A Thanksgiving Carol?–Louisa May Alcott’s Thanksgiving Story

currier-and-ives-christmas-village

A Currier and Ives print capturing the mood and setting of L. M. Alcott’s cheerful holiday tale.

 

In honor of Thanksgiving weekend, we are featuring a post on a classic short story written by one of America`s most famous authors.

In 1881, the woman who at that time may have been the most popular children`s writer in the world published a short story entitled “An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving” in the November issue of St. Nicholas, a prestigious children’s magazine. Those who followed the writer’s career may have recalled her similarly titled novel An Old-Fashioned Girl, published in 1870. And indeed this short, pleasant little story has thematic similarities to the novel, although no more so than to all the other children’s works composed by Miss Alcott. For although Louisa May Alcott wrote to entertain, she was aware of the power of fiction, and wrote in such a way as to convey subtle instruction and guidance to her young readers as they enjoyed the sayings and doings of the lively characters who people her numerous pages.

The plot of “An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving” is very simple–a large, lively, hard-working family who live on a New England farm are preparing for Thanksgiving when news of a grandmother’s illness calls away the parents. The children, left alone on the farm, decide to prepare the Thanksgiving dinner by themselves, with mixed results. There are no great surprises in this tale, nor are there any extraordinary events–its charm is found in Alcott’s skillful, playful narrative, her easy assured way with words, and the vividly realistic portraits she draws of the eight Bassett children, from the teenage Eph and Tilly down to the hungry (and apparently nameless) baby.

Furthermore, Alcott has the gift of creating warm, glowing scenes of domestic life, as all her readers will agree. It is perhaps not a coincidence that “An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving” unofficially holds in America the same relation to Thanksgiving as “A Christmas Carol” bears to Christmas. Although Alcott’s tale is both shorter and lighter in tone than Dickens’ famous novella, its creation of a golden Thanksgiving glow is perhaps unparalled in American fiction. Alcott’s love of Dickens is a well-established fact, and she may have been consciously trying to do for Thanksgiving what he had already done for Christmas fiction.

Furthermore, Alcott is certainly making–albeit very subtly–a point that is still relevant to her readers today. While modern readers, to whom Alcott’s day seems distant indeed, may easily imagine the tale to be taking place in the author’s own era, the fact is that Miss Alcott is writing of a day already distant from her own, as the story’s title makes clear. The tale’s opening sentences place it in the 1820’s, and emphasize the “old-fashioned” and “American” thrift and virtues of the early settlers and citizens:

“Sixty years ago, up among the New Hampshire hills, lived Farmer Bassett, with a houseful of sturdy sons and daughters growing up about him. They were poor in money, but rich in land and love, for the wide acres of wood, corn, and pasture land fed, warmed, and clothed the flock, while mutual patience, affection, and courage made the old farmhouse a very happy home.”

Again and again, Alcott speaks of the children’s hard work, rustic surroundings, and simple comforts, while also demonstrating their high spirits and liveliness. She roots this very American family’s success, independence and pioneering spirit in a historical tradition of political and personal trustworthiness, as we see when the two older children recount to the younger ones a tale of courageous (and youthful) Cavalier ancestors during the English Revolution.

Although Alcott does not make the mistake of rendering her characters infallible in every way (the older girls’ cooking mishaps recall Jo’s similar disasters in Little Women), she manages to make it clear to her readers that hard work, honesty, and light-heartedness combined in their ancestors as they strove to make a life for themselves in an often dangerous and uncertain world. Yet she accomplishes this feat and hints at the need to follow the path laid out by our predecessors without sacrificing the story itself. Unlike the budding cooks in her tale, she has a sure hand in concocting a story that is both wholesome and delicious, and few finer examples of her talent exist than “An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving.”

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