Thursday Nov. 23, 2017

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Minnesota Thanksgiving

For that free Grace bringing us past great risks
& thro’ great griefs surviving to this feast
sober & still, with the children unborn and born,
among brave friends, Lord, we stand again in debt
and find ourselves in the glad position: Gratitude.

We praise our ancestors who delivered us here
within warm walls all safe, aware of music,
likely toward ample & attractive meat
with whatever accompaniment
Kate in her kind ingenuity has seen fit to devise,

and we hope—across the most strange year to come—
continually to do them and You not sufficient honour
but such as we become able to devise
out of decent or joyful conscience & thanksgiving.
      Bless then, as Thou wilt, this wilderness board.

“Minnesota Thanksgiving” by John Berryman from Collected Poems. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is Thanksgiving. Millions of people will sit down to turkey, cranberry sauce, and stuffing, to commemorate the celebratory dinner that took place in 1621 between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag at what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts. The Pilgrims had fled religious persecution in England and endured a harsh ocean voyage on a ship called The Mayflower to land at Plymouth Rock; they were ill-prepared for winter and most of them perished or became severely ill during their first winter. The tales of turkey and sauce and stuffing are mostly untrue, however; most likely, the autumn feast was one of seal, swan, or goose. They didn’t have pie, either, because they hadn’t yet grown wheat; the same goes for mashed potatoes.

The first Thanksgiving probably wasn’t the first celebration of mingled cultures, either. The Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans often paid tribute to their gods after the fall harvest. In 1565, Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilés invited members of the local Timucua tribe to a dinner in St. Augustine, Florida. In the winter of 1619, when 38 British settlers reached a site called “Berkeley Hundred” on the banks of Virginia’s James River, they gleefully read a proclamation designating the date as “a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.” And Native Americans, themselves, had a long tradition of feasting in celebration of the fall harvest long before the Pilgrims ever set foot on shore.

It wasn’t until 1863, during the Civil War, that President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to be held each November. He only did that after being pestered for years by Sarah Hale, author of the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” For 36 years, she’d been sending letters to governors, senators, presidents, and other politicians, pleading for the establishment of a national holiday.

Lincoln asked all Americans to ask God to “commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife and to heal the wounds of the nation.” He declared Thanksgiving to be on the last Thursday of every November, but President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved it up a week in 1939 to spur retail sales during the Great Depression. Not many people liked that date. They called it “Franksgiving,” and it was later moved to the fourth Thursday in November.

About that pesky turkey: Alexander Hamilton once remarked that, “No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day,” but the true origin of that bird’s holiday popularity is up for grabs. Some say it’s popular because the big bird can feed many people; some say turkey became popular because it was featured in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol in 1843, when Scrooge sends the Cratchit family a turkey. Regardless, Americans eat about 240 million turkeys a year during the holidays. The White House is now famous for pardoning its two Thanksgiving turkeys every year, and giving them cute names like Mac and Cheese, Tater and Tot, Flyer and Fryer, and Honest and Abe.

On this day in 1889, the first jukebox was unveiled in a saloon in San Francisco. It was invented by Louis Glass, who had earlier worked as a telegraph operator for Western Union and then co-founded the Pacific Phonographic Company. He was fascinated by the phonograph technology and saw a market for charging people to listen to them, since phonographs were still too expensive to buy for your own home. He installed the machine in the Palais Royal saloon simply because he knew the owner and it was close to his house, so he didn’t have to carry the machine very far.

The word “jukebox” wasn’t invented until the 1920s. Glass called his machine the “nickel-in-the-slot phonograph,” since you had to pay a nickel to hear a song play. In today’s money, a nickel was about $1.27 at the time. The first machine had four different stethoscopes attached to it that functioned as headphones. Each pair of headphones had to be activated by putting in a nickel, and then several people could listen to the same song at once. There were towels left by each listening device so people could wipe them off after using. As part of his agreement with the saloonkeepers, at the end of each song, the machine told the listener to “go over to the bar and buy a drink.”

