Reading the Roots of America’s Literary Pumpkins

Alice Patchett

Alice Patchett squashes some myths surrounding this seasonal icon, and explains how the associations between pumpkins and the supernatural can be found carved into America’s earliest literature.

Is any object more evocative of Halloween than the pumpkin? Its most common incarnation at this time of year might be the Jack O’ Lantern, but even uncarved, we collectively imbue the pumpkin with the festival’s supernatural and malign connotations. The relationship between pumpkins and darkness is so deeply entrenched in our collective consciousness that we rarely question it: pumpkins just are creepy.

Scholarship on the subject tends to contextualise this relationship in terms of Irish tradition, asserting that unprecedented numbers of Irish immigrants, arriving in America in the mid-19th-century, replaced their traditional root vegetable jack o’lanterns with more readily available pumpkins. However, charting the pumpkin’s appearance in America’s earliest literature sheds light on conceptual connections between pumpkins and the supernatural which exist outside of this history. The appropriation of the pumpkin for Halloween purposes arguably grew out of a cultural landscape in which the crop was already associated with all things unsettling.

It helps to understand the role pumpkins played in the early decades of colonial America. ‘New England’s Annoyances’, a folksong thought to have been composed around 1643, reflects that:

Stead of pottage and puddings and custards and pies,
Our turnips and parsnips are common supplies.
We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon,
If it was not for pumpkins, we should be undone.

In short, the pumpkin was regarded as a scarcity crop, with food scholar Mark McWilliams noting that, ‘in a period of extraordinary privation, the pumpkin offered sustenance to a desperate people.’ As the nation developed and populations shifted into rapidly expanding urban centres, the colonial past was idealised in the national imagination. The pumpkin’s central role in this past was not forgotten: McWilliams points out that 19th-century writers Sarah Josepha Hale and Lydia Maria Child both use the image of pumpkin pie to evoke a nostalgic American past. It is John Greenleaf Whittier, however, who most clearly articulates what pumpkin was beginning to mean to Americans, in his 1850 poem ‘The Pumpkin’, asking, ‘what calls back the past, like the rich pumpkin pie?’.

Yet if the ‘past’ with which pumpkins were increasingly associated was imagined as morally upright and pleasingly rustic by some, it was also invested with a darker set of cultural memories. Many associated America’s colonial era with the stringent puritanism of early colonists like Cotton Mather, among whom fear of dark magic and religious paranoia were notorious. Highlighting the colonial era’s tendency towards superstition was an effective way for a post-revolutionary, increasingly mercantile America to understand itself as enlightened and forward-thinking, and to separate its present from its past. It would appear that the pumpkin, so evocative of America’s past, became swept up in this, and we find our first example of the gourd being associated with the supernatural in the early decades of the 19th-century.

A headless horseman pursues a man on a horse
The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane (1858), by John Quidor [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
This example is The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving, published in 1820. The story’s most infamous pumpkin belongs toan apparently gigantic and spectral horseman, who chases down the story’s protagonist, Ichabod Crane, and hurls his ‘head’ at him; when a search party embarks the next day, there is no sign of the unfortunate Ichabod but only his hat, with a ‘shattered pumpkin’ lying beside it.

Pumpkins also appear in the pies, fields and farms of the autumnal Sleepy Hollow. The cultivation of these pumpkins is part of a key dynamic in the narrative. Ichabod hopes to inherit farmland in the village and sell up, so that this agricultural land ‘might be readily turned into cash.’ This is juxtaposed with the inhabitants of the curiously still and unchanging Sleepy Hollow, who participate in a far more old-fashioned form of agriculture. Kristin Van Tassel notes the way that Sleepy Hollow’s farms evoke self-sufficiency, and suggests that beneath this ‘seeming celebration of the subsistence farm’ is a ‘subtle indication of the priorities accompanying the emergence of the new market economy,’ characterised by Crane’s plans for the farmland. However, Crane has been taken in by ‘the witching influence of the air,’ and believes as fervently as the rest of the villagers in the existence of the phantom Headless Horseman. Thus, when Crane is tricked by a villager masquerading as the ghoul, who hurls the pumpkin at Crane to scare him off for good, the vegetable becomes a symbol of Sleepy Hollow’s resistance to modernising forces. The superstitious traditions of rural America have allowed them to fight back against agricultural modernisation, and anxieties of a changing nation and the supernatural are united in the pumpkin.

In 1852, The Headless Horseman was joined by another pumpkin-headed character, the eponymous scarecrow in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story Feathertop. In the story, a rural New England witch creates Feathertop from unused and obsolete objects lying around her farmyard, including an old broomstick, a bag of straw, and a ‘disabled flail’.

Pumpkin scarecrow

She sends her creation into a bustling town to negotiate with the inhabitants of a modern, urban America. Hawthorne builds on tensions identified by Irving between urban and rural, again appropriating the pumpkin as emblematic of these tensions. Moreover, Hawthorne imagines America’s archaic rural spaces as home to characters with supernatural powers and not entirely benevolent motives, again highlighting the perceived centrality of superstition and belief in magic in America’s past. These ideas are embodied by Feathertop, the bewitched scarecrow, and Hawthorne’s choice of a ‘withered and shrivelled pumpkin’ with a ‘mysterious kind of smile’ for the character’s head therefore strengthens already-established links between historical agriculture, the supernatural and the pumpkin.

The ideas that pumpkins represent in these narratives have much in common with those at the heart of Halloween: boundaries between past and present, the supernatural, and the liminal moment, whether seasonal or societal. These days, pumpkins are constantly used as visual shorthand for the malign, in creations as iconic as John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and as recent as Stranger Things 2 (2017). Exploring the literary landscape from which these depictions have emerged illuminates a complex imaginative interplay between American history, farming, and the supernatural which belies this most ubiquitous of Halloween images.

Alice Patchett is a second-year PhD student studying the impact of national agricultural history on the American Gothic and its literary legacies. She is particularly interested in instances in which crops are associated with horror, anxiety and the supernatural, and the various collective anxieties surrounding American agriculture which these convey.

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