Thanksgiving and Mythology

Our American mythology of Thanksgiving is imparted to us as schoolchildren, or at least it used to be. The Pilgrims had voyaged to North America on the Mayflower to escape persecution and had been in Plymouth, Massachusetts, less than a year. They were hungry. A cold winter was setting in, and they lacked food. The Native Americans there, the Wampanoag, befriended them and welcomed them to a feast. Turkeys were plentiful in the woods and harvest time provided ample sources of food.

The mythology of American Thanksgiving was born in 1621. The holiday was made official by President Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation in 1863, in the midst of the Civil War. What began as a uniquely American holiday is now observed in Canada and in a few other countries, such as Liberia. The holiday celebrates the values of sharing and mutual respect, of caring for the hungry and inviting the persecuted to find respite, of admitting strangers into our lives – the list of positive values is very long.

Meanwhile, almost four centuries after that first Thanksgiving feast, the American news flow is clotted with tales of American Senators and wannabe American Senators and sexual harassment and internecine political threats. And we are treated to story after story about American serial killers and shootings in American churches and mass killings at American concerts. Add to all that the torrent of bad news from around the world. A few instances that spring to mind are the promises of nuclear murder by Kim in North Korea, the threats to the Catholic Church by jihadists, and the march organized by Nazi sympathizers in Warsaw.

Here in America we also witness denials of despicable behavior by political leaders of both major parties that govern our nation. These are the same leaders we look to for domestic and global solutions.

We are besieged by nastiness and bitterness and fear, which are rife in our politics and rampant in our media. So we look for places to hide – in Turner Classic Movies or in the “The Voice” or in the football games we enjoy.

I was looking for a metaphor from antiquity to capture the news flow of the 2017 American Thanksgiving. I stumbled across the familiar story of Persephone. In Greek mythology, she was the daughter of Zeus and queen of the underworld. In Roman tradition she was called Proserpina (Proserpine).

She was abducted by Hades (Pluto), who made her his queen. For four months of each year the world would lie barren as Persephone’s mother, Demeter, goddess of the harvest, mourned the loss of her daughter to the shadows of Pluto’s underworld. But with Persephone’s annual return to the sunlight world came spring that would segue to summer and abundance. The late and great chronicler of mythology, Thomas Bulfinch, describes what happened when Venus instructed her son Cupid to shoot the dart that triggered the abduction and rape of Proserpine by Pluto. Bernini’s magnificent sculpture depicts this story, too. I have admired that sculpture, which is found in the Borghese Gallery in Rome. It is a must-see for any visitor: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Rape_of_Proserpina_2_-_Bernini_-_1622_-_Galleria_Borghese,_Rome.jpg.

So why introduce this ancient story, difficult and troubling (not unlike the news flow in 2017) as we approach our uniquely American holiday of Thanksgiving? The myth of Persephone is certainly a story of violation and destruction; yet it is also a story of resilience, recovery, and renewal. And as ancient Greeks found solace and hope in the return of spring, we can also find solace and healing in the microcosms of American life.

A group of us (seven people) recently went on a post-hurricane fact-finding visit to Key West and five other Keys. On Big Pine Key we saw folks rebuilding their lives and houses and neighborhoods after the devastation Irma inflicted. My colleagues and I interviewed them and heard their stories of survival.

We encountered and supported the American philanthropy that is assisting them. Not government action, which is slow and tedious. Not fights between insurers over whether the damage was done by wind or by water. No, this is philanthropy from organizations with good governance that direct 100% of the money raised to the beneficiaries. This is assistance from organizations that have internal anti-cronyism rules. That is what we saw at work.

In Big Pine Key, you can stand on a road where the water level from the storm surge was at one point many feet above your head. I stood there. The devastation around me was nearly total and measurable in tons of debris.

But the resilience of the local folks is a magnificently positive force, an expression of the American spirit. We are thankful for it.

So there are two metaphors in this missive. In the first, Pluto emerges from the darkness of the earth and abducts Proserpina, whose periodic return results in spring, summer, and harvest. In the second, the Florida Keys are engulfed in a great storm born out of the ocean but are now recovering and rebuilding.

Water and wind are being rebuffed by human spirit. Please note that many volunteers from around the country have traveled to the Keys at their own expense to help with the cleanup and rebuilding. Our group talked with six of them.

The American Thanksgiving spirit is not extinct. We celebrate its endurance – in spite of the political leadership we have elected. And most of us go on about our daily lives in a positive, constructive, neighborly way, even as we also worry about the ugliness that seems so pervasive.

I’ll end with a quote from a British poet, Algernon Charles Swinburne (1839–1919), an excerpt from “The Garden of Proserpine.” The poem seems to encapsulate our present, conflicted world even though it was penned at about the same time that Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving as a national holiday.

At the beginning of his elegy, Swinburne writes:

“Here, where the world is quiet;
Here, where all trouble seems
Dead winds’ and spent waves’ riot
In doubtful dreams of dreams;
I watch the green field growing
For reaping folk and sowing,
For harvest-time and mowing,
A sleepy world of streams.

“I am tired of tears and laughter,
And men that laugh and weep;
Of what may come hereafter
For men that sow to reap;
I am weary of days and hours,
Blown buds of barren flowers,
Desires and dreams and powers
And everything but sleep….”

And near the end of the poem, he writes:

“From too much love of living,
From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives for ever;
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea.”

We wish our colleagues, clients, and readers a pleasant Thanksgiving respite and a safe holiday journey.

David R. Kotok
Chairman and Chief Investment Officer
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