more modern cookbooks and also because of Mrs. Child's increasingly public work in the cause of anti-slavery."

That last part is a bit of an understatement. In 1833 Lydia Maria Child, a woman, published the first book-length, full-scale analysis of slavery in the United States, An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans. It was, says the Michigan State website, "so comprehensive [in] scope that no other antislavery writer ever attempted to duplicate Child's achievement; all subsequent works would focus on individual aspects of the subject that Child covered in eight thoroughly researched and extensively documented chapters." It was also radical enough, and shocking enough, coming from America's best-loved culinary writer, that it caused Child to be ostracized from Boston society, and caused the children's magazine she edited to go bankrupt, as well as leading to the out-of-print status of her best-seller. Nobody wanted Martha Stewart to do an about face, and begin writing inflammatory political manifestos.

Radical Firebrand Lydia Maria Child, c.1870.
(Image Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)

The truth is, the woman who wrote that charming ditty we trot out every Thanksgiving was a radical free thinker who was at least a hundred years ahead of her time. In 1824 she published her first novel, Hobomok, A Tale of the Times, in which a Puritan woman marries a Native American, and bears his child. The book's plot is melodramatic, but its depiction of an interracial marriage was amazingly daring. Child was a lifelong advocate of Native American rights when such an opinion was extremely unusual and wildly unpopular. In 1868 she published An Appeal for the Indians, which demanded that the government, and religious leaders, bring justice to the American Indian.

Frontispiece From:
An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans,
By Mrs. Child.
Boston: Allen & Ticknor, 1833.
(Image Courtesy of University of Michigan Clements Library.)

Lydia Maria Child made no bones about her belief in full equal rights for Native Americans, African Americans, and women. Although she did not write feminist literature, reasoning that racial inequality needed to be addressed before the inequality of the sexes, she demonstrated that a woman could write and publish books beyond the domestic realm. She was the first American female ever to make a living solely as a writer.

Even Child's famous cookbook was in many ways a radical text. She sees the home as a miniature economy, in which time, materials, and labor must be as carefully allocated as in any business or factory. The subtitle of The Frugal Housewife was: Dedicated To Those Who Are Not Ashamed Of Economy. In her introduction she tells those women "who can afford to be epicures," to put down her book and pick up Eliza Leslie's cookbook, Seventy-five Receipts For Pastry, Cakes, And Sweetmeats (1832). A reverse "let them eat cake" dismissal of the upper class readers that Child disdained. A vocal critic of The Frugal Housewife was a former suitor of Child's, Nathaniel P. Willis, who found the book a total betrayal of her class, "full of vulgarisms, indelicate references to animal body parts, and an apparent fondness for foods highly despised by genteel readers." A truly well-bred female would never have demeaned herself by writing about money.

Image From The Title Page of:
An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans,
By Mrs. Child.
Boston: Allen & Ticknor, 1833.
(Image Courtesy of University of Michigan Clements Library.)

Lydia Maria Child is remembered today for her Thanksgiving poem, which conjures up a nostalgic vision of the perfect old-fashioned holiday. But her real legacy is as a zealous and tireless crusader against the horrific injustices which were so easily accepted by most members of her race and class. If you are of a more liberal persuasion, but are spending the holiday with conservative friends or relatives, why not suggest a sing-along featuring Child's famous lyrics? Your fellow celebrants will think you've gone all warm, fuzzy, and traditional. And only you will know they are all singing the phrases of one of America's greatest and most uncompromising radical writers.

To all seekers of equality and justice, a Happy Thanksgiving from Booktryst.


  1. Another great cookbook author named Child! Who knew?

  2. Nancy, I honestly do not know how to choose which of your essays is the best but this one is truly a fine piece! Many thanks. We can all be grateful to Ms. Child for paving the way for all the serious changes that eventually occurred in the wake of her great works. Happy Thanksgiving! Sybil


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