Both as a reader and a writer, New York Times bestselling author Denise Kiernan is fascinated by the overlap of historical events and personalities. In her latest work of narrative nonfiction, We Gather Together: A Nation Divided, a President in Turmoil, and a Historic Campaign to Embrace Gratitude and Grace, the Asheville-based writer explores the connection between President Abraham Lincoln and the lesser-known Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book — one of the most widely read magazines in the country during the 19th century.
As a central focus in the book, Kiernan brings to light one of Hale’s lifelong obsessions: to implement Thanksgiving as a national holiday. After decades of promulgating the idea — both in print and in private missives to multiple U.S. presidents — Hale’s unyielding quest finds an unlikely ally in Lincoln, who recognizes the need for gratitude even amid the country’s darkest days of the Civil War.
Along with chronicling Hale’s relentless pursuit, Kiernan offers readers a philosophical, psychological and historical overview of the human relationship to thanksgiving — from the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus to modern-day neuroscience research on the matter. Furthermore, she provides readers with an amusing look at how the Thanksgiving holiday has evolved over the centuries.
“It is a timeless, ageless, global concept,” Kiernan says. “And a very natural human impulse — to show thanks.”
Still, the heart of We Gather Together resides in the little-known story of Hale — a tenacious woman whose husband died only weeks after the couple’s fifth child was born, forcing the 34-year-old widow to reimagine her life’s plans.
In 1828, at the age of 40, the former teacher-turned-milliner-turned-author became the editor of Ladies’ Magazine in Boston, which she would later co-own. By 1837, the publication merged with The Lady’s Book, eventually becoming Godey’s Lady’s Book.
During her career, Hale published works by several iconic writers, including Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Harriet Beecher Stowe. And while these names live on, Hale’s own literary and cultural contributions receive little attention from scholars.
“It’s easy not to know anything about her,” Kiernan says. “I consider her very underexposed. Not completely unknown, but very, very underexposed.”
Kiernan’s own introduction to the 19th-century editor came gradually over time, as she learned tidbits about Hale’s connections to eminent authors and her cultural influence through Godey’s Lady’s Book. But what struck Kiernan most — and ultimately inspired her to write We Gather Together — was the fact that only a few weeks before Lincoln delivered his historic 1863 Gettysburg Address, the president granted Hale’s long-sought wish, calling for a nationally recognized Thanksgiving Day holiday to be observed on the last Thursday of November.
“That’s when I decided those two addresses had to be tied together,” Kiernan says.
Messy, weird and quirky
One of the key points Kiernan stresses in her latest work is that throughout history, people have expressed gratitude even in the wake of tragedy. “We don’t have to look far to see this very dynamic in the story of the national holiday of Thanksgiving in the United States,” the author writes.
While Hale’s own quest to launch the holiday began shortly after the loss of her husband, Lincoln’s eventual declaration came as casualties continued to climb on both sides of the warring Union and Confederate armies.
“Some of the things I researched were really interesting, noting how important it could be to the resilience of the human spirit to be able to find something to say ‘thank you’ for, when things are hard,” Kiernan says. “And God knows, 2020 has made it pretty challenging for a lot of people.”
Along with these psychological insights, Kiernan’s exploration of the holiday’s shifting practices and traditions provides readers with moments of pure comedy and delight. For instance, in New York City near the turn of the 20th century, children regularly celebrated Thanksgiving by dressing up in tattered clothing and approaching unsuspecting passersby for money or treats, ultimately earning the holiday the nickname “Ragamuffin Day.”
Decades later, in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt upset thousands, if not millions, of U.S. residents when he obliged merchants who’d urged him to move the Nov. 30 celebration up a week to extend the holiday shopping season. Several outraged governors defied the president’s declaration and maintained the holiday’s previously scheduled date, resulting in two Thanksgivings held across the country.
Kiernan believes that such events — in tandem with Hale’s own ceaseless efforts — remind readers that history is more than just names and dates. “It’s messy, weird and quirky,” Kiernan says. “And aren’t we all?” denisekiernan.com