Grat­i­tu­di­nal

Our view: When it comes to giv­ing thanks, there’s noth­ing to be said that hasn’t been said be­fore — and bet­ter — so we opt for tra­di­tion in­stead

Baltimore Sun - - NATION - T would be tempt­ing, in this year of po­lit­i­cal fo­ment, to ded­i­cate our Thanks­giv­ing editorial page ei­ther to a heart-felt plea for the na­tion to come to­gether in thanks for all that unites us — or to com­mence a rhetor­i­cal food fight about all the ways the

IANotes and Com­ment col­umn The Sun ran in1970 be­gan this way: “We al­ways en­joy read­ing Pres­i­den­tial Procla­ma­tions on Thanks­giv­ing. These are re­quired by Sec­tion 6103 of Ti­tle 5 of the United States Code. Ev­ery Novem­ber, some writer on the White House Staff must pro­duce some­thing new about Thanks­giv­ing. It is not easy. We know be­cause we have to do the same thing, sort of — pro­duce an an­nual editorial about the sub­ject with some­thing new in it. That’s the cor­po­rate or in­sti­tu­tional or editorial ’we,’ by the way. Like pres­i­den­tial speech­writ­ers, we editorial writ­ers are an anony­mous and non­per­sonal species. No one will ever know who the writer was who pro­duced Procla­ma­tion 4201 for Pres­i­dent Nixon, or what his true feel­ings are on the sub­ject of Thanks­giv­ing.”

That’s more or less the per­fect sum­ma­tion, the per­fect com­ment on the com­ment. The first Thanks­giv­ing was 395 years ago, and, be­lieve us, find­ing some­thing to say — and on top of that, some­thing ap­pro­pri­ate for a se­ri­ous news­pa­per — doesn’t get any eas­ier. The chief Thanks­giv­ing editorial 46 years ago talked about the Pu­ri­tans’ prac­tice of hold­ing a day of fast­ing and hu­mil­i­a­tion as well as one of feast­ing and thanks­giv­ing. It al­luded to the trou­bles af­flict­ing the na­tion back in those Viet­nam days, in­clud­ing the as­sas­si­na­tions of the 1960s, which must still have seemed fresh. It ended:

“To ap­proach Thanks­giv­ing in any­thing akin to the old-time spirit is to rec­og­nize how frag­ile are our civ­i­liz­ing in­flu­ences, how buf­feted the ties that bind each to the other. It is a day for hu­mil­ity as well as feast­ing as we count the good things that have come our way in 1970.”

Well, editorial writ­ers are al­ways try­ing to load some ad­di­tional mean­ing onto Thanks­giv­ing, like hu­mil­ity. It gives them some­thing else to write about, for one thing. The prob­lem is that the clas­sic Thanks­giv­ing editorial re­minds read­ers how much they have to give thanks for, and how many oth­ers there are who are not as for­tu­nate — but you knew that al­ready, didn’t you? In 1954, The Sun editorial con­tented it­self with be­ing out­raged over the de­ten­tion of 13 Amer­i­cans by the Com­mu­nist Chi­nese, the theme be­ing, theirs is not go­ing to be a happy hol­i­day. A fair point, but kind of a stretch, none­the­less. Two years later, The Sun tack­led the editorial self-ev­i­dent­ness of Thanks­giv­ing head-on:

“There are two el­e­ments in a Thanks­giv­ing. One is an ex­pres­sion of grat­i­tude for bless­ings re­ceived. The other should be an ex­pres­sion of a sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity for those not equally blessed.” Now re­peat that 395 times. Speak­ing of stay­ing on mes­sage, a de­light­ful and ex­traor­di­nar­ily lengthy editorial from 1898 went all over the lot and man­aged to re­gain its theme only at the last pos­si­ble mo­ment. The United States had just won a war with Spain and was tak­ing on an over­seas em­pire that we at The Sun clearly were alarmed about. Be sure to read the won­der­ful last “In the mean­time” sen­tence.

“The United States have [sic] emerged from a war with a for­eign power mar­velously vic­to­ri­ous in ev­ery di­rec­tion. Mem­bers of thou­sands of fam­i­lies went into that war, and, in spite of mis­man­age­ment in camp and in field, many more of them re­turned to their homes than seemed prob­a­ble at the out­set of hos­til­i­ties. ...

