For many years my family spent the long Thanksgiving weekend at the grand old Equinox Hotel in Manchester Village, Vermont, the generous gift of my grandmother. We established several traditions there that ended with her death five years ago, after which none of us wanted to return, until this past Thanksgiving. So we came from Maine, Massachusetts and New York to Vermont, where the golden November weather shifted to white winter on Thanksgiving night. We woke up, and it was like a switch had been flipped! We’ve never been crazy about the Equinox restaurants, so we went to the Dorset Inn for a Thanksgiving dinner, as we had in the past. The night after Thanksgiving always began with a dram of Scotch at the tavern at the 1811 House across the way (where nothing else was served except popcorn) but that has been absorbed by the Equinox and I’m not entirely sure what they’re doing with it (although I looked in the window and the bar doesn’t seem to have been changed a bit, thank goodness). Manchester’s role as a center of outlet shopping seems a bit diminished by the pandemic, but we weren’t very interested in shopping anyway (except at the Vermont Country Store a half hour away in Weston). I trudged around in the snow quite a bit but certainly didn’t make it up, or even near, Mount Equinox, though others ascended.
Thanksgiving and the day after at the Equinox and vicinity, the Dorset Inn, and the Vermont Country Store.
On Saturday I trudged all the way to Hildene, the summer home of Robert Todd Lincoln and his family for many years. This is just a great site, encompassing a stately Georgian Revival house and several other adjacent structures, well-preserved and interpreted (and a very nice museum shop, which reinvigorated my shopping impulse). The house looks imposing from outside but seems intimate inside, especially as an organ was diffusing early twentieth-century music through pipes which seem to run throughout. After a spectacular sunset and a great schnitzel for Saturday dinner, we drove down south and home, out of the white and back to the brown (and all of our responsibilities!)
In full disclosure, as I write this, I am not in Plymouth: I’m actually in New Jersey, soon to go back to Massachusetts for a spell and then to Vermont for Thanksgiving. But last weekend I was in Plymouth, which was getting everything ready for the 400th anniversary of the very first Thanksgiving, in 1621. The weather was beautiful and my husband and I visited all the spots: the newly-renamed Plimoth Patuxet Museums, the Plimoth Grist Mill, and the Mayflower of course. We walked by Plymouth Rock with a passing glance which is pretty much all it deserves, but there was a small crowd gathered round, as usual. Even though Plymouth was getting ready, it was still calm and peaceful, and a welcome refuge from Salem which has been anything but for months. When we took a break for lunch we first tried a relatively new and seemingly hip place down on the water, but it was so noisy and crowded we walked right back out; I said to myself (or maybe out loud, I can’t remember): that’s like a Salem restaurant. We ended up in local sports bar, perfectly happy. Everything was just so easy in Plymouth. There were fewer reenactors at Plimoth Patuxet than I had ever seen before, but for me, this just heightened the starkness and impression of the landscape, a reproduced one for sure, but still quite effective in transporting one back.
In downtown Plymouth, the reproductions (the Grist Mill, the Mayflower) are merely small parts of an authentic, living town with old and new structures, going about its business, a town where you can actually buy basic necessities like socks and shoes (along with violins!) from shops that are open all year round. There’s a real history museum and a historical society. As you can tell, I just can’t help but compare Salem and Plymouth: I’ve done it before and I’m doing it now. They are both old Massachusetts settlements which have become tourist towns with claims to fame based on holidays: but Plymouth clearly seeks to set its holiday in a comprehensive historical context while also preserving daily livability for its residents, while Salem, after reducing and contorting its own history to fit its chosen holiday, seems focused only on throwing an escalating party. And as we all know, parties are more fun for the guests than the hosts (or at least that’s my experience).
The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM), located here in Salem, deserves considerable credit for engaging in and with the history of the city’s trademark event, the Salem Witch Trials, in a series of exhibitions featuring authentic documents and objects beginning last year and continuing this year with The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming. For several decades prior, the PEM ignored the trials, and by association, the flocks of tourists who converged upon Salem because of their escalating exploitation. During this time, I always hoped that the PEM would offer some sort of exhibition to counter the commodified interpretations of the trials (or some essence thereof) which reign in Salem, and it has. Last year’s exhibition, The Salem Witch Trials 1692, was a little spare, but the authenticity of its items and the straightforward manner in which the story was told was striking, especially in the context of schlocky October Salem. But this year’s exhibition is……much more murky: I simply don’t understand what I’m supposed to take away from it, both in terms of “reckoning” and “reclaiming,” especially the former. Connecting the past to the present is a complex task, or maybe I’m just missing the links made, so I thought I would “write it out”.
Judge Jonathan Corwin’s Trunk: Corwin was a justice on the Court of Oyer and Terminer, which presided over the Salem Witch Trials, and his Salem house is now known as the “Witch House”.
