06 November 2020

"We Gather Together" with Denise Kiernan

This week, rather than do actual work, I am ceding this space in part to my lovely and brilliant wife Denise Kiernan, a New York Times bestselling author whose latest book, a narrative nonfiction history titled We Gather Together: A Nation Divided, A President in Turmoil, and a Historic Campaign to Embrace Gratitude and Grace, arrives in stores next week.

Denise was given 50 minutes to complete this short survey, and permitted access to a No. 2 pencil, a cup of coffee, and a large glazed doughnut to assist her in nailing down her answers. And yes, the doughnut was local and organic. We’re not animals.

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The publisher says this book is “the biography of an idea.” What’s the idea? I thought it was about Thanksgiving. I’m so confused.
What is thanksgiving, really, but an idea? How’s that for vague? The book looks at American history through the lens of our culture’s relationship to giving thanks. But first, obviously, we stop in Ancient Rome. The idea is one of communities and cultures coming together in gratitude, and how that timeless practice evolved into the American holiday of thanksgiving and how that, in turn, has changed over the years. And guess what? That holiday is primed to evolve again.

At the heart of the book is a lady in black. (Sorry, this is a mystery blog, and I just wanted to make her sound mysterious.) But she does always wear black. And she edits a magazine. And she has opinions, causes, crusades. Many of them, in fact. Can you tell us about her?
Sarah Josepha Hale was the O.G. influencer. She was a widow (hence the black wardrobe—not much mystery there) with five kids and no formal education who went on to edit Godey’s Lady’s Book, one of the most influential magazines of the 19th century. She wrote about what to wear, how to cook, who to read. The Lady’s Book “editress”—as she called herself—wielded a unique kind of power and influence at a time when she didn’t even have the right to vote. But she didn’t do so only to sell copies of her magazine. She created anthologies of the writings of other women, highlighting and sharing their talents. She gave invaluable boosts to some men as well: Emerson, Hawthorne, Longfellow. She used her media pulpit to raise funds for libraries, veterans and their widows, monuments to their memory, and more. In doing so, she encouraged others to follow her lead. Her influence—despite the limits put on her at the time by her gender—has carried through to this very day. So yes, she is and was one of the most prolific writers I’ve ever encountered: poems, novels, recipe books, hostess manuals, anthologies of notable women, book reviews, you name it. Reading about her made me seriously question what the hell I’ve been doing with my time.

What are some of the newfangled ideas Hale promoted—and are any of them still in practice?
Despite her noir attire—see what I did there?—she promoted the idea of brides wearing white, à la Queen Victoria. She wrote a little ditty called “Mary’s Lamb” (i.e., “Mary Had a Little Lamb”) which remains one of the most-sung rhymes in all American kid-dom. She also thought Christmas trees would catch on, and promoted them to her readership. Jury’s still out on that one, I suppose.

You’re writing nonfiction, so there’s research involved. Can you tell us about some of the cool stuff you found as you were digging? And please brag about what a great little shopper your husband has become in pandemic times, buying strange old magazines online for your researching pleasure.
Learning about how Hale published a lot of people before they were “big” names—Washington Irving, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Nathaniel Hawthorne—was fascinating. Oh, that reminds me: My husband, who is constantly bragging about his online shopping prowess, somehow neglected to pick up a very specific vintage copy of a certain little magazine for me. [That original copy of Hales magazine is very expensive, and rare book dealers are chiselers!—Ed.] My husband does, however, buy white and brown rice by the ton, and invests in various Harry Potter miniatures for our Christmas village. I, on the other hand, insisted on the North Pole-dancing elves in the seedier part of our planned holiday burg.

Everyone knows the story of how Lincoln grew his beard because 11-year-old Grace Greenwood Bedell wrote and told him to Go Forth and Be Hirsute. Why don’t more people know of Hale’s connection to Honest Abe?
Well, I wouldn’t agree with you that everyone knows the Abe-Grace-Beard story. But I hear you. As far as Hale and Lincoln are concerned, all I can say is that there are many people throughout history who played integral roles in key events of the American story who get little or no credit. Starting in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the fictionalized version of thanksgiving took hold and caught on. An ebon-clad widow who edited a women’s magazine and wrote letters just didn’t catch on. However, Hale is the reason we celebrate this holiday at the same time year after year.

We here at Sleuthsayers burn candles at the feet of our patron saint, Edgar Allan Poe. What can you tell us about his association with “The Editress,” Mrs. Hale?
Hale and Poe (and his small family) resided in Philadelphia at the same time. He was editing Graham’s Magazine in the same period when Sarah Josepha Hale was editing Godey’s. Hale was one of the very first publishers of Poe’s work, and arguably not only introduced him to a much wider audience, but also enjoyed the best relationship of any editor with this rather troublesome writer. Before Hale ever ran any of his work in full, her magazine reviewed one of his first books, and though describing his prose as “boyish,” nevertheless said the then-unknown author showed “genius.” Shortly after publishing that assessment, Hale received a letter from her son, David, who attended West Point with Poe. David asked his mother to consider more of Poe’s work, and she willingly did. Poe also proposed to write—and Hale accepted to edit—a long-running gossip column that poked fun at several literary figures in New York City. That scathing column immediately stoked controversy among the literati and forced the publisher of Hale’s magazine to issue what we would today consider the classic disclaimer: “the opinions expressed herein are those of the author, not the publisher.”

[Okay, Joe, just FYI: I’m done with the coffee. Switching to wine. –DK]

Is it true that several women in the Midwest, upon reading a certain story of Poe’s in the pages of Godey’s Magazine, either a) had their hair turn green overnight, or b) systematically walled up their husbands in farmhouse walls?Okay, yes, the most famous of Poe’s works that appeared first in Hale’s magazine before achieving much greater acclaim was “The Cask of Amontillado.” [Oh yeah—my intrepid online-shopping hubby also failed to find that particular publication for me as well. But hey—I have a fun Borgin & Burke’s replica to set up in my village next to the “Elf”-inspired Gimbel’s department store that stands around the corner from our Scrooge & Marley’s counting house.]

Your book spans (literally) the dawn of time to the present day as it contemplates the power of myth and the benefits of embracing gratitude. Can you tell us anything more about Hales magnificent obsession?
What can I say? The woman liked a well-cooked bird. Sarah Josepha Hale accomplished much in her lifetime, but her crowning achievement was convincing a president, Abraham Lincoln, to establish a national day of thanks after writing to ask four of his presidential predecessors—as well as numerous governors, ambassadors, and the like—to do the same. Her fascination with the idea of Thanksgiving started early and first appears in her novel, Northwood, published in 1827, in which she describes a “Thanksgiving supper surrounded by a large family” and an indulgent meal in which … “The roasted turkey took precedence on this occasion, being placed at the head of the table; and well did it become its lordly station, sending forth the rich odor of its savory stuffing, and finely covered with the frost of the basting.” And, and, and. On it goes. The woman liked a fancy meal and the table setting to match it. She never relinquished the idea, and in the 1852 reissue of Northwood, there is a pointed update. One of her protagonists announces that although Thanksgiving was not yet a national holiday observed throughout America, he felt certain that … “I trust it will become so … When it shall be observed, on the same day throughout all the states and territories, it will be a grand spectacle of moral power and human happiness.” At a time when the country was deeply divided, nothing seemed more important to Hale than officially recognizing gratitude. It took her decades, but she is the reason this nation celebrates a day of thanks.

Which figure in your book would you love to invite to Thanksgiving dinner and have a socially distant beverage—or share a greasy little drumstick—with?
Poe. No question.
Wait—Frederick Douglass.
No, scratch that…Sojourner Truth.
Oh! Oh! Oh! M. F. K Fisher.
Never mind. Will you leave me a drumstick this year?

All this talk is making me hungry. What’s for dinner?
You can have the rest of my doughnut.

Can you tell the nice folks about your tour in closing?
I hit the virtual road on Tuesday, November 10, talking about We Gather Together with different interviewers for every event. Autographed bookplates are available from a variety of independent bookstores, and I am available on the interwebs for the foreseeable future, such as it is.

Website: Denisekiernan.com

Instagram: Instagram.com/iamdenisekiernan

Twitter: Twitter.com/denisekiernan

Facebook: Facebook.com/DeniseKiernanAuthor

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Join me in three weeks, when I will blow your minds about that magical, wondrous holiday, Christmas!



  1. Thanks for the visit! The Hale Poe connection is a delightful tidbit.

  2. Thanks for the visit! The Hale Poe connection is a delightful tidbit.

  3. Loved everything about this blog post, and thank you, Denise, for your witty summation of what was obviously a lot of research. Looking forward to the book, too!

    1. Thanks, Eve! It was a lot of work, definitely, but the kind I like and incredibly rewarding. I also love the way all this nonfiction overlaps with some of my favorite fiction writers, Poe included. And, ya know, gratitude...always important. Hope you enjoy the end result!

  4. That's quite a literary journey. Enjoyed the education and the humor although… (grumble, grumble) no one saved ME a doughnut!

    Joe, thanks for inviting your wife. Love the addition.

    1. Thanks, Leigh! And yes...we owe you a doughnut.

  5. By the way, Joe, I'd heard of an obscure high school writing of Hemingway. Rob applied his brilliant librarian research skills and managed to track down a copy, an explanatory lead-up to his most (in)famous short story, The Killers.

  6. Joe, this sounds great. Congrats, Denise, on the new book!

  7. Hi John! Sorry we won't be chatting it up at Square Books. Next tour... Hope you like the latest, and hope you're well.


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