“The dan­gers of the peace, the terms of which our com­mis­sion­ers at Paris have just set forth, threaten more dis­as­trous re­sults than did the war it­self. ... In the mean­time The Sun hopes its read­ers and friends and the peo­ple gen­er­ally will en­joy their fam­ily re­unions today, made more de­light­ful by din­ner ta­bles dec­o­rated with chrysan­the­mums and roasted tur­keys, and all sorts of ma­te­rial com­forts which make glad the heart of man and his coun­te­nance cheer­ful.” Phew! Made it! But just barely. Some years, of course, are more sus­cep­ti­ble to gen­uine feel­ings of thanks­giv­ing than oth­ers. Abra­ham Lin­coln be­gan the tra­di­tion of an an­nual Thanks­giv­ing Day in1863, but we can’t know what we of The Sun thought about it be­cause the pa­per had been sus­pected of har­bor­ing South­ern sym­pa­thies and spent the Civil War years un­der the thumb of the mil­i­tary au­thor­i­ties. The editorial space sim­ply noted that a day of thanks­giv­ing was to be held. (On the front page was the news that nearly 700 men had been con­scripted into the Union army from the city’s third, fourth and10th wards, with less dis­rup­tion than ex­pected; the Hol­l­i­day Street Theatre was pre­sent­ing a pop­u­lar com­edy still re­mem­bered today, be­cause it was to be the fea­ture 15 months later at Ford’s Theatre in Wash­ing­ton: “Our Amer­i­can Cousin.”)

But by late 1865 the war at last was over. On Thanks­giv­ing Day, which was Dec. 7 that year, The Sun could say what it pleased. Car­toon­ist Ed­mund Duffy had a dim view of the na­tion’s prospects at Thanks­giv­ing in 1930.

“The scourge of war, more ter­ri­ble that [sic] famine, more des­o­lat­ing than pesti­lence, a war car­ried on through four long years of suf­fer­ing and an­guish, has been ended almost as sud­denly as one of the hur­ri­cane storms of the trop­ics. ...

“The peo­ple are once more a rec­on­ciled peo­ple, once more a band of brothers called to­gether by their rulers in ac­cor­dance with a cus­tom which has the sanc­tion of fit­ness in the eyes of a Christian peo­ple, to give thanks to the Supreme Be­ing for His bound­less fa­vors.”

What hu­mil­ity was to 1970, rec­on­cil­i­a­tion was to 1865. On the other hand (which peo­ple who don’t read ed­i­to­ri­als imag­ine to be a fa­vorite editorial turn of phrase), we like to think of the Teens and Twen­ties of the 20th cen­tury as the Phooey years. We at The Sun were quite con­tent to rain on the na­tional pa­rade of self-sat­is­fac­tion with­out get­ting all earnest about it.

In1913 we rolled our eyes over well-fed ci­ti­zens as­sur­ing poor peo­ple that they had much to be grate­ful for. Like what? we wanted to know. In 1928 we said noth­ing at all about Thanks­giv­ing (take that!). In 1929, af­ter the stock mar­ket crash but be­fore it was quite clear where things were headed, the head­line read, “This Day of Grat­i­tude.”

“The spirit of Thanks­giv­ing seems to be present almost in in­verse ra­tio to the bless­ings for which one is gen­er­ally said to be grate­ful. From a spring cel­e­bra­tion of bare sur­vival af­ter piti­less hard­ships, Thanks­giv­ing has evolved to its present pro­por­tions, with a foot­ball game in ev­ery sta­dium and mil­lions of fam­ily par­ties, start­ing with fruit cock­tail and con­clud­ing with fruit, cheese, cof­fee, cor­dial and ci­gars.

“... A pros­per­ous peo­ple finds it dif­fi­cult to be grate­ful for the good­ness of God with­out mak­ing it ob­vi­ous that what is ac­tu­ally meant is the shrewd­ness of man.”

It’s in­ter­est­ing that the de­scrip­tion of the din­ner in the pas­sage above skipped right over the tur­key. Again, in 1930, when the eco­nomic plunge was all too ob­vi­ous, The Sun ran no Thanks­giv­ing editorial but did fea­ture a car­toon by Ed­mund Duffy that showed a gaunt and wor­ried-look­ing Un­cle Sam, with a knife in one hand, bend­ing over a tur­key about the size of a house finch. It sat on a plat­ter la­beled “Repub­li­can pros­per­ity.”

Duffy’s car­toon has rel­e­vance today. The anger and frus­tra­tion of the work­ing class in this coun­try came through loud and clear in this elec­tion that fea­tured more pop­ulism on both the right and left than we have seen in decades. Whether our new Repub­li­can pres­i­dent, with his prom­ise of trade wars and more tax cuts for the rich will pro­vide any­thing bet­ter than the des­ic­cated bird in Duffy’s ren­der­ing re­mains to be seen. (Oops, sorry. We promised no pol­i­tics. We can’t help our­selves some­times, but that’s it. We prom­ise.)

Still, if at the depths of the De­pres­sion in 1934 Franklin De­lano Roo­sevelt could muster brave thoughts, we can do worse than to echo them: “Dur­ing the past year we have been given courage and for­ti­tude to meet the prob­lems which have con­fronted us in our na­tional life. Our sense of so­cial jus­tice has deep­ened. We have been given vi­sion to make new pro­vi­sions for hu­man wel­fare and hap­pi­ness, and in a spirit of mu­tual help­ful­ness we have co­op­er­ated to trans­late vi­sion into re­al­ity.”

ED­MUND DUFFY/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

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