Author Archives: Donna Seger

Set in Salem (sort of)

I have heard so many dreadful things about the new WGN series Salem that I was desperate to see it: our cable provider does not carry that station but I was able to watch it online and I also checked out the series website. It is indeed horrible, in more ways than one. Its central premise, that there were witches in Salem who themselves initiated the 1692 trials in a devilish divide-and-conquer strategy against the voiceless Puritans, sustains that mythology and ignores decades of research, but of course it is fiction, so I suppose all is well. Or is it? One of the series’ executive producers, Adam Simon, maintains that the history is fantasy but the magic is real and that Salem reflects all the knowledge we now have about the reality of European witchcraft. His reality is a strange mishmash of witchcraft folklore from the Continent, England, and the New World, with no cursing crones: a very sexy head witch, empowered by her very sexual pact with the Devil and aided by the very sexy Tituba, stores her familiar frog in her bewitched/incapacitated husband and prepares to face off against a very sexy Reverend Cotton Mather, whose father Increase burned scores of witches back in Essex (England, I presume, though to my knowledge Increase never visited there; he is better represented by his iconic assertion that”It were better that Ten Suspected Witches should escape, than that one innocent Person should be condemned”.) Geography–a sense of place–is not a strength of this show, which is odd because it is named after a place. I get the feeling that the producers and writers don’t even know where Salem is (was): the big city is New York, not Boston, and the costume designer comments that In Salem they had more [sartorial] rules than the rest of Europe. I could go on with my critique, but I think you get the picture.

Set in Salem WGN

The Streets of “Salem”, according to WGN America

This “Salem” got me thinking about other screen “Salems”, and there are many. Salem on film is a huge topic, impossible to capture in one post. If you differentiate between films that are supposed to be set in Salem (lots of Scarlet Letters, The Maid of Salem (1937), The House of the Seven Gables (1940) and several Crucibles, and films that were filmed in the actual Salem (the more recent Hocus PocusBride Wars, and American Hustle), it is more manageable. I’m more interested in the former, and it basically comes down to “Puritan films”  in the earlier part of the twentieth century and “witchcraft films” thereafter, with notable exceptions and overlap. I haven’t seen all the Scarlet Letters (the first one dates to 1911!) but I prefer the 1973 Wim Wenders version (in which Portugal stands in for 17th century Salem) to the 1995 Demi Moore film, and The House of the Seven Gables (starring Vincent Price) has nothing at all do with Hawthorne’s novel: we need a real/reel “remake”! There are also several versions of The Crucible: a 1957 French film adapted by Jean-Paul Sartre, entitled Les Sorcières de Salem, and Arthur Miller’s own 1996 adaptation, which was filmed for the most part up the coast on Hog Island in Ipswich Bay.

PicMonkey Collage

Set in Salem 1973

Set in Salem 1937

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© Copyright 2010 CorbisCorporation

Set in Salem 1957 Crucible

Posters for the 1926 and 1934 versions of the Scarlet Letter, and a screen shot of the 1973 Wim Wenders film; Posters for the Maid of Salem (1937) and The House of the Seven Gables (1940), and a photograph of the latter’s Salem opening at the Paramount Theater on Essex Street; Poster for Jean-Paul Satre’s Les Sorcières de Salem (1957).

 

 


A Scary Map of the World, with no London or Amsterdam or……Salem

On this Earth Day, it seems appropriate to feature the scary but beautiful map of the world with unfrozen polar caps created by Slovakian student/graphic artist/cartographer Martin Vargic. At first glance, the map looks like a traditional nineteenth-century decorative map of the hemispheres, but then you look closer (just click on it) and see that many unshaded coastal areas are “missing” and that new seas and lakes have opened up in the midst of continental interiors: there is an Amazon Sea in the middle of South America and a new “Artesian Sea” in Australia. The map presents a rather radical vision with sea levels 260 feet higher than today (most scientists seem to project a 3 foot rise by 2100), and consequently all the coastal cities of the eastern seaboard in North America are gone (including Salem, of course), along with those of the Gulf Coast and what looks like the entire state of Florida. Across the Atlantic, London is gone, along with Amsterdam, and DenmarkVargic, whose work can also be found here, seems to have one-upped his earlier map of the internet, which went viral earlier this year.

