Back to School

It’s back to school week for me, as it has been every single week after Labor Day for my entire life; I went straight from high school to college, undergraduate to graduate, doctorate to full-time professorship.  I’ve been really lucky.  There is a natural rhythm to my year; I do teach a course or two in the summer, but come September, it’s back full-time.  Since it’s time to get a bit more academic, I thought would recommend a few of my favorite  books for my ongoing blog and my upcoming semester.  First some Salem texts.

As I have stated continuously (and perhaps a bit defensively), I am a historian, but I’m not a Salem historian.  I’m not even an American historian; I was trained in early modern European history.  So in order to write with some authority about Salem’s history I have to rely on quite a few sources, primary and secondary.  Here are my favorites:

First and foremost, Salem:  Place, Myth and Memory, edited by Dane Anthony Morrison and Nancy Lusignan Schultz.  This compilation of essays on many aspects of Salem’s history and culture, edited by my colleagues at Salem State, Dane Morrison and Nancy Schultz, is absolutely invaluable.  It includes essays on Salem’s colonial, maritime, and industrial pasts, as well as its architecture, educational legacy, and “witch city” present.  If you’re interested in Salem, in either the past or the present, it’s a must-read, must-have book.

One of the contributors to Salem:  Place, Myth and Memory, Robert Booth, has very recently published a book on Salem’s commercial peak and decline, Death of an Empire.  The Rise and Murderous Fall of  Salem, America’s Richest City.  I have to admit that I haven’t actually read this book yet (it’s in my bedside stack of must reads, pretty close to the top), but I am recommending it because Salem’s nineteenth-century history (and all of its non-witch trial-related history) simply must be better covered and understood.  It’s one of the reasons I started this blog.  The subject of the witch trials is definitely in the background of  many of the essays in Salem:  Place, Myth and Memory, but it is not the primary focus; that ground has been covered too often before.  The historiography of the witch trials is vast, and includes such classics and Paul Boyer’s and Steven Nissenbaum’s Salem Possessed:  the Social Origins of Witchcraft and John Demos’s Entertaining Satan and more recent works like Mary Beth North’s In the Devil’s Snare:  The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692.  For my part, I like Salem Story:  Reading the Witch Trials of 1692 by Bernard Rosenthal, but I think all of the Salem witchcraft texts could benefit from a wider, more comparative focus.  This semester I am teaching one of my most popular (and difficult) courses, “Magic and Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe”, about witchcraft beliefs and trials in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the text that I use, Brian Levack’s The Witch-hunt in Early Modern Europe should also be required reading for anyone seeking to understand what went on in Salem.


I have cited Bryant Tolles’ Architecture in Salem:  an Illustrated Guide often when discussing house histories and styles; it’s got a few flaws but is nonetheless absolutely essential for architectural history.

My final recommended Salem book is The Peabody Sisters of Salem by Louise Hall Thorp.  There is an updated narrative of the lives of the three Peabody girls (Elizabeth Peabody, Boston bookstore-owner and founder of the American kindergarten movement, Mary Peabody Mann, who married the great educator Horace Mann and shared his work), and Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, wife of Nathaniel Hawthorne) by Megan Marshall entitled The Peabody Sisters:  Three Women who Ignited American Romanticism, but I prefer Thorpe’s older book, which is wonderful at evoking the mid-nineteenth-century world of the sisters.  I first read it in high school, and it’s one of the reasons I wanted to move to Salem later on.

And now for something completely different. This semester, I’m teaching three courses at Salem State University:  World History, our core course for freshmen, the Magic & Witchcraft course, and a graduate course  in early modern English history which covers the long period from the Tudors to the American Revolution.  My reading list for these courses is long and varied, but here are some of my tried-and-true favorites.

The world history course is very difficult for both myself and the students; after all, it’s the history of the world–a lot of material (we have two world history requirements, the first covers the period to about 1500, the second the later period).  One book that I’ve used successfully in this course for several years is Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, which helps students grasp early globalization in a very accessible way.

For the Witchcraft course, which covers both the medieval background and the early modern era, in which thousands of people were put on trial for witchcraft and at least 50,000 people executed across Europe (compared to 19 in Salem, one reason why comparative perspective is important), we read and discuss the actual trial records in an ongoing effort to ascertain what was going on.  But this is a difficult task, so I also give my students an occasional break by assigned secondary-source “micro-histories” that do the analysis for them:  Malcolm Gaskill’s Witchfinders, about the exploits of English “witchfinder-general” Matthew Hopkins in the 1640s, has been a particularly popular book for this purpose, along with James Sharpe’s  The Bewitching of Anne Gunter.  A Horrible and True Story of Deception, Witchcraft, Murder, and the King of England.

And finally, two of my favorite books from the long list on my Early Modern England syllabus:  Carole Levin’s gender history of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, The Heart and Stomach of a King. Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and Power, and Linda Colley’s cultural history of the construction of  a distinct British collective identity, Britons.  Forging the Nation, 1707-1837.  Both are perfect examples of accessible and academic history.


One response to “Back to School

  • ceciliag

    I will read this book about the Peabody sisters first I think.. they do interest me. I have also read quite a bit about Ghengis Khan too.. quite extraordinary and terrible. c

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