Arthur Miller in Salem

So this is where we are with the Phillips Library relocation, for lack of a better term: the Peabody Essex Museum, having made the reluctant admission that the collections will not be returning to Salem in December (after informing several parties this fact in the late spring of 2017), has agreed to keep the historic reading room in Salem open, but that’s about it: what will actually be in there is unspecified, except perhaps for volumes of the Historical Collections of the Essex Institute, a venerable journal that the PEM did away with almost as soon as it had absorbed the latter. There have been two pieces in the Boston Globe, and several meetings of both the Salem Historical Commission and the Mayor’s “Working Group”, which are charged with dealing with both the exterior and interior aspects of this PEM problem. Meanwhile, the Phillips collections are en route to the 1980s toy factory off Route One in Rowley, far removed from the context of their creation, and inaccessible by public transportation.

Books-on-Shelves-870x490 I am assuming that these are Phillips materials, from the website of Smith +St. John, a “real estate and development management” company that has been fulfilling a variety of functions for the PEM, including: “Administrative leadership – when the director of the Phillips Library retired in October 2014, Smith + St. John principal Gregor Smith was asked to serve as interim director while the Museum conducted a national search to fill the position with the right rare book scholar”. Unusual to have a real estate developer serve as director of a research library, no?

Throughout these 2+ months, I have never heard one admission from a PEM representative that what they were doing was in any way detrimental to Salem, the very crucible of their collections, despite the fact that they are always lauding themselves as the country’s oldest continuously operating museum based on the 1799 founding of the East India Marine Society of Salem. They remain very publicly and exclusively focused on the priority of preservation, but I see no acknowledgement that the Phillips is both a library and an archive: with public records therein, as well as materials that people will come specifically to Salem to see. There’s no better way to illustrate the symbiotic relationship between place and exploration than the example of one of the Phillips’ Library’s most famous researchers, Arthur Miller, who wrote about his trip to Salem for Crucible material and inspiration in several essays as well as his 1987 autobiography Timebends. He was drawn to Salem in the spring of 1952, but found it to be “a sidetracked town…with abandoned factories and vacant stores” according to his 1996 recollections in the New Yorker. No one wanted to talk about the trials then; it was the archives that first made the story come alive for him, the trial transcripts which he read in the “gloomy courthouse” and then other texts in a repository he identifies alternatively as the “museum” or the “historical society”: the Phillips Library.

archival collage 2

Salem's Museum NYT 1953 Feb 8.JPG

In his 1953 New York Times article “Journey to the Crucible”, Miller recalls a “silent” library/museum, in which an old man, looking like a retired professor, is reading a document. Two middle-aged couples come in from their automobile outside and ask to see the pins: the pins the spirits stuck the children with. The pins are in the courthouse, they are told. They look about at the books, the faded fragments of paper that once meant Proctor must hang tomorrow, paper that came through the farmhouse door in the hands of a friend who had a half-determined, half-ashamed look in his eyes. The tourists pass the books, the exhibits and no hint of danger reaches them from the quaint relics. I have a desire to tell them the significance of those relics. It is the desire to write. That’s a pretty good description of intellectual/creative inspiration! And he goes on, taking it outside, into the streets of Salem: the stroll down Essex Street I remember, and the empty spaces between the parking meters, the dark storefronts…but further down a lighted store, and noise. I take a look: a candy store. A mob of girls and boys in their teens running in and out, ganging around on the vacant street, a jalopy pulls up with two wet-haired boys, and a whispered consultation with a girl on the running boards; she runs into the store, comes out with a friend, and off they go into the night, the proud raccoon tail straightening from the radiator cap. And suddenly, from around a corner, two girls hopping with a broomstick between their legs, and general laughter going up at the specific joke. A broomstick. And riding it. And I remember the girls of Salem, the only Salem there ever was for me—the 1692 Salem–and how they purged their sins by embracing God and pointing out His enemies in the town. Salem girls. No researcher is going to find such archival ambiance, and such an illuminating juxtaposition between past and present, in the midst of an industrial development in Rowley. Arthur Miller returned to Salem in late 1991 for the announcement of the planned memorial for the Tercentenary in the coming year, expressing concern about the commercialization of the Trials (which “trivializes the agony of the victims”) but also appreciation for its historical resources. And with the removal of the latter, we are increasingly defenseless against the former.

11 responses to “Arthur Miller in Salem

  • Bradford Green

    This article is beautifully crafted and compelling. I wonder, as concerns the museum, if like education money is not the driving force.

  • Nancy Roney

    I recall Salem in the early 70s and there were fewer witch stores if any and many department stores open like Almys, Rogers, Lerners. I don’t know what part of Salem he visited but it certainly wasn’t vacant in the 50s. Wasn’t Parker Brothers busy in the 50s and Sylvania? I’m more familiar with Lynn during that time but it too was bustling before the advent of malls.

    • daseger

      Having read everything he wrote about his trip to Salem over this very weekend, Nancy–I have to admit that he has somewhat of a selective memory….but he still seems to have existed in what I always think of as a pleasant but foggy mix of past & present here for about a week.

  • Richard W. J. S.

    Thank you for sharing another voice from the past speaking to today.

  • Helen Breen

    Hi Donna,

    Wow, what a stunning connection you have made to illustrate the loss of Salem’s archives at the Phillips Library. Thanks so much for digging up (your specialty) the story of Arthur Miller’s visits to the city in the early 50s to research materials about the Trials that later became THE CRUCIBLE.

    As a high school English teacher in another life, I taught the play for decades. Love every line! Oh, I know, Miller took liberties with the age of certain characters and altered a few circumstances for dramatic interest, but the effect is powerful. To funnel the events of six months or so in 1692 into four distinct acts was most effective.

    Re TIMEBENDS – one of the best books I ever read! If I recalled, it’s in the 600 page range. Although I picked the tome up to read the “Marilyn part,” I could not put it down. Miller was an American genius!

    Again, Donna, continue your good work – you have an army behind you.

  • Pearl

    I’ve read your blog for many years now and after reading this one it made me think that maybe Peabody’s unfortunate move to Rowley will have a slightly tarnished yet silver lining for you, one less place to attract those witch trial focused tourists you’re so fond of.

    • daseger

      I can understand why you would say that, Pearl. I’m actually being somewhat hypocritical here, with my focus on the Crucible and the Witch Trials, but the Phillips collections are so vast and deep and Salem-centric that I do believe their removal is a tragedy for our city. We’ll still get the witchcraft-focused tourists, who are not as concerned with authentic history, only dramatic experiences. Thank you so much for being a loyal reader for these many years!

      • Pearl

        I’m truly saddened about that too Donna. Not only is the collection leaving it’s rightful home, that glaringly sterile Rowley building with absolutely no character lacks any inspiring ambiance. For me that’s important, which is why I’ll spend way too much for a first edition antique book that I want to read instead of buying a newer paperback or ebook. Feeling that old tome in my hands and reading it’s yellowing pages helps transport me back to the time it was written.

  • Pearl

    ^^^”it’s” was an unfortunate typo that I typed twice!^^^
    Why can’t I ever catch that before I hit send?!

  • Cecilia Mary Gunther

    I have read as much of Arthur Miller as i can find and this piece here has reminded me of how important it is to write what we SEE – in detail. It is important. Someone will need to read it one day. Though having said that I am so disappointed that they have taken all this wonderful material off to be STORED somewhere inaccessible. To have this collection put in storage is sad sad. c

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