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Climate Vargic 1

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Map Images © Martin Vargic @ Halcyon Maps

Appendix: Climate maps are nothing new, although predictive ones certainly are. Those from the 17th through the 19th centuries seem to be more of the recording or empirical nature, like the circular map of London’s annual temperature cycle below. Things get a little bit more subjective later in the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, when “scientific racism” (and environmental determinism) tried to assert “rational” explanations for the industrial progress (and supposed superiority) of the West. The 1924 map below seems to be doing just that.

L0027564 Luke Howard, The climate of London...

L0029476 Civilization and Climate, world map

Map from Luke Howard, The Climate of London, deduced from meteorological observations, made in the Metropolis, and at various places around it…(London, 1833),Wellcome Library; and map from Ellsworth Huntingdon, Civilization and Climate (London, 1924), Wellcome Library.

 

 

 

 


Remembrance, Recreation and Reenactment

The blogger part of my brain is whirling in anticipation of this long weekend of Patriots’ Day/Easter/Marathon Monday: what to write about? I think I’ve offered up enough Easter eggs, bunnies and witches, and Patriots’ Day, the Massachusetts (and Maine) holiday which commemorates the Battles of Lexington and Concord and the beginning of the American Revolution, coincides with Marathon Monday. I have always thought of my own personal ritual–a walk or run down the Battle Road on which the British retreated back to Boston–as sort of a combination of the two holidays, a form of patriotic athleticism. But last year I had a bad cold and stayed home and watched the Marathon on television, including the horrors that unfolded at its finish line in Boston. Now, after last year, the holiday seems different, darker. I am afraid that I am a bit numbed by the nonstop media coverage of the Marathon memorial that we have experienced in the Boston area (and perhaps nationally?) over these past few weeks, so I think I’ll go back to 1775, or at least our impression or “memory” of it. After classes yesterday I flew down to Concord to catch the first day of the new exhibition at the Concord Museum, timely titled The Shot Heard Round the World: April 19, 1776, and while I was there I poked around a bit, looking for Minutemen and Redcoats–or at least their shadows.

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In Concord: the entrance to the exhibition, with a militia man inside, flints from the battlefield, a 1930 diorama, and across town, the Major John Buttrick House and adjacent monument.

Concord does commemoration very well, much better than we do here in Salem: of course they a good event to commemorate–the courageous shot heard round the world–and we have a bad one–the intolerant, irrational witch trials. But I would really like to replace the tacky, exploitative, and out-of-date Witch Museum–which is really just one BIG diorama dated circa 1971–with the tasteful and reflective Concord Museum, which seems just as concerned with Concord’s history as the making of Concord’s history. I long for an exhibition on the creation of “Witch City” but doubt I will ever see it.

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There’s another exhibition I’m looking forward to further down the road (battle and otherwise): The Battle After the Battle: the Lexington-Concord Tug of War for Revolutionary Fame, opening at the Lexington Historical Society on May 3. I thought these two towns worked together in the spirit of collaborative commemoration, but apparently not! They’ve both been in the business for quite some time, to which the Boston Globe photographs from the 1920s and 1930s below attest. As I was heading back to Salem I spotted a few present-day reenactors outside the Concord Museum: I think they’re camping out tonight so they can be on the spot, rested and ready, for tomorrow’s battles.

Concord Bridge

Lexington Green

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Reenactors in Concord (1928) and Lexington (early 1930s) © Leslie Jones, Boston Public Library, and yesterday, outside the Concord Museum.

