Friday, October 19, 2012

Countdown to Halloween: John Greenleaf Whittier's "The Pumpkin" (1846)

"The Pumpkin Effigy", from Harper's Weekly, November 23, 1867, reprinted in The Ladies' Floral Cabinet, 1875 (via)
The first sight of a pumpkin on this countdown, and what's Halloween without a few pumpkins?

But then again, getting to the bottom of the relationship between pumpkins (and other carved vegetables) and Halloween isn't as simple as you might imagine. Reaching for my copy of Ronald Hutton's ever-fascinating The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, I find the following: "The traditional illumination for guisers or pranksters abroad on [Halloween] night in some places was provided by turnips or mangel wurzels, hollowed out to act as lanterns and often carved with grotesque faces to represent spirits or goblins. They were common in Ireland [...] in the late nineteenth century [...] In eastern England  they became generally known as Jack o'Lanterns [...] It is striking, however, that they are so little mentioned in English folklore collections before 1900." Even the exact significance of the carved vegetable, and the light within it, is uncertain. Hutton does suggest, though, that the development of the place of the Jack o'Lantern in American culture in the nineteenth century might be traced to "large-scale Irish immigration in the USA [...] bringing an intensive observation of the festival with it" - carved vegetables and all.

Which brings us to John Greenleaf Whittier, and his tribute to "The Pumpkin" - first published in the Boston Chronotype in 1846, and available in his 1849 Poems here. But there are complications to be found here, too. As you'll see, Whittier's evocation of the iconic squash only makes specific mention of its relationship, in the form of pie, to "Thanksgiving Day". And yet, the following stanza pays tribute to the "fruit loved of boyhood" in terms that unmistakably evoke Halloween:

Oh, fruit loved of boyhood! the old days recalling,  When wood-grapes were purpling and brown nuts were falling!  When wild, ugly faces we carved in its skin,  Glaring out through the dark with a candle within!  When we laughed round the corn-heap, with hearts all in tune,  Our chair a broad pumpkin,—our lantern the moon,  Telling tales of the fairy who travelled like steam  In a pumpkin-shell coach, with two rats for her team!
So this indicates that pumpkin carving was embedded in American culture - at least Whittier's bit of New England - before widespread Irish immigration in the 1840s. The above illustration from Harper's Weekly in 1867 was itself published to accompany a reprinting of Whittier's poem. Perhaps, then, Whittier himself should get the credit for the popularisation of the custom? Frustratingly, it looks like that issue of Harper's might have something interesting to say about the matter, with an article also entitled "The Pumpkin Effigy". Anyone got access? Care to share?

More food for thought: Nathaniel Hawthorne also uses the image in "The Great Carbuncle", a story from his 1837 collection Twice-Told Tales:
Plus, as Rob Velella highlights on the American Literary Blog, one of Whittier's greatest inspirations was Robert Burns. So there's a Halloween lineage...

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