I briefly visited this exhibition shortly after it opened in September, and returned yesterday with several students in my freshman seminar on the Trials: they are going to be writing reviews for our class, so we’ll see if they have grasped it better than I! There are three parts to Reckoning and Reclaiming. You enter into the world of seventeenth-century Salem, armed only with a map and a very brief panel introduction to the trials, and represented by objects or “material manifestations” belonging to people swept up in the trials: Judge Corwin’s trunk (above), victim John Proctor’s sundial, a loom belonging to one of the members of the accusing Putnam family, embellished with symbols of counter-magic, as well as documents related to the legal process of the Trials. The second part/room takes you, via a timeline on the wall and more primary-source documents, through the more focused prosecution of victim Elizabeth Howe of Ipswich and into the present, represented by a glittery black dress from her descendant Alexander McQueen’s Autumn/Winter 2007 collection entitled “In the Memory Of Elizabeth How, Salem 1692.” Still in the present, you (we) move on to the last part of the exhibition: photographs of modern witches by Frances F. Denny, who is also a descendant of a Trial participant, Judge Samuel Sewall, as well as a woman prosecuted for witchcraft in Boston in 1674, from her series Major Arcana: Portraits of Witches in America.
Edward Payson’s Testimony on behalf of Elizabeth How(e).
All the constituent parts of this exhibition are interesting and well worth your time, but how are they connected? And who is doing the reckoning and the reclaiming? The exhibition, or us? I discern responses on the part of descendants McQueen and Denny but I always though reckoning and reclaiming were a bit more intensive activities. I looked up both words in the Oxford English Dictionary in order to get some guidance.
Reckoning: The action or an act of giving or being required to give an account of something, esp. one’s conduct or actions; an account or statement so given. Also: an occasion of giving or being required to give such a statement; a calling to account. A calling to account! That’s it: so who is being called to account in this exhibition? The afflicted girls, the judges, the people of Salem? Nope, no reckoning on their parts is in evidence. Survivor Philip English’s 1710 statement “What a great Sufferer I have been in my Estate by reason of the Severe prosecution of me & my wife in that Dark Time”, as well as the 1712 petition for compensation by the daughters of victim Elizabeth Howe are included in the exhibition, but not the apologies issued by accuser Ann Putnam, members of the jury, and Judge Samuel Sewall. We can read the poignant testimonies of those who spoke up for the accused (and these are my favorite objects of the exhibition) but the swift, even jarring, movement into the present makes it seem as if redemption is not possible in the past. Before I saw this exhibition, the use of the word “reckoning” in its title was enticing to me as I thought we were going to be presented with an historical view of how people who lived through the Salem Witch Trials wrestled with what they had experienced in its aftermath, but we are not presented with a full accounting.
Reclaiming: Wow, this is a word that has many meanings and forms! Everything from falconry to recycling. I think the meaning that is relevant here is this one: To reassert a relationship or connection with, or a moral right to; (now frequently) to re-evaluate or reinterpret (a term, concept, etc., esp. one relating to one’s own demographic group) in a more positive or suitable way; to reappropriate. Clearly the exhibition is emphasizing the reappropriation of the word “witch” in our time through the creations of Alexander McQueen and the photographs of Frances F. Denny (along with the words of Denny’s subjects, who are all very expressive and assertive). But what does this reappropriation have to do with the victims of 1692 who were not, of course, witches? Again, the shift from past to present seems jarring, and the connective thread very thin, essentially McQueen’s and Denny’s lineage (and there about a million descendants of Witch Trial victims out there). Denny’s portraits are compelling for sure, so much so that they seem to constitute another, separate exhibition, tied to the first only through a word (and a dress?).
The Salem WitchTrials: Reckoning and Reclaiming is on view at the Peabody Essex Museum until March 20.
There is an extraordinary auction coming up in a few weeks at Skinner featuring the art and antiques of a Beacon Hill couple. Among the maritime and China Trade paintings and colonial furniture is an amazing c. 1805 mahogany sofa attributed to Salem’s Samuel McIntire, described as carved with a “crest with rectangular panel and shaped flanking panels, all with punchwork ground, the center panel with basket of fruit, the shaped panels with flowers and scrolls, above leaf-carved arms and turned waterleaf-carved supports, all on turned tapering legs” and listed with an opening bid of $15,000 and an estimate between $30,000-$50,000. So this is obviously well beyond my reach, but I still love it, even its upholstery (which I know is not supposed to matter but still).
I had been focused singularly on sofas for much of this year, having made the decision to replace the two settees in my front parlor with one larger couch. I wanted a Sheraton sofa, perhaps not a period piece but some later reproduction, with the (less-embellished) straight lines and legs of the McIntire sofa above. If they’re not attributed to McIntire, they are actually affordable! But I lost out on a few auction bids and then changed direction: my husband wanted something comfortable in that room after sitting on settees for so long, and I had to admit to myself that I really wanted to be able to take a nap in this room, which gets lovely light in the late afternoon. So we ended up with a couch from the 1990s (I think): its straight lines seemed to accommodate any adjacent style and its down cushion is really comfortable and nap-able. I’