 

 


Spring Snow

We certainly did not suffer the weight of snow dumped on the upper midwest yesterday, but T.S. Eliot’s weighty observation that April is the cruelest month seemed particularly apt when we woke up to white: and it seemed more like ice than snow! It might be aesthetically pleasing to see newly-sprouted grass and flowers frosted with white, but it does make you fear for your garden. Mother Nature is indeed a cruel master to tempt plants out of the protective earth with a warm weekend, and then slam them with an arctic frost! It was so warm a few days ago that I finally switched out the evergreen shrub in my front stoop pot with a tender purple-flowered variety, and now its leaves are black and curled. The same cats which frolicked in the back yard a few days ago are now back on their radiator perches, looking at me with suspicion.

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April is the Cruelest Month-001

iPad version of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), with really neat annotations.

 

 


Patched with Plastic

I was planning a post on tax collectors for this Tax Day, but it got too overwhelming and too depressing: as one of Lucifer’s Four Evangelists (with the usurer, the banker, and the miller (???), the tax man has been reviled for centuries, and depicted in images and prose in all sorts of unflattering ways. I don’t think anyone wants to see paintings of tax collectors on the day their returns are due, even if they are the creations of Renaissance artists (who seem to have a singular obsessions with tax farmers). So instead, I’m offering LEGO art!

T, The New York Times Style Magazine has some interesting features in its latest edition, despite a thematic focus on minimalism (not my favorite style). There is a lot of texture in the magazine, and one particular photograph stopped me in my tracks: an ancient, crumbling wall, patched with plastic. The close proximity of very new and very old is my favorite aesthetic, so I had to see more of the work of artist Jan Vormann.

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Jan Vormann/© 2014 ARS, New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

At first glance, I thought the above image was photoshopped but no, as his website and this Daily Telegraph article make clear, Vormann travels the real world and places bright LEGO blocks in the midst of conspicuous decay, drawing attention to buildings and places as part of a “Repair Manifesto”. He wants onlookers to see the holes, question why they are there, and seek their repair–except perhaps where they serve as constant reminders, as in the case of the bullet and shrapnel destruction of Berlin. How I wish he would come to Salem! We need the colorful and constant reminders of our past, and the manifesto to repair.

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Vorrman NYC Bryant Park NYC-001

Vormann Venice

Vorrmann Bamberg

Lego “repairs” in Berlin, New York City, Venice and Vormann’s hometown of Bamberg, Germany: JAN VORMANN / BARCROFT USA and Dispatchwork.

 

 


Stroll with a Goal

I walk steadfastly to work, down Lafayette Street, nearly every day all semester long, but now that Spring has finally arrived in Salem I can stroll a bit in my own neighborhood. I did just that the other day when the sun was out, with a goal but looking for flowers along the way. Last week one of my favorite Essex Street houses came on the market: the Sprague-Peabody-Silsbee House, built in 1807 for Salem merchant Joseph Sprague (with interior carving attributed to Samuel McIntre), and later enlarged and remodeled by William G. Rantoul. This is a striking Federal house, cast in a fading yellow-painted brick, with one of Salem’s best carriage houses out back. I always smile when I see it, not only because it is pleasing to look at, but also because I remember the charming couple that lived there for many years.

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Along the way: a field of flowers on Chestnut, an “antler” on Federal, and a window on Essex.

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The Sprague-Peabody-Sillsbee House, 1807: front and sides (the Rantoul additions are on the right side, I assume, and in the back–plus the balustrade?), carriage house and interior shots from the listing; exterior detail.


