Thursday, November 28, 2013

Emancipation and Thanksgiving in Victorian America

The Thanksgiving holiday in the United States is usually traced back to a celebration at Plymouth in 1621. For years afterwards political leaders and presidents of the United States, beginning with George Washington, issued Thanksgiving proclamations and urged the nation to set aside a day late in November for public thanksgiving and prayer.

As with many holidays, the Victorians added an element of sentimentalism to the Thanksgiving tradition. Victorian postcards are filled with the elements we've come to consider essential to any Thanksgiving Day celebration: a plump, well roasted turkey, a family table lavishly set, and lovely young women busy at baking and preparing a feast for their loved ones.

In October of 1863, President Lincoln carried forward the tradition of the presidential Thanksgiving proclamation called for the last Thursday to be set aside as a "Day of Thanksgiving and Praise" to God. In the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln also urged Americans to petition "the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union."

For certain Americans, 1863 marked a year for particular Thanksgiving. On January 1, 1863, Lincoln had issued the executive order of the Emancipation Proclamation. It made the eradication of slavery an clearly declared goal of the war rending the country, and it gave hope and freedom to millions of enslaved men and women.

When Port Royal, South Carolina was captured early in the war as a blockade base, slave owning plantation owners fled, abandoning their slaves. When a call was issued for those who might come to the region to educate and help the nearly freed men and women at Port Royal, abolitionist Charlotte Forten Grimké responded to the need. She became a teacher at Port Royal, which was overseen as part of the Union Army's Department of the South by General Rufus Saxton, himself a lifelong abolitionist. In 1862, he issued his own proclamation calling for a day of thanksgiving in Port Royal.

Forten Grimké was a faithful journal keeper, and her journal, now published in various editions, is a valuable resource for those interested in 19th century American, abolitionist, and particularly Civil War history.

On November 27, 1862, Forten Grimké left a poignant entry for posterity about how she spent Thanksgiving at Port Royal, South Carolina.

Thursday, Nov. 27 [1862]. Thanksgiving Day. 
This, according to Gen. Saxton's noble Proclamation, was observed as a day of "Thanksgiving and praise." It has been a lovely day-cool, delicious air, golden, gladdening sunlight, deep blue sky, with soft white clouds floating over it. Had we no other causes the glory and beauty of the day alone make it a day for which to give thanks. But we have other causes, great and glorious, which unite to make this peculiarly a day of thanksgiving and praise. It has been a general holiday. According to Gen. Saxton's orders an animal was killed on each plantation that the people might to-day eat fresh meat, which is a great luxury to them, and indeed to all of us here. This morning a large number-Superintendents, teachers, and freed people, assembled in the little Baptist church. It was a sight that I shall not soon forget-that crowd of eager, happy black faces from which the shadow of slavery had forever passed. "Forever free!" "Forever free!" Those magical words were all the time singing themselves in my soul, and never before have I felt so truly grateful to God.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Victorian Texts Tuesday: Bram Stoker's Dracula

It wouldn't be an exaggeration to state that Abraham "Bram" Stoker loved sensational fiction. Even at university, as a member of the University Philosophical Society, he wrote a paper on "Sensationalism in Fiction and Society."

Like most authors, Stoker conceived Dracula based on a number of influences. Whitby, the northeastern coastal English town, which serves as Dracula's port of entry in the novel, was a place that Stoker knew well, being the favored site for his summer holidays. He researched European folklore in the library at Whitby and was particularly drawn to a book about the principalities of Wallachia in modern day Romania. Stoker likely drew the name Dracula from these accounts. It is a derivation of the name, Dracul, based on the chivalric Order of the Dragon, used by Vlad II and his son, Vlad III, also known as Vlad Tepes, the Impaler. He was Dracula, or son of Dracul.

Stoker also befriended Armin Vambery, a Victorian traveler, who shared stories of the Carpathian region with the Irish author. Some even speculate that Stoker's character Van Helsing may have been based on Vambery, but as appealing as the notion may be there is little proof to substantiate such a claim.

The novel itself is a rich, complex text, still studied, read, and beloved today, perhaps more influential now than it was in its own time. Told in epistolary format, the novel doesn't just follow the letters or journal entries of one character, but several, and it even utilizes fictional newspaper accounts and ship's logs to move the story along. Such a technique gives me the sense, each time I re-read the novel, that I've happened upon a treasure trove of written clues that I must piece together to draw closer to the mystery of Stoker's vampire.

Though the novel remains in print and continues to inspire films, books, and even a new, lushly produced television series starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers, it did not make Stoker a wealthy man at the time. Bram was so poor near the end of his life that he asked for assistance from the Royal Literary Fund. However, the novel was critically appreciated, even upon its release, and many recognized it for it's iconic qualities and the enormous talent of its author.

Whether you love or hate the novel, or have never experienced the story except through film and television adaptations, Stoker's Dracula has made an undeniable and indelible impact on popular culture and continues to feed our ongoing fascination with vampires.