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This Week in ‘Nation’ History: The Tantalizing Mockery of Thanksgiving, 1931 | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: The Tantalizing Mockery of Thanksgiving, 1931




Herbert Hoover

Herbert Hoover's 1931 Thanksgiving address was insulting to poor and unemployed US citizens. (Library of Congress)

The Nation’s first regular column was introduced in 1918 under the headline, “In the Driftway.” Some have identified the writer as Carl Van Doren, literary editor from 1919–22, but it is more likely the “Drifter” persona—who always wrote of himself in the third person—was a composite of several contributors writing under that name during the column’s seventeen-year run.

In 1931, the Drifter, describing himself as “usually suspicious a priori of all traditions, hallowed or otherwise,” wrote that it was his “sad duty to report certain misgivings” about President Herbert Hoover’s proclamation for Thanksgiving that year.

With the third winter of widespread unemployment nearly upon us, in all its ugliness, want, and distress, Thanksgiving Day has not a genuine ring. Somehow it sounds ill-suited to the times. The President’s counsel that ‘our people rest from their daily labors’ brings to the Drifter’s mind some ten million jobless to whom that advice will seem more than slightly ironical. And he wonders how many of that army stopped work on Thanksgiving Day in 1929, not realizing that they would still be resting two years later. Will they be duly appreciative, as the President is, that ‘the passing adversity which has come upon us’ is a ‘spiritual’ blessing?

The height of irony, the Drifter felt, was in Hoover’s statement that the country had been “widely blessed with abundant harvests.” The truth was that the 1931 harvest had been so bountiful that crop prices were depressed even further. As one local politician wrote to the governor of Kansas, bemoaning bottomed-out wheat prices, “This is the first time I have ever seen a bumper crop year leave farmers more discouraged than if they had a complete failure.”

“Under our topsy-turvy economics,” the Drifter wrote, “abundant harvests assure us nothing. They are a dubious blessing indeed when rich surpluses leave the farmer poor and the destitute hungry. It were better had the harvest been lean. The well-stocked storehouses would not then present a tantalizing mockery of the knowledge that has multiplied.”

The Drifter then suggested renaming the holiday to “Fact-facing Day,” to reflect “a more realistic purpose.”

Instead of offering spiritual consolation to the needy and expressing pious hopes that by another year the Almighty might have matters adjusted to normal, the nation would unite in facing the facts of our adversity. The Drifter believes this might lead to action which would make abundant harvests mean abundance for all. And should that happen, you would see an ardent campaign to change the name of Fact-facing Day back to Thanksgiving Day.

Presumably the Drifter was more satisfied by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first Thanksgiving proclamation in November 1933:

May we be grateful for the passing of dark days; for the new spirit of dependence one on another; for the closer unity of all parts of our wide land; for the greater friendship between employers and those who toil; for a clearer knowledge by all nations that we seek no conquests and ask only honorable engagements by all peoples to respect the lands and rights of their neighbors; for the brighter day to which we can win through by seeking the help of God in a more unselfish striving for the common bettering of mankind.

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