His phonograph was a huge hit and, at a conference in Chicago, Glass told his competitors that his first 15 machines brought in over $4,000 in six months. This led to other manufacturers making their own machines. Shortly after, Thomas Edison designed a phonograph people could buy for their homes, which also cut into the market. Glass’s invention eventually made the player piano obsolete, and competitors updated the jukebox with new technologies from record players to CDs. Now there is such a thing as a digital jukebox, but they never really caught on, since they come with the size and expense of a regular jukebox, without any of the charm of flipping through the records and watching the moving parts of the machine.

Today is the birthday of Guy Reginald Bolton (books by this author), the Anglo-American playwright and librettist of musical comedies. He was born in England in 1884 to an American father and English mother. His family moved to New York, where Bolton began a career as an architect and worked for the government on designing the renovated West Point military academy. He then got into musicals, writing over 40 shows.

Bolton is most well known for the musicals he wrote during WWI with Fred Thompson and P.G. Wodehouse. His work moved American musicals away from European operettas to smaller, more approachable productions. Bolton was known for his puns and fast-moving, clever dialogue.

He wrote the librettos for George and Ira Gershwin for a while, but then they wanted to write musicals with more serious themes. As a result, Bolton left New York and went back to England, where his lighthearted musicals had steady success until the end of his career. Bolton died in London at the age of 94.

It's the birthday of author Nirad C. Chaudhuri (books by this author), born in 1897 in what was then Bengal, a region of British-ruled India, but is today part of Bangladesh. He was the son of a lawyer, part of the Bengal Hindu aristocracy, and when his academic career came to a humiliating end upon failing to complete his master's degree, he took a job as a government clerk. He began publishing articles and reviews, and transitioned into a career of journalism.

Chaudhuri's own father considered him the only one of his six sons who would never amount to much. Ten years after leaving school, at the age of 34, he could not find a wife for himself in the Western style, as he was determined to do, and had to ask his father to find a match for him. He became the private secretary of a leader in the Indian National Congress and rubbed shoulders with figures like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, but his position only left him increasingly disillusioned about the future of Bengal.

He left the region for Calcutta and was a radio political commentator when, nearing his 50th birthday, in poor health and believing he probably only had a couple years left, he became depressed that India's imminent independence from Britain would end the Western influence he and the intellectual Bengali class had encouraged. Chaudhuri despaired that he had never achieved anything — and that it was probably too late.

He would write his memoirs, he decided; an account of his childhood set against the backdrop of the historical events and political climate that led to the decline of the Bengal Renaissance. Every day, before he left for work, he wrote 2,500 words.

When Chaudhuri published the The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian in 1951, at the age of 53, he ceased to be undistinguished — or unknown. The book was instantly decried in his native country, in part because its dedication was so inflammatory: "To the memory of The British Empire in India, which conferred subjecthood on us but withheld citizenship; to which yet every one of us threw out the challenge: 'civis britannicus sum,' ["I am a British citizen"] because all that was good and living within us was made, shaped and quickened by the same British rule.'' Although Chaudhuri argued his dedication was meant as a condemnation of the hypocrisy and racism of British colonialism, to Indian nationalists it read too much like an apology for the same. He was forced from his job and widely scorned at home.

But not abroad. Chaudhuri's book found much acclaim in Britain and the United States. He was invited to visit England and contribute lectures to the BBC, which were collected in a book titled A Passage to England. E.M. Forster — author of the novel A Passage to India from which Chaudhuri had taken his book's name — reviewed it and said Chaudhuri had integrity, courage, and "a good English style." Chaudhuri himself once claimed he was "an Englishman except in birth," and remained a lifelong devotee of opera and classical music. In fact, on the night of his wedding, preoccupied that his new bride would not be sympathetic toward his passion for European music, he asked her to spell the word "Beethoven." Only after she did so correctly could he begin to relax, satisfied that she wouldn't require him to give it up.

Chaudhuri continued to write about India and his countrymen for the rest of his life, but he did so, for the final 29 years of it, from England. He moved to Oxford, where he wrote, among other books, a second autobiography — called Thy Hand, Great Anarch! — and his final book, Three Horsemen of the New Apocalypse, in which he defined the three harbingers of doom as Nationalism, Individualism, and Democracy. He was 99 years old when he wrote it. Chaudhuri died in 1999 — two months shy of his 102nd birthday, and about 50 years after he'd thought he would.

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