Melanie Kirkpatrick, THANKSGIVING

Melanie Kirkpatrick, THANKSGIVING

Zibby is joined by former Wall Street Journal editor Melanie Kirkpatrick to discuss her book, Thanksgiving. Melanie shares how her research for Thanksgiving led to her most recent work of non-fiction, Lady Editor, about the often-overlooked life story of Sarah Josepha Hale, the woman who helped make Thanksgiving a national holiday. Melanie and Zibby also talk about some of Sarah’s efforts that are still relevant in our lives today, the surprising role religion played in the history of Thanksgiving, and why it is so important to learn the true history of this holiday. Have a happy and healthy Thanksgiving!!!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Melanie. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience, from 1621 to 2021.

Melanie Kirkpatrick: It’s great to be with you, Zibby. I love talking about Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday.

Zibby: I learned so much about Thanksgiving from this book. There were so many things that I had no idea about. For example, and maybe this is embarrassing to admit, I didn’t know there was a Forefathers’ Day. I didn’t know the extent of the campaign to make it a national day and the ins and outs of that, which I found fascinating, and even the Jews of Charleston and their — so many interesting things that I learned, so thank you very much.

Melanie: You’re welcome. I had great fun researching it. It’s not just all about the pilgrims and the Indians. Thanksgiving has been a part of many, many facets of American life. It truly is, as the subtitle says, a holiday that’s at the heart of the American experience.

Zibby: It’s so true. I’m also now sort of obsessed with Sarah Josepha Hale. I read about her in your book and read another book about her recently. I saw that you wrote an actual book all about her. Then I was like, I should just go get that book.

Melanie: Yes, it’s my latest book. It’s called Lady Editor. I think she is probably the most influential woman in the nineteenth century and one of the most influential women of American history. It was fascinating to research her life. My ambition is to make her better known.

Zibby: Totally. I just found her so inspiring, like the Oprah of her day, and really amazing, more than that. Is there going to be a movie about her? What do you think?

Melanie: I wish.

Zibby: I wish too.

Melanie: Here is a lady who was widowed, left with four children a fifth on the way, and went on to remake herself as editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, the most widely circulated magazine of the pre-Civil War period. She did so much to help women get educations. She was the godmother of our modern Thanksgiving Day holiday. I bet you didn’t know that she wrote “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

Zibby: I did know that now that I read this book. Before that, I did not know that. There was nothing she couldn’t do. She was even campaigning with Abraham Lincoln to make it a holiday, using the pages of her magazine for her campaign, writing to Abraham Lincoln. She was a poet. There was so much about her. She seems just such a take-charge woman from recipes to .

Melanie: She was a celebrity in her day and deserves to be better known today and her accomplishments acknowledged. The part that I found most powerful — well, of course, Thanksgiving. That’s a tremendous accomplishment, the lady who, through her magazine, persuaded many Americans to sign on to this idea of a national Thanksgiving Day. Before her, Thanksgivings were celebrated locally. Governors of individual states would call Thanksgivings, but they didn’t coordinate. All Americans celebrated on different days around the country until she came along. Lincoln took up her proposal in 1863 in the middle of the Civil War, which was amazing in itself. We’ve been celebrating Thanksgiving, all Americans together, on the same day ever since.

Zibby: I like how you even talked about why it’s the Thursday that it is, because that was the one that was in the middle of all the states that they could finally agree on. Some were later in November. Some were earlier. This was sort of the happy medium.

Melanie: Yeah, it was the happy medium. She was a very powerful figure in the nineteenth century. Her influence was great because of the editorship of her magazine. She also was a very realistic woman, and so compromise was okay. She was able to compromise. It was compromise, you’re right, but it was also the date, the last Thursday of November was the holiday that — it was the day that George Washington called for a national Thanksgiving in 1789, his first year as president. Hale was a passionate admirer of George Washington, so that made her happy.

