Tedious Details

Among the books up for “adoption” and restoration at the Salem Athenaeum this spring and summer is a first (1891) edition of Caroline Upham’s Salem Witchcraft in Outline, which has the outrageous subtitle the story without the tedious detail. It’s a beautiful little book, but I just can’t get past that subtitle, a knife to the heart of any historian: THE STORY WITHOUT THE TEDIOUS DETAIL. Caroline was the daughter-in-law of the first serious historian of the Salem Witch Trials, Charles W. Upham, whose Salem Witchcraft: with an account of Salem Village and a History of Opinions on Witchcraft and Kindred Subjects (1867) approached the event and topic with unprecedented context and detail. With her Outline, she admits that she is neither a brilliant essayist nor an historian, but offers her little book to the public as one would the photograph of a notable scene, not a great original painting. And if, as it must be, the rich coloring and delicate effects are missing in the reproduction, it is hoped the drawing may be found true, and no important lines set in awry. Having been desired by the heirs of the late Charles W. Upham to draw freely from the History, paragraphs from it have been woven into the sketch giving strength to the little story, and serving the reader better than a feminine pen I could do”.  Her “photograph” is certainly framed well, with a beautiful cover, amazing fonts, and lovely pen-and-ink illustrations of the seventeenth-century houses that “witnessed” the events of 1692. I also like the “signature page” featuring the names of some of the major participants in the trials: Governor Phips, several judges, the victim John Proctor: this represents Caroline’s approach and emphasis on personal stories, which actually anticipates the focus of witchcraft histories from a century later.

Upham 009

Upham 010

Upham 013

Upham 011-001

Upham 016

So there’s a lot to like about this little book, but again, there is also that objectionable subtitle: THE STORY WITHOUT THE TEDIOUS DETAIL. For me, it’s all about the details: the details make the “story”. I do want to give Caroline the benefit of the doubt, however: it’s clear to me that nineteenth-century Salemites were tired of their witchcraft past (Nathaniel Hawthorne being the best example); they couldn’t quite conceive yet (actually Daniel Low’s witch spoon would appear at just about the same time as Salem Witchcraft in Outline, for the 200th anniversary of the Trials) how to turn their dark past into commercial opportunities. They wanted to acknowledge, but move on. So a succinct outline, produced just in time for the big anniversary, might have seemed sufficiently reverential. And I also have to admit, as one who has delved in Victorian volumes quite a bit, that nineteenth-century history writing is a bit tedious, with its focus on great men, big battles, and past politics. I can appreciate the images below, even though the first one is every professor’s worst fear!

NPG D12938; William Smyth ('A petty-professor of modern-history, brought to light') by James Gillray, published by  Hannah Humphrey

Tedious Tissot

James Gillray, William Smyth (‘A petty-professor of modern-history, brought to light’), c. 1810, ©National Portrait Gallery, London; James Tissot, The Tedious Story, c. 1872, Private Collection

 

 


4 responses to “Tedious Details

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