The Prince of Chintz under Pressure

The very first old house which enchanted me–and still does–is the Justin Smith Morrill Homestead in Strafford, Vermont, where I lived as a child. It’s a pink Gothic Revival confection, perfect in every way, and perfectly preserved. Here in Salem, we have several notable Gothic Revival houses, including conspicuous examples that were captured by Walker Evans when he passed through town and an Andrew Jackson Downing design that I walk by every day on the way to work. And then of course there is the gothicized Pickering House. All of these houses are very well-maintained: people who buy Gothic Revival houses really have to make a commitment to their preservation because the style is characterized by intricate exterior and interior detail and for the most part they do make this commitment, with the very notable apparent exception of Mario Buatta, the famous New York interior designer nicknamed the “Prince of Chintz”. In 1992, Mr Buatta purchased a very prominent Gothic Revival house located in a very prominent historic district:  the William H. Mason House (1845) in the midst of the Thompson Hill Historic District in Thompson, Connecticut. After some initial renovations he abandoned the project and the house, and its very prominent deterioration ensued. The Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation placed the property on its Most Endangered list in 2004, and last summer an online petition was launched. Things heated up last month: with the cancellation of a scheduled appearance by Buatta on March 6 by Historic New England and an article in the New York Times in which one Thompson neighbor called the designer a “New York interior desecrater” and Buatta threatened to sell the house to a funeral parlor if the complaints don’t cease and desist. Closer to the scenethe Hartford Courant has published an article today which discusses the legal remedies open to preservationists (very interesting–involving environmental laws). “Demolition by neglect” has always been incomprehensible to me, except in situations of hardship–which clearly this is not. This particular case is even more difficult to understand: surely this notoriety is bad for Mr. Buatta’s business as well as his reputation. And this is a man who has served, or continues to serve for all I know, on the board of New York City’s Historic House Trust. Let’s hope that he comes to the decision to sell or save the Mason house soon.

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Demolition by Neglect 1986-001

Demolition by Neglect Buatta

The William H. Mason House today and in 1986 (Hartford Courant and Gregory Andrews for the National Registry of Historic Places, 1986; a watercolor sketch of Mr. Buatta lounging in a Gothic-esque bed, Konstantin Kakanias for the New York Times (pinched from this great post at the Down East Dilettante).


The Princes in the Tower

As today marks the accession of Edward V in 1483, I thought I would explore visual representations of one of the most popular mysteries in English history: the princes in the tower. My students certainly love this story: everything stops when we get to this moment, and I have to let them indulge in what if history, at least for a little while. The basic facts are these: the 12-year-old prince succeeded his father Edward IV on April 9, but his uncle Richard, the Duke of Gloucester and Lord Protector, assumed the head of a regency government. The boy king, along with his younger brother Richard, was placed in “protective custody” in the Tower of London (then more of a palace then a prison), from which they never left. The Regent Richard produced evidence of their father’s prior betrothal in June of 1483, invalidating their parents’ marriage, rendering them illegitimate and enabling his own succession; at some point in August or September they disappeared. Two years later, in the end game of the long dynastic struggle that was later romantically labeled the Wars of the Roses, Henry Tudor killed Richard III on the battlefield of Bosworth and proclaimed himself King. The Tudor Dynasty commenced and along with it, the demonization of Richard III, the murderer of the Princes in the Tower, his every own nephews. This was a campaign waged most effectively by Tudor apologists Sir Thomas More in the early part of the sixteenth century, and Shakespeare later on. The skeletal remains of two bodies found in the foundation of a Tower staircase in 1674 were interred in an urn designed by Sir Christopher Wren in Westminster Abbey, marked with the inscription proclaiming that the the young king and his brother were stifled with pillows…by the order of their perfidious uncle Richard the Usurper.

NPG 4980(11); King Edward V by Unknown artist

A Sixteenth-century Portrait of Edward V, National Portrait Gallery, London

And that’s been the standard story ever since, despite continuous Riccardian attempts to point out that there were other perfidious candidates, and other scenarios. And there are. The recent discovery of Richard III’s remains renewed interest in his most famous crime for a bit, but really, curiosity about the princes’ fate always seems to be simmering under the surface: there have been repeated calls for the testing of the urn’s remains which royal and church officials have repeatedly resisted, and Westminster Abbey’s official position is that the mortal remains of two young children widely believed since the 17th century to be the princes in the tower, should not be disturbed.  So that’s where we are with this story, and that is indeed what the princes in the tower has become:  a story about two young children confronted and overwhelmed by evil, close to home. A Grimm tale. While the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries certainly contributed to the outline and character development of this story, it was the nineteenth century that filled in all the details, especially in terms of the all-important visuals. It was actually a late eighteenth-century painting, James Northcote’s Murder of the Princes in the Tower (after Shakespeare’s Richard III) that set the scene which later artists recreated in variants over the next century: young, innocent, blue-eyed angelic boys, increasingly “real”, either sleeping unaware or clutching each other in fear and apprehension, helpless in the face of encroaching evil (which is always more ominous when it is not in the picture).