Zibby: That’s exciting. I just love this. It’s really neat. I didn’t realize — it was nice of you — well, not nice, but eye-opening of you when you talked about what happened in Charleston and how some nations, as they started adopting the Thanksgiving, said it was for Christians. This would be an occasion for all Christians to celebrate the land, and not Jews and heathens and other people like that — I happen to be Jewish, so I found this very fascinating — and that the Jewish people of the day wrote a whole letter back, which you included, this Jews of Charleston letter in 1845. Eventually, of course, it all works out.

Melanie: This was a really important development in the history of Thanksgiving. George Washington had made it clear when he proclaimed a national Thanksgiving that it was to be open to all people. He was famously ecumenical. He saw himself as the first president as being very important in setting examples for future presidents. Presidents have been very good about that, making it clear that Thanksgiving is an open holiday, it doesn’t discriminate on the basis of anything, but not every governor was. The governor of South Carolina of the day thought Thanksgiving should only be for Christians. That would exclude Jews or Unitarians or Muslims or anybody else. It was great the way the Jews of Charleston fought back and, in a public way, made it clear that this was a holiday for people of all faiths. The governor who had made this proclamation, his term ended a few weeks after Thanksgiving that year. One of the first actions of the new governor was to issue a new Thanksgiving proclamation saying that it was open to everybody.

Zibby: Wow. I know we already have a National Independent Bookstore Day today, but I feel like maybe we need, on the national level, some sort of National Day of Reading or something with books or authors or something that we could try to institute. What do you think?

Melanie: Yeah, that sounds like a good idea. Make sure Sarah Josepha Hale is included in it for Thanksgiving. Getting back to the idea of reading, a National Book Day, I think Americans, especially young people, need to be better educated on the holiday. There are a lot of myths that float around the first Thanksgiving in particular. I think it would enhance the meaning of our Thanksgiving if we learned more about the holiday.

Zibby: I agree. I think there should be a movie that is called Thanksgiving or Hale or something. I think it should be about Sarah Josepha Hale and the development of Thanksgiving. Then you could play it every Thanksgiving like Charlie Brown’s Thanksgiving and all of those movies. It would be one of those things. I’ll see if I can help.

Melanie: I’d love to be an advisor to them because I’ve learned a lot about Thanksgiving and Sarah Josepha Hale over the years. She is an eminently interesting character for a movie, a widow who goes on to remake herself as a lady editor in a time when — she was the first successful woman as editor of a publication. She campaigned — it’s hard to believe. When she started her first magazine in 1828, only half of American women were literate. There was not a single institution of higher education that admitted women. She was the editor for fifty years. Every month, every issue of her magazines had something about women’s education in it. She believed that women were the intellectual equals of men, but the reason they couldn’t succeed in professions and work outside the home in general was because they weren’t educated. That was an exclusive privilege of men. She campaigned about this in her magazine for years. She really, in my view, changed the national conversation, so to speak, about what women were capable of. In that way, she was extremely influential in the issues that later came. She, for example, thought women should be teachers. Back in the 1830s as the public schools were opening up around the country, there was a view that only men could teach kids. Women could be relegated to teaching small children, but not older kids. Hale thought that women could teach any subject to anybody so long as they were educated in that area. She also supported women becoming doctors and thought women doctors should treat women and children exclusively, that men didn’t have the nature to understand women and children. She wanted it to be the exclusive privilege of women.

She also supported women working in many other fields like being postmistresses, being waitresses. Now that seems pretty mundane, but there was a period when only men were being waiters. Then when Vassar College was in the works, one of the first colleges for women, she advised Matthew Vassar, the founder of the school, in many ways. The idea was to create a preeminent intellectual institution for women. She was very impactful there. On another subject, she used her magazine to help create an American culture. She believed that the country had been unified politically by the revolution, but it wasn’t yet unified culturally. Everybody was still looking toward the mother country. The country wasn’t developing its own literature, for example. She announced that she was going to publish American authors writing on American topics. Now this seems obvious from the perspective of the twenty-first century, but back then, it was unusual because a lot of publications were made up of articles that had been stolen from British publications or other American publications and just cut and pasted into their own publication without credit, whereas Hale published original work. She also supported a lot of young American writers who were just getting started like Harriet Beecher Stowe twenty-five years before she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and many, many other writers who are now classic figures in our literature. Beyond literature, she went on to, Oprah-like, help create a kind of common American aesthetic. She published recipes. She was the first one to publish a recipe section in her publication. She championed the white wedding gown and the Christmas tree, two customs that obviously are still going strong today.

