The Clare Spark Blog

November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving: the power of a national symbol

Filed under: Uncategorized — clarelspark @ 8:24 pm
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Jasper Johns Flag, 1954

The following link will take you to the Museum of Modern Art’s commentary on Jasper Johns’s first flag painting, of which there are many variations. If you watch the video, you will see that they link it to McCarthyism and the Cold War, because of the date, 1954. What they do not tell you is that Johns is from the South, where he also received much of his education. Does formalist criticism alone reveal all the possible resonances of this image?

Turn now to Thanksgiving, the day that celebrates Union, family union and national union alike. Its traditional foods relate strongly to the New England puritan colonists of the 17th century, whose survival was aided by friendly Indians. It was, however, Abraham Lincoln who proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday with a predictable date (but his appeal to the Almighty was in place since Thanksgiving was originally proclaimed in 1789, in gratitude for the Constitution). Here are his very words:

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union. [end, Lincoln’s proclamation, Oct.3, 1863]

   Yesterday, on my Facebook page, I posted an item heard on National Public Radio, in which a female author was interviewed regarding the salutary benefits of telling off annoying relatives at the family dinners, though it punctured the spirit of union. Many comments followed. My own view was that given the difficult travel conditions in reuniting far-flung relatives, the labor gone into the preparation of the feast, the labor of cleaning up afterwards, the gratitude for life and survival during centuries of mass death, gratitude to the bounteous Earth, that it was a time to put personal animosities and resentments aside and to celebrate family unity, i.e., the good of the whole: this was no time for the airing of festering resentments.

Lincoln was a moderate man and a puritan, one who believed in the possibility of religion and symbolic gestures as a road to national healing. Jasper Johns is held to be a neo-Dadaist by the authors of his Wikipedia page. Perhaps on this day, we need more Lincoln and more gratitude to Mother Nature and labor, more moral seriousness (with or without Providence), and less irony and railing.


  1. Oh Ms. Spark, you’ve done it again, I’m so grateful to have crossed your trail.

    Comment by hrwolfe — November 23, 2017 @ 1:49 pm | Reply

  2. […] Thanksgiving, and work on your deep breathing. (For a different take on Thanksgiving, see Especially timely given the new Spielberg movie on […]

    Pingback by Abandonment anxiety and “moderation” « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — November 20, 2012 @ 2:44 am | Reply

  3. Best commentary on Thanksgiving I have ever had the privilege to read. Thank you, once again, Dr. Spark.
    I am grateful for our friendship, solidarity, and rigorous research, before howling at that moon.

    Respectfully always,

    Dr. Gary Katz; Jerusalem [via Boston/Berkeley]

    Comment by gk68 — November 24, 2011 @ 9:15 pm | Reply

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