James Baldwin’s ‘Why He Carried the Turkey’

A wondrous short story of giving of oneself, no matter who you are.
James Baldwin’s ‘Why He Carried the Turkey’
“Four Turkeys,” 1654–58, by Wenceslaus Hollar. (Public Domain)

American poet Walt Whitman wrote: “Behold I do not give lectures or a little charity, when I give I give myself.” As we approach this season of giving, we must not scold, lecture, or give halfheartedly. Rather, we must give entirely. Through such wholehearted giving, we cultivate humility, gratitude, and kindness in ourselves and inspire them in others.

In his short story, “Why He Carried the Turkey,” James Baldwin follows the kind actions of an old man who carries a turkey for a proud young man. Through the old man’s actions, Baldwin shows that generous giving allows us to not only grow in virtue, but also touch and inspire others.

A Holiday Turkey

One morning in Richmond, Virginia, an old man arrives at the market to buy a good turkey for his family. This man carries a small basket and wears a hat and clothes that are old and worn. Overall, his appearance is unimpressive and poor.

Arriving at the counter, the old man asks for a fowl and is shown a wonderfully plump turkey, ready for roasting. The old man exclaims with delight, for it is the perfect turkey. After paying for the turkey, the old man receives it, wrapped in paper, and places it into his basket.

Just as he finishes this transaction, a young man approaches the counter, dressed in fine clothes and holding a cane. “I will take one of those turkeys,” he says. He pays for the bird, asks for it to be wrapped, and requests that it be delivered to his door.

However, the market man says that he has no one to deliver the turkey. The young man will just have to carry the turkey home himself. Hearing this, the young man is taken aback: “Carry it myself! Who do you think I am? Fancy me carrying a turkey along the street!”

Wholehearted Giving

Seeing that the young man grows more and more angry, the old man steps forward and asks the younger man where he lives. Upon acquiring the address, the older replies, “I happen to be going that way, and I will carry your turkey, if you will allow me.”

With that, the old man picks up the young man’s turkey and follows him home. After delivering the turkey, he refuses any payment for his services, bows, and heads on.

The young man is baffled. And, as he walks back to the market to inquire who the generous old man is, the young man realizes how much the older man inspires him to be grateful, kind, and humble. Who the older man is provides a wonderful ending to this story. The author emphasizes that the older man does not inspire through a lecture or scolding, but through an act of kindness and generosity.

In this story, Baldwin encourages us to not only be grateful for every gift we receive, but also adopt the spirit of humility and generous giving. This story emphasizes French novelist Marcel Proust’s words: “Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.”

When we cultivate gratitude for everything we have and receive, we will never be poor. When we are kind and generous, we help plant seeds of virtue in other’s hearts. We then can sow and reap virtue all around us.

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Kate Vidimos is a 2020 graduate from the liberal arts college at the University of Dallas, where she received her bachelor’s degree in English. She plans on pursuing all forms of storytelling (specifically film) and is currently working on finishing and illustrating a children’s book.
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