Zibby: Wow. It’s really amazing because it also shows that if you just take enough interest and have enough commitment to something, you can really change the country. Of course, the whole history of America speaks to that. Especially as a woman and a mother, I just find this so personally energizing to know that she made such a difference at a time when it was really tricky to do so, including how we celebrate Thanksgiving.

Melanie: Edgar Allan Poe called her a woman of genius and, excuse the sexism, masculine energy.

Zibby: No surprise. You have been with The Wall Street Journal for a long time, right? Tell me about that.

Melanie: Yes, I worked for The Wall Street Journal for thirty years in Hong Kong and then in New York City where I wrote editorials, was op-ed editor and deputy editor of the opinion section. I had a wonderful career. Now I’m writing books.

Zibby: That’s exciting. How do you feel being on the book side? Do you miss the newsroom atmosphere?

Melanie: I do. The energy of working for a daily newspaper can be intoxicating. Having to focus my mind on digesting and understanding so many issues that are in the news these days and then writing a coherent opinion piece about it or soliciting a coherent opinion piece is hard work, but it’s very satisfying work. I do miss that. At the same time, it’s been very satisfying to me to be able to focus my attention on a single subject in my writing. My first book was on North Korea and my second book on Thanksgiving and now Sarah Josepha Hale, who’s an offshoot of my research into Thanksgiving. I keep my hand in with the paper writing an occasional article or book review for them.

Zibby: What subject are you going to tackle next?

Melanie: I haven’t decided. I may go back to the North Korean topic. I’m welcome to ideas if you have any.

Zibby: Sure.

Melanie: I’m evaluating different thoughts right now.

Zibby: Excellent. You could just go to the next holiday. Find out who the main person was in that. You could do a whole thing on uncovering American holiday history or something.

Melanie: That’s a thought.

Zibby: All right, not a great one. You’ll think of something better. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Melanie: My advice is probably the one they’ve heard before, which is, keep at it. Keep writing. Keep reading. A lot of what I learned about being a writer was from reading what other people wrote. Another thing I’ll say is that a lot of people want to be a writer, they say. You have to write about something. You have to know something. You just don’t pick up a pen or open your laptop and say, okay, I’m going to write today. You have to know something. That means you have to educate yourself. You have to do a lot of research or reporting. That requires a lot of tedious work as well as interesting work. Once you know a subject, it’s a lot easier to write about it.

Zibby: Yes. Although, there are plenty of people who write about things with no research, just whatever’s on their minds, which is also fine.

Melanie: You’re right. That’s a problem, especially with our media today. It’s much more off the cuff than it is fully developed. You can have people who are glib talkers or good writers, but they are know-nothings. That does not help the reader or the viewer. It might entertain them, but it doesn’t educate them.

Zibby: Right. Hopefully, the people listening to this will have something good to say and then write it. Thank you so much for this book. I’m going to go read the Sarah Josepha Hale book next. I only had this one for Thanksgiving for the theme and the timing, but I’m so interested in her now. I’m on a roll.

Melanie: That’s great to hear. I hope you like the book. I’d be welcome to come back and talk more about Sarah Josepha Hale. In the meantime, let me be the first to wish you a Happy Thanksgiving.

Zibby: You are the first, so I will let you. Happy Thanksgiving to you too.

Melanie: Thank you very much, Zibby. Buh-bye.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Melanie Kirkpatrick, THANKSGIVING

THANKSGIVING by Melanie Kirkpatrick

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