Thanksgiving in the Age of Trump

Norman Rockwell, "Freedom from Want"

Norman Rockwell, “Freedom from Want”


For Thanksgiving, I’m posting a passage from James Joyce that I hope does not describe your family feast. Although Thanksgiving is meant to bring families together, the results of this bruising election may tear some families apart. The Washington Post just ran an article on “Surviving Thanksgiving When You Hate How Your Family Voted.”

If it’s any consolation, this isn’t only an American problem. In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a Christmas dinner is destroyed when the company splinters between Catholics and Irish nationalists. The conversation centers on Charles Stewart Parnell, who led efforts at home rule but then fell into into disgrace after the world learned of his affair with Kitty O’Shea. He died soon afterward. Here’s an excerpt:

–God and religion before everything! Dante cried. God and religion
 before the world.
Mr Casey raised his clenched fist and brought it down on the table with
 a crash.
–Very well then, he shouted hoarsely, if it comes to that, no God for 
–John! John! cried Mr Dedalus, seizing his guest by the coat sleeve.
Dante stared across the table, her cheeks shaking. Mr Casey struggled
 up from his chair and bent across the table towards her, scraping the
 air from before his eyes with one hand as though he were tearing aside 
a cobweb.
–No God for Ireland! he cried. We have had too much God In Ireland.
 Away with God!
–Blasphemer! Devil! screamed Dante, starting to her feet and almost
 spitting in his face.

 Uncle Charles and Mr Dedalus pulled Mr Casey back into his chair again,
 talking to him from both sides reasonably. He stared before him out of
 his dark flaming eyes, repeating:
–Away with God, I say!
Dante shoved her chair violently aside and left the table, upsetting
 her napkin-ring which rolled slowly along the carpet and came to rest
 against the foot of an easy-chair. Mrs Dedalus rose quickly and followed her towards the door. At the door Dante turned round violently
 and shouted down the room, her cheeks flushed and quivering with rage:
–Devil out of hell! We won! We crushed him to death! Fiend!
The door slammed behind her.

 Mr Casey, freeing his arms from his holders, suddenly bowed his head on
 his hands with a sob of pain.
–Poor Parnell! he cried loudly. My dead king!
He sobbed loudly and bitterly.

 Stephen, raising his terror-stricken face, saw that his father’s eyes
 were full of tears.

Political passions—or perhaps more accurately, political fears—threaten to make us one dimensional. We need to be bigger than what divides us.

The dinner interchange follows Casey’s recollection of a scene following Parnell’s downfall. After a meeting of Parnell followers, he has to wade into a group resembling a Trump rally:

We were down there at a meeting and after the meeting was over we had to make our way to the railway station through the crowd. Such booing and baaing, man, you never heard. They called us all the names in the world. Well there was one old lady, and a drunken old harridan she was surely, that paid all her attention to me. She kept dancing along beside me in the mud bawling and screaming into my face: PRIEST-HUNTER! THE PARIS FUNDS! MR FOX! KITTY O’SHEA!

It is hard to fault Casey’s explosion at the Christmas dinner given all that he has seen and been through, which includes imprisonment by the British. It’s his attack on Catholic priests, however, not the English, that arouses Dante. We must remember, as we look at our own dinners with people who voted differently, that Dante is a possibly ally: she once hit a gentleman with her umbrella “because he had taken off his hat when the band played GOD SAVE THE QUEEN.” In other words, be careful who you attack in your grief.

If Hillary had won, I would be counseling my fellow Democrats to avoid Dante’s triumphalism and to listen to the pain of the Trump supporters in your family. As I am instead in Casey’s position, I point to how he is ennobled by his love for the brilliant but flawed Parnell. His passionate commitment to Irish independence elevates him, just as your commitment to tolerance, inclusivity and progressive values elevates you. Draw on that knowledge to sustain you.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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