The fourth Thursday of November is often barely a pause in the relentless holiday shopping spree. But older people may recall school lessons about the intrepid passengers of the Mayflower, their compact that prepared the way for democratic institutions, and particularly, their first friendly meal of turkey and pumpkin with the native people. No serious student of early America has ever believed these myths, so Godfrey Hodgson breaks no new ground in undercutting them in A Great and Godly Adventure: The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving. He has, however, done valuable work drawing on historians' research about the original New England settlements.
The Pilgrims were fleeing the spies of the Church of England, not anticipating the American Revolution. Their agreement, or compact, merely set up civil order in a place far outside the bounds of authority back home. There were no turkeys in eastern Massachusetts. The real story of the first Thanksgiving is richer and more complex.
Hodgson reminds us of our tendency to interpret and understand the past through the lens of the present. That is not altogether unfortunate. The Pilgrims afforded later Americans examples of bravery in the face of adversity. These first Americans are worth remembering and honoring, and Hodgson gives them their due. One can deconstruct the idea of Thanksgiving as much as one likes, he writes. It remains . . . a domestic celebration of gratitude, humility, and inconclusiveness. These are not qualities for which anyone need apologize.