Looking for a great non-fiction read? Look no further.

The Specter of Salem: Remembering the Witch Trials in Nineteenth-Century America. By Gretchen Adams. University of Chicago, 2008.

The tragedy of the 1692 Salem witch trials has been told often. What makes Gretchen Adams’s study a revelation is that she picks up the story after the final witches were hanged. Hers is a look at the ways in which 1692 was a metaphor for nineteenth-century Americans. As such, Adams looks more at the deliberate construction of memories of Salem rather than the history of the witch trials.

Various groups evoked Salem for their own purposes, but the consistent theme is that Salem—and by extension, the Puritans—became shorthand for intolerance, bigotry, and superstition. Gone from the nineteenth-century analysis were serious discussions of Puritan ideology or the conditions that led to social collapse; Cotton Mather and Samuel Parris reemerge as inquisitors and “cautionary tales” (7) on the dangers of fanaticism. The great illogic of this is that one person’s fanaticism is another’s piety. We are this treated to the delicious irony of antebellum Protestant ministers evoking Mather’s fanaticism in zealous campaigns against Roman Catholicism; and perplexing scenarios in which both pro- and anti-slavery apologists evoked Salem to tar the other with superstition and intolerance.

Adams deftly notes that the malleability of Salem is linked to the fact that the new American nation arising at the end of the 18th century lacked “history, memory, or tradition” and needed “to invent all three too transform Revolutionary ideology into national values.” (11) New Englanders were placed in a particularly difficult bind—at the very moment in which peripatetic former residents sought to promote the idea of “New England as nation” (44) they faced charges that they embodied the narrow-mindedness of their Puritan forbearers. They countered this through intellectual legerdemain. First New Englanders led the country in public education and thus controlled the content of school books. This allowed them to rewrite Salem “as an opportunity for a related lesson about American moral progress.” (55) As the century progressed, writers carefully delineated virtuous Separatist Pilgrims from bigoted Puritans mired in British—read foreign—customs, religion, and legal systems. This afforded psychological projectionist opportunities in which Spiritualism, Mormonism, Catholicism, and ‘wrong’ forms of Protestantism could be attacked as Salem-like returns to superstition—acts of zealotry cloaked as protecting the nation and public interest!

The fly in the ointment was sectionalism. Southern slave-owners began to attack abolitionism as a “mania,” (107) cast New Englanders as intolerant, and charge (correctly) that Northerners were eager to engage in “cultural forgetting” (113) by ignoring their own slaveholding past. Southerners even used “witch-burning” tropes to whip up fears of Northern bigotry, an ahistorical allegation, but one effective enough to allow serious men to see Abraham Lincoln as the second coming of Cotton Mather. During Reconstruction Southerners such Henry Grady evoked Salem in pleas for a non-prejudicial reconciliation, code for leaving racial equality off the political table.

Adams ends her analysis with Reconstruction, leaving room for a future study of how Salem was understood in the Gilded Age. She did, however, add an epilogue that touches upon the various ways Salem was evoked from the 20th century on: to attack prohibition defenders, to belittle the persecutors of John Scopes, to resist the Red Scare, and even to cast Ken Starr as Cotton Mather during the Clinton impeachment proceedings. In her concise and compelling coda Adams makes several astute observations—that Salem has been a more resilient code for intolerance than McCarthyism; and that how we view Salem owes more to Nathaniel Hawthorne and Arthur Miller than to the lived past. More than three hundred years later, Salem continues to warn Americans “that there [are] limits both to liberty and to power.” (158)

This slim provocative volume comes highly recommended. It is proof that the usable past exists, albeit not always in ways that make historians comfortable with liberties taken in the telling.--LV

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