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.

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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.

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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 Sartre’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.

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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.

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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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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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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 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).


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