Us -v.- Them: Salem, 1692 edition…

I’m writing this during the first Presidential Debates, which I am NOT watching.  I dislike debates.  In fact, I dislike all arguing and conflict.  And in the case of this election and these debates, I’m also not watching because I’m saddened and amazed that anybody can listen to Donald Trump and not be terrified about the future of our country if he were to actually win.

What does this have to do with the subject of my post, the book The Witches:  Salem, 1692, by Stacy Schiff (Little, Brown & Co., 2015)?  Just this:  we Americans have succumbed to our baser instincts before, and I worry it’s distinctly possible we’ll do so again.

The Witches: Salem, 1692

The Salem Witch Trials would seem to be a historical event that has been studied ad nauseam.  But in the talented hands of Stacy Schiff, they take on a new vibrancy, malevolence, and relevance.  She sets aside theories about food poisoning, taxes, or teenage hysteria and instead lets the extant (though surprisingly sparse) documents speak for themselves.  In the process, the reader is inexorably drawn into a dark, rigid, superstitious, and confined world where people truly believed it was possible for an old woman standing in shackles right in front of judges to simultaneously be biting or pricking with pins girls in the same room.  That we can view the accusations as ridiculous from our three hundred year remove makes them no less deadly at the time.  The fact is that innocent women (and a few men) went to their deaths because of these beliefs.

Schiff has a deft, wry style of writing that makes reading this book every bit as compelling as the best crime fiction.  What struck me was that as she pieces together the puzzle of who, what, when, and where, the elusive why lurks around the edges, showing itself in inheritance disputes, economic jealousies, and pigs who ravage a neighbor’s garden.  My mother’s family has just descended into a nasty argument over a parcel of relatively low-worth farmland in Nebraska.  Before a lawsuit was threatened, I had difficulty understanding how families could turn against each other.  Now I have a better idea.  Which made reading the book that much more poignant.

I can say that I am something of an expert on witch beliefs, and not because (as some former students might believe)  I taught for over thirty years.  My MH thesis studied the way witches were depicted in Spanish literature and art, from Fernando de Rojas and Cervantes to Goya.  Schiff does a good job in the book of tracing how European ideas translated to New England.  What was clear in my research, what shows up repeatedly in Salem, and what I think we are seeing in our current election, is a strong dose of misogyny.  Women are not to be trusted, and women who move outside acceptable social bounds are especially suspect.

The Salem Witch Trials pitted town against town, neighbor against neighbor, even husbands against wives and children against parents.  It was a case of Us v. Them taken to lethal extremes.  Those who dared to speak out against the excesses were very likely to find themselves the next to be accused.  What worries me about our country right now is that you could substitute Muslims, African-Americans, or Mexican immigrants for witches and hear the same angry, fearful rhetoric.  Arthur Miller used the Salem court papers to write The Crucible as a response to the hysteria of the McCarthy Communist “witch hunts”.  Schiff assures us that:

It turns out to be eminently useful to have a disgrace in your past; Salem endures not only as a metaphor but as a vaccine and a taunt.  It glares at us when fear paralyzes reason, when we overreact or overcorrect, when we hunt down or deliver up the alien or seditious.

I hope we reflect and remember before we go down the path of a Trump presidency.  I really do.




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