NOVEMBER 26, 2001
-- Martin E. Marty
What or who killed the Pilgrims? I don't mean what literally killed them. Disease, want, and the perils of the wilderness -- not the Native Americans -- claimed many during the seasons "before Thanksgiving" after the Mayflower landed. I mean "what" and "who" killed them as icons, as legendary figures behind the day of national Thanksgiving just observed?
Sightings of the Pilgrims were few this season. There was a two-line sighting of Pilgrims, the radical Puritans who founded Plymouth Colony in 1620, in Ed Gaffney's "Sightings" last week. Pilgrims showed up in one Wall Street Journal op-ed. We also sighted them as caricatures in one New Yorker cartoon, and in the comic strips "Agnes" and "Bound and Gagged." Did Hallmark Cards market cute Pilgrims as table centerpieces? The firm used to. Were they on any float in one of the televised Thanksgiving -- Christmas commerce-boosting -- parades? "The Miracle on 34th Street" was on several TV channels; the colonists were not. Mr. and Mrs. Typical Pilgrim are disappearing from our national, cultural scene.
Holidays need traditions, and ours keep being revised and replaced. Commenting on one such replacement, one of our dailies wrote: "Move over, football. If a handful of the nation's big retail operators have their way, the newest Thanksgiving Day tradition will be shopping." Football is the challenged tradition; the Pilgrims lie forgotten.
"What" and "who" killed them, and "why" did "we" tend to remove them from the screen of national consciousness and observance? One theory combined causes: shame over "colonialism," "political correctness" in its prime, and the kind of "multiculturalism" that portrays every group as abused or murdered victims of some "hegemonic" power. South African friends taunted us on one visit to their country: "How can you righteous Americans commemorate and celebrate the colonialists who "invite" the Indians to dinner and then initiate genocide?"
Legitimate concerns that begin with revisiting and maybe rewriting history may have played a part in killing the Pilgrims. Just as likely is a more natural explanation. The Pilgrims have ceased to be "useful" in commerce and by potent groups in society. Americans have selective amnesia. We can retrieve elements from old stories or even invent new traditions in response to all kinds of economic, cultural, and political forces. Some scholars say that a consequence of the revisions and re-inventions is that we have lost our "meta-narrative," the set of grand stories off of which a complex and pluralist society lives. More likely we are revising the canon, and refashioning a meta-narrative with a different cast. Today's school children may know Irving Berlin, Crazy Horse, Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King, Jr. Charges that the William Bradfords and Jonathan Winthrops, and other Pilgrims and Puritans dominate our stories don't hold up -- at least not at Thanksgiving.
Maybe if and when the Pilgrims' and the Puritans' heirs -- groups within the white, Protestant mainstream -- utter grievances, Standish, Bradford, Winthrop, and the rest will become useful again.