(c) National Trust, Petworth House; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Princes in the Tower Mordecai

(c) Paintings Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Princes in the Tower Delaroche

Princes in the Tower Ward

Princes in the Tower Millais

James Northcote, The Murder of the Princes in the Tower (from William Shakespeare’s “Richard III”), 1786, National Trust, Petworth House; Joseph Mordecai, The Murder of the Princes in the Tower, City of London Corporation, Guildhall Art Gallery; Charles Robert Leslie, The Two Princes in the Tower, 1837, Collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Paul Delaroche, The Princes in the Tower (Edward V and the Duke of York), mid-19th century, Tower of London; Henrietta Mary Ada Ward, The Princes in the Tower, 1861, Touchstones Rochdale; John Everett Millais, The Princes in the Tower, 1878, Royal Holloway, University of London. The work of Millais, setting the boys before the staircase where their supposed remains were later uncovered, has been a particularly influential image.


History for Sale

Today Bonhams Auctions in New York is selling off over 300 items from one of the largest private collections of historical emphemera in the world: “Treasures from the Caren Collection. How History Unfolds” includes printed and manuscript items dating from the sixteenth century to the near-present, and every single one represents its moment in an intimate way. That’s the power of paper, and Bonham’s digital catalog–with zoomable images–really brings you into the picture. Even though I had tons of stuff to do yesterday (and it was a sunny spring day), I couldn’t resist perusing the items, including beautiful contemporary prints of the Spanish Armada and Sir Francis Drake, broadsides covering everything from Charles I’s trial to the Great London Fire to the Salem Witch Trials and all the big events of the American Revolution, Civil War daguerreotypes, baseball ephemera, and assorted letters, maps, photographs, tickets and posters from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There are beautiful, touching photographs of Native American chiefs from the later nineteenth century, as well as not-so-beautiful –but equally haunting–images of victims of war and lynching. Lots of little slips of paper that you wouldn’t think would be “historical”, but most definitely are. Below is a sampling of items that appealed to me, but really, I could have put every single lot into this post!

Ephemera at Auction1.

London Burning crop2.

Ephemera at Auction 3-001 3. Balloon and Parachute-0014.

Washington and Lee crop5.

Ephemera at Auction 5-0016.

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Congress-001 8.

March 1969-001 9.

1. The Spanish Armada, 1588/ 2. The “Deplorable” Fire of London, after 1666/ 3. The first British edition of Cotton Mather’s Wonders of the Invisible World, 1693/4. Garnerin’s balloon and parachute, 1802/5. Drawing of Generals Washington and Lee by Arathusa Graves, 1802/ 6. Photograph of Corinth, Mississippi in 1862/7. A UFO appearance in 1897/8. What Congress has Done, 1900/9. March on Washington, 1969.

 


A New Storefront in Salem

If you’ve read this blog for any time at all you know that I am a traditionalist when it comes to architecture, and a committed preservationist, but there’s a new storefront on Essex Street, Salem’s main thoroughfare since its foundation, which has definitely caught my eye–and it is very sleek and very modern. As a main street, for nearly four centuries, Essex Street has had to change with the times, and this particular block lost its really old structures long ago–in the past century it was home to two adjacent movie theaters, one which looks like it was a real palace (the Empire), and another which was a more modest mid-century construction (the Salem). The building with the bold new storefront was built in 1929 in a Colonial Revival style, complete with urns on top–like a McIntire fence! Its shiny new facade actually  has a bit more integrity, I think, and hopefully draws a great new tenant.

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Storefront Essex

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Storefront Empire

The 390s block of Essex Street, present and past.

 


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