J. Samaine Lockwood: Nineteenth-Century New England’s Queer Thanksgivings

Archives of Desire: The Queer Historical Work of New England Regionalism, by J. Samaine LockwoodWe welcome a guest post today from J. Samaine Lockwood, author of Archives of Desire: The Queer Historical Work of New England Regionalism. A thought-provoking study of nineteenth-century America, Archives of Desireoffers an important new interpretation of the literary movement known as American regionalism. Lockwood argues that regionalism in New England was part of a widespread woman-dominated effort to rewrite history. Lockwood demonstrates that New England regionalism was an intellectual endeavor that overlapped with colonial revivalism and included fiction and history writing, antique collecting, colonial home restoration, and photography. The cohort of writers and artists leading this movement included Sarah Orne Jewett, Alice Morse Earle, and C. Alice Baker, and their project was taken up by women of a younger generation, such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins, who extended regionalism through the modernist moment.

In the following post, Lockwood explores the history of Thanksgiving as shaped by nineteenth-century regional, social, sexual, and political imperatives.

This week many Americans will be on the move. By plane, bus, car, and train, they will return to the place they call “home” to celebrate Thanksgiving with their families. Of those already at home, many will be crafting a meal for family and/or community members. And there will be other articulations of belonging such as the Indigenous Peoples Sunrise Ceremony on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay to protest the celebration of Thanksgiving and honor the American Indian Occupation of Alcatraz of the late 1960s and early 1970s. For, of course, the notion of home, including who has the right to call the land that comprises the United States home, is far from simple; condensed in the notion of home are contested ideas about individual, familial, collective, racial, and national identity. We experience such contestations especially during holidays such as Thanksgiving, which, premised on the idea of a return home, can be not only joyous but variously mournful, painful, and awkward, an idea well captured and leveraged in GLAAD’s 2011 campaign for members of the LGBT community, “I’m Letting Aunt Betty Feel Awkward This Thanksgiving,” which involved individuals committing to bring up LGBT issues at the Thanksgiving table. Gathering with family at home, defining home in the first place, can be particularly vexed for anyone who understands herself as outside mainstream forms of belonging.

Thanksgiving was institutionalized in the nineteenth century and primarily involved the reinscription of mainstream forms of belonging, including belonging to a heteronormative family. Thanksgiving began to be celebrated more regularly in the early national period as many white New Englanders left their home region to seek new opportunities within expanding imperial frameworks: on the western frontier, abroad, and in expanding urban centers.[1] A sense of identification with the culture of New England, particularly a sense of its historical import, shaped the spread of Thanksgiving across the nation. As Harriet Beecher Stowe represents in her novel Oldtown Folks, Thanksgiving was a significant holiday in early national Massachusetts, requiring culinary preparations that spanned weeks.[2] By 1817, Thanksgiving was celebrated as an annual event in New York and by 1824 the same was true of Michigan.[3] It continued to spread across states during the 1850s and was declared a national holiday by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, during the Civil War.[4] Like Christmas, Thanksgiving became increasingly standardized in the late nineteenth century, losing some of its important, contestatory aspects such as the tradition of poor children begging for money and the masquerading of the Fantastics, groups of cross-dressed men going door to door to ask for treats from the upper classes.[5] (The tradition of the Fantastics appears to have morphed into a ball thrown and attended by gay men in early twentieth-century Greenwich Village.)[6]

Depictions of Thanksgiving in the nineteenth century featured a family patriarch at the head of the table, but the holiday was deeply linked to the home as a physical and symbolic space associated with women. Much of the effort to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday came from Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the Godey’s Lady’s Book, who well understood the powerful connection between the domestic sphere, women’s influence, and ideas about national belonging. Lincoln’s proclamation of Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863, like other of Lincoln’s proclamations, had much to do with regional power, particularly the Union’s assertion of a cultural power to match its military might. Thanksgiving was part of the North’s effort to instantiate itself, and New England in particular, as the center of a dominant historical narrative of the United States. It makes sense, then, that New England regionalist literature, which blossomed in the last half of the nineteenth century and was part of the same sectionally driven project, included among its types of short stories the Thanksgiving tale.

In the Thanksgiving tale as rendered by New England regionalists, an implicit claim is made to the centrality of New England to national history and the primacy of New England as the national home. At the same time, and perhaps surprisingly, these Thanksgiving tales often sought to put pressure on an institution central to the established Thanksgiving mythos: the heteronormative nuclear family. As I argue in my book Archives of Desire: The Queer Historical Work of New England Regionalism, New England regionalism had at its heart a queerly historical sensibility. The fiction writers who wrote regionalist literature were predominantly women: Rose Terry Cooke, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Annie Trumbull Slosson, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Alice Brown. Across their works unmarried women are the protagonists, engaging their late-nineteenth-century worlds with the grit and independence associated with colonial and Revolutionary male precursors. In the Thanksgiving tale we see not only the sectionalist investments of the New England colonial revivalist historical imagination, but the ways in which traditional notions about gender, history, sexuality, and belonging were being renegotiated by women writers of the period.

The conventional Thanksgiving tale involves a young, rural New England man leaving the women he loves (mother, sister, betrothed or wife) to seek his fortune elsewhere, and he eventually returns for Thanksgiving. In that return, in coming back to the home place associate with women, he is transformed. Such is the case in Rose Terry Cooke’s stories “Home Again” and “A Double Thanksgiving.”[7] Yet, significantly, the absence of the man often opens a space for the remaking of women’s lives, too. In Cooke’s “An Old Fashioned Thanksgiving,” set in Revolutionary-Era New England, the mother, Hannah, must transform her labor and assume family leadership when her husband and oldest sons go to war. The transformation of Hannah’s labor makes her like General Washington himself: “There was no father to superintend the outdoor work; so Hannah took to the field, and marshaled her forces . . . much as the commander-in-chief was doing on a larger scale elsewhere.”[8] Similarly, in Cooke’s first-person narrative “My Thanksgiving,” the narrator, Annie, shares how the absence of her fiancé, Jo, who is serving in the Civil War, requires a transformation of her character. When the family patriarch becomes nonresponsive because he believes Jo is dead, Annie chooses to continue on, forging deeper familial ties with her extended family and moving from self-loathing to assertive self-loving.[9]

Emergent in the New England regionalists’ Thanksgiving stories, however, is an idea of the reconfiguration of family and identity, what we might fairly call a representation of queer family formations understood as part of New England and New England history. The last Thanksgiving tale in Cooke’s short story collection Huckleberries Gathered from New England Hills is “How Celia Changed Her Mind,” one that focuses on the transformation of an older unmarried woman rather than a man. Like the journeying New England men of conventional Thanksgiving stories, Celia is a “typical Yankee.”[10] Yet rather than cross geographical space in search of fortune, she stays in her hometown and crosses social space: kinless and poor, Celia wants desperately to be married, for she believes this is the only way to become respected and financially secure. But once wed to the tyrannical Deacon Everts, Celia yearns to return to her unmarried state. After Everts’s death, Celia revises her personal history, linking it to regional and national history, by holding a Thanksgiving comprised of all unmarried women guests. Reclaiming the title “old maid” even though, technically, she is a widow, Celia occupies the patriarch’s position: “Celia bloomed at the head of the board.”[11] Celia is only fecund outside the marriage formation and when a leader within an all-women community of celebrants made up of women who live alone, sisters who live together, and women in intimate partnerships. “How Celia Changed Her Mind” rethinks queer New England women as belonging in history by way of the Thanksgiving holiday.

Little-known regionalist writer Alice Brown, like Rose Terry Cooke before her, also wrote Thanksgiving stories that capture the tensions of familial belonging for queer women. Her story “The Way of Peace,” published in 1899, focuses on Lucy Ann Cummings, a middle-aged woman who chose not to marry so as to continue living with her mother, extended mother love being the primary and most valued experience of her life.[12] Once her mother dies, Lucy Ann elects to undertake a transgenerational refashioning of the body, modeling her hair and dress on the now-dead mother. Each of Lucy Ann’s brothers wants her to join their heteronuclear family formations as a helper, pressuring her to fulfill the dominant role of “old maid mother” popular in nineteenth-century culture.[13] Lucy Ann, however, when invited to multiple Thanksgiving celebrations, lies to each brother so that she can stay home and celebrate in her own house as herself: a woman of the last generation living alone. When her brothers and their families descend on her home on Thanksgiving Day, for Lucy Ann the Thanksgiving holiday goes from being one of solitary peace to social peace; Lucy Ann explains to her family how she wants to live and they support her desires and her transformation, the younger members of the family fully integrating the change in her identity by calling her “grandmother.”

As we travel home this Thanksgiving, it is worth taking time to reflect on the various meanings of this holiday—personal, collective, regional, and national. A product of nineteenth-century sectional, socio-sexual, and imperialist imperatives, Thanksgiving is far from a physically satisfying celebration involving a return to an uncomplicated home. In this recognition dwells the possibility of us understanding our own contemporary desires to rewrite identities, bodies, and forms of belonging as themselves part of history as part of longer traditions of cultural contestation.

J. Samaine Lockwood is associate professor of English at George Mason University and author of Archives of Desire: The Queer Historical Work of New England Regionalism. Follow Lockwood on Twitter @samainelockwood.

  1. [1]James W. Baker, Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday. (Lebanon, NH: University of New Hampshire Press, 2009), 62-63.
  2. [2]Harriet Beecher Stowe, Oldtown Folks. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987), 284-85.
  3. [3]Ibid., 69.
  4. [4]Ibid., 69, 71.
  5. [5]Elizabeth Pleck, “The Making of the Domestic Occasion: The History of Thanksgiving in the United States,” Journal of Social History 32, no. 4 (1999): 776.
  6. [6]Ibid., 778.
  7. [7]“An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving,” “A Double Thanksgiving,” “Home Again,” and “How Celia Changed Her Mind” are all from Rose Terry Cooke, Huckleberries Gathered from New England Hills. (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1892).
  8. [8]Cooke, Huckleberries Gathered from New England Hills, 128.
  9. [9]Rose Terry Cooke, The Sphinx’s Children and Other People’s. (Boston: Ticknor and Company, 1886), 257-289.
  10. [10]Cooke, Huckleberries Gathered from New England Hills, 286.
  11. [11]Ibid., 314.
  12. [12]Alice Brown, Tiverton Tales. (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1899).
  13. [13]One obvious example of this notion is Kate Tannatt Woods, “The Old Maid Mothers of New England,” The Chautauquan 12 no. 3 (December 1890): 375.