The most famous pumpkin in the United States is not found in literature, but rather in the cheerily autumnal Starbucks merchandising that announces the yearly return of the much beloved Pumpkin Spice Latte. The cultish drink continues to spawn think pieces, grotesquely adorable DIY recipes, greeting cards, and even a surprisingly lengthy Wikipedia page. The drink has been celebrated, maligned, and the subject of a controversy involving the FDA, and in the 12 years since its launch has managed to topple Cinderella’s carriage from its position at the front of the pumpkin patch.
So it makes sense that in order to have a productive conversation about pumpkins (and I assure you it is essential we do so), we must exclude the Pumpkin Spice Latte from our discussion, lest it thrust all other notable pumpkins into the shade. And what of that other celebrity pumpkin, seen on doorsteps everywhere the week before Halloween? Well, dear reader, it pains me to inform you that the Jack-o-lantern must be excluded as well, on the shocking basis that HE IS ACTUALLY A LARGE RUTABAGA. That’s right—it turns out the likely source material for the beloved Jack-o-lantern, the Irish legend Stingy Jack, actually refers to a hollowed-out turnip or rutabaga rather than a pumpkin.
So excluding lattes and rutabagas, let us turn to literature, and the six most famous literary pumpkins of all time.
Cinderella’s Pumpkin Carriage (The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, by Charles Perrault)
While Cinderella is a very, very old story, with the earliest version dating all the way back to 7 B.C., most of the key markers we associate with it come from Cendrillon, the 17th-century Charles Perrault retelling. It’s from Perrault that we get the benevolent fairy godmother, the lizards that turn into footmen and the mice that turn into horses, the fragile glass slippers, and the pumpkin carriage itself (basically everything good about Disney’s Cinderella except for Lucifer the cat—and seriously, what would that movie be without Gus Gus? Or that beautiful bit of animation with the pumpkin transformation?) A very famous pumpkin indeed, Cinderella’s carriage has enjoyed several centuries of acclaim and will no doubt continue to do so.
The Shattered Pumpkin (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, by Washington Irving)
It’s hard to feel sorry for the Ichabod Crane of Irving’s tale, a scrawny opportunist out to marry an 18-year-old for her money (this is in comparison to the extremely sympathetic—and dishy—Ichabod Crane of the delightful television show Sleepy Hollow…but then the only things those two properties have in common is their proper nouns). Still, he probably didn’t deserve his fate: tormented and attacked by a terrifying headless horseman that may or may not have been his rival riding with a pumpkin “head” on his saddle and then apparently vanishing off the face of the earth, leaving behind his horse, his saddle, and a shattered pumpkin. Sadly, the Shattered Pumpkin never rose to the heights of Cinderella’s pumpkin carriage, but has been ranked among solid B-list pumpkin celebrities since the first half of the 19th century.
Jack Pumpkinhead (The Marvelous Land of Oz, by L. Frank Baum)
Jack Pumpkinhead first appeared in The Marvelous Land of Oz, the second of Baum’s Oz series. He’s a dapper gentleman with a jack-o-lantern for a head (an actual pumpkin, not a rutabaga), purple trousers, and a pink-and-white polka-dotted vest, who lives in a pumpkin-shaped house and gets into a great number of adventures with his friends. Since his heads decay like normal pumpkins, he has to continually grow new ones, which Princess Ozma carves. Despite not always being very bright (his intelligence may depend on the number of seeds in his current head), he’s apparently quite a gifted architect, designing a luxurious corn-shaped mansion for the Scarecrow later in the series. A good pumpkin to have as a friend.
Pumpkin (Memoirs of a Geisha, by Arthur Golden)
Wait, this Pumpkin isn’t even a squash! But as a supporting character in the bestselling Memoirs of a Geisha, she briefly enjoyed about fifteen minutes of pumpkin fame in 1999, and again when the movie came out in 2005.
Feathertop, from “Feathertop,” (Mosses from an Old Manse, by Nathaniel Hawthorne)
In this sad tale, a witch builds a pumpkin-headed scarecrow to protect her garden, and in a strange twist decides it would be good fun to bring him to life, give him a human appearance, and send him off to woo the daughter of a judge. The scarecrow, named Feathertop, does as he is bid, and soon he and the daughter fall in love…that is, until they both see his true reflection in a mirror, causing the girl to faint and Feathertop to plunge headlong into a depressive existential crisis and then [SPOILER ALERT] kill himself. Feathertop: the tragic hero of pumpkins.
The Great Pumpkin (Waiting for the Great Pumpkin, by Charles M. Schulz)
The Great Pumpkin is a most important figure, a holiday giant on the lines of Santa Claus, who has one die-hard believer: Linus van Pelt. Made famous by animated television special It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, the Great Pumpkin never appears, and Linus never stops believing in it. In Waiting for the Great Pumpkin we follow Linus’s faithful wait from the beginning—and who knows, maybe this is the year it’ll finally show up in the pumpkin patch. You won’t know if you don’t wait for it.
Who is your favorite pumpkin in literature?