Over the river and through the wood . . .

Chapter and Verse is a series that features JHU Press authors and editors discussing the literary landscape of poetry and prose, whether their own creative work or the literature of others.

Guest post by Angela Sorby

In 1863, when her fellow (if less fervent) anti-slavery advocate Abraham Lincoln announced the first federal observation of Thanksgiving, Lydia Maria Child had already written the holiday’s most famous verse. The poem, originally titled “A New-England Boy’s Song,” was first published in Child’s Flowers for Children (1844), but it did not circulate widely until the post-Civil War period, with the rise of near-universal free public school systems. By the late nineteenth century, educators all over the country were promoting a vision of America as a white, Anglo-Saxon nation with New England origins, and “Over the River and Through the Wood,” subtitled “A New England Boy’s Song about Thanksgiving Day,” fit the curricular agenda. Soon the piece was a recitation staple, a song, a chorus to “Pilgrims-and-Indians” pageants, and even an organized kindergarten game, with little boys serving as horses.

Through school recitation, “A New England Boy’s Song” passed into folklore, so that by 1905, James Whitcomb Riley could incorporate it into a dialect piece without citing Child at all; his “School-Boy’s Favorite” begins:

 

Over the river and through the wood

Now Grandmother’s cap I spy!

Hurrah for the fun! Is the pudding done?

Hurrah for the pumpkin-pie?

                                —School Reader

Fer any boy ‘ats little as me,

Er any little girl,

That’-un’s the goodest poetry-piece,

In any book in the worl’!

An’ ef grown-peoples wuz little ag’in

I bet they’d say so, too,

Ef they’d go see their ole Gran’ma,

Like our Pa lets us do!

 

As Riley’s poem suggests, “Over the River and Through the Wood” teaches nostalgia, even to children who are experiencing it for the first time: it is steeped in that frosty vigor that many people associate with antebellum New England.

At the same time, as it became a schoolroom favorite, the poem traveled far from its vigorously progressive political roots. In all of her writing, including her children’s books, Lydia Maria Child was a strong supporter of abolitionism, racial justice, and Native American rights. Even in Flowers for Children, the celebratory lines of “A New England Boy’s Song” are tempered by pieces addressing poverty and racism. In “The Little White Lamb and the Little Black Lamb,” for instance, an African-American woman tells a white girl, “God made the white lambs, and the black lambs. God loves them both, and made them to love each other.” When “A New England Boy’s Song” became a staple in classrooms, Child’s social vision was obscured, replaced by more anodyne public school agendas. However, her drive and energy live on in her words: “Over the river and through the wood / To Grandfather’s house we go . . .” “A New England Boy’s Song” helped establish the basic iconography of Thanksgiving as a secular national holiday, ending (as many meals still do) with a call for dessert: “Hurrah for the fun! Is the pudding done / Hurrah for the pumpkin pie!”

Following is Lydia Maria Child’s poem in full.

Over the River poem

kilcupAngela Sorby is an associate professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee. The poem in this post, along with many others, can be found in Over the River and Through the Wood, a book coedited by Karen L. Kilcup and Angela Sorby, published by Johns Hopkins Press.

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