Giving Thanks for Thanksgiving And Sarah Josepha Hale
Brent Stocker, left, and Jari MÃ¤nnistÃ¶ pour concrete to set part of MÃ¤nnistÃ¶'s sculpture in place on the site of the Sarah Josepha Hale Memorial Park in Newport, N.H. on November 11, 2013. MÃ¤nnistÃ¶ spent a year designing the molds and creating the many bronze and steel pieces that form the complete project in Finland, and is now spending six weeks in the area during installation. The park has its grand opening on November 23, the 150th anniversary of Thanksgiving, which she was instrumental in making a national holiday. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage) Purchase photo reprints »
A bronze bust of Sarah Josepha Hale presides over the Memorial Park in her name in Newport, N.H. on November 11, 2013. The park has its grand opening on November 23, the 150th anniversary of Thanksgiving, which Hale was instrumental in making a national holiday. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage) Purchase photo reprints »
An oil portrait of Hale by James R. Lambdin
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Sarah Josepha Hale, the literary grande dame born in 1788 in Newport, N.H., didn’t lack for accomplishments. She persuaded Abraham Lincoln, after a determined letter-writing campaign, to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday. She was an abolitionist and the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, which made her the first woman editor of any American magazine.
She had 30 published books to her credit, among them one of the first American novels to criticize slavery. She helped raise funds to complete the Bunker Hill monument in Boston. She was also a teacher who wrote about the importance of education and equality for women in such traditionally male professions as medicine. And, even if you haven’t read a word of her novels, you probably know by heart the words to a little ditty she wrote in 1830: “Mary had a little lamb. Its fleece was white as snow.”
In 1956, the Richards Free Library in Newport named a literary award in her honor, which is given annually to a distinguished writer with a body of work and a connection to New England. Robert Frost was the first recipient, and Richard Russo the most recent.
But what Hale has not had until now is a public monument in her birthplace that recognizes her role in both the history of the town, and the nation.
So when a Newport resident approached the trustees of the library, and suggested that there be a memorial to the town’s most famous citizen, they didn’t hesitate. This same resident, who prefers to remain anonymous, has underwritten the entire cost of the bronze memorial, which stands in a small park outside the library on Newport’s Main Street.
“It’s a complete gift and a marvelous gift,” said Andrea Thorpe, the director of the Richards Free Library.
The memorial park will be formally dedicated on Saturday, Nov. 23, at 3 p.m. to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s proclamation of Thanksgiving as a national holiday.
Designed and executed by Finnish sculptor Jari Mannisto, the monument comprises seven free-standing elements illustrating aspects of Hale’s life that encircle a bronze millstone laid in the ground. The manacled hands of a slave represent Hale’s dedication to the abolitionist cause; an obelisk symbolizes the Bunker Hill monument; a teetering pile of books, her literary output; a pen, not only her correspondence with Lincoln, but the adage that the pen is mightier than the sword. An old-fashioned cast-iron street lamp shows in silhouette a girl and her lamb.
Over them all stands an imposing bust of Hale herself, which Mannisto based on two portraits of her, one as a young woman and the other as an older widow. Borrowing from such disparate influences as the French Baroque, fairy tales, surrealism and his own work, Mannisto cast the bust in his studio in Hameenlinna, Finland, 60 miles north of Helsinki. The woman looking out onto Newport’s green wears an expression of doughty determination.
Mannisto conceived of the memorial as a narrative in bronze and granite. “It’s like a story,” he said in rough English.
Hale is “not talked about a lot,” said Thorpe. Why she slipped from view, in contrast to other famous women of her era such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Margaret Fuller and Sojourner Truth, may have to do with the fact that “she didn’t believe women should be given the right to vote,” Thorpe said.
Hale thought that gains for women were better achieved at a gradual pace within the system than without. Such incrementalism was far removed from the more forceful rhetoric of Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Susan B. Anthony, and with the advent of the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, Hale’s old-fashioned convictions must have seemed reactionary.
However, as Thorpe pointed out, in her position as editor of the most widely read women’s magazine in the U.S. in the 19th century, Hale commanded a wide sphere of influence that brought her into many women’s homes, and she was a respected voice on many issues important to women.
With such an American subject, why go all the way to Finland to find a sculptor? To make a long story short, Mannisto is friends with the donor, and had already designed a sculpture in town that stands outside the Senior Center. He is an appropriate choice, Thorpe said, given that the town has a sizeable Finnish community that dates back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
At home in Finland, where he is a well-regarded artist, Mannisto works more in wood and steel than bronze. In 2012, he worked with the American director and artist Robert Wilson in casting bronzes designed by Wilson for a Helsinki exhibition devoted to the famous 20th-century Finnish designer Tapio Wirkkala, who worked in glass, metal and sculpture.
Mannisto’s big installations, both in galleries and museums and in outdoor exhibition spaces, are abstract pieces, some of which feature wry salutes to Finnish culture. Out of wooden bricks he built a large boot that is an unmistakable replica of the traditional boot worn by Lapps in the north of Finland. Another work is a play on words: he built, also out of wooden bricks, a copy of the famous HOLLYWOOD sign, but with a critical difference. Take out one “L” and you have HOLY WOOD.
“Usually what I make is so different from this,” Mannisto said.
But he had no hesitation in taking up the challenge of making a monument to Hale. “He became more and more excited the more he read about her,” Thorpe said.
Mannisto painted the walls of his studio to look like Newport, so he could situate his casts of Hale in an approximation of the real site, as well as adjusting for the height of the monument and sight lines. He was struck, he said, once he began work on the project, by how relatively few women have been honored with memorials or monuments. Soldiers, generals, statesmen, explorers, yes; women, not as many.
“In most countries it’s usually the men,” said Peter Irwin, chair of the library’s board of trustees.
Mannisto, who’s been supervising the installation of the memorial and refining certain details since the middle of October, will head back to Finland after the ceremony. “I hope that I can make something else in the U.S. I really hope,” he said. Musing on the chains of coincidence that brought him thousands of miles to a small town to make a memorial to a long-dead American, he said, “It’s a funny life.”
Nicola Smith can be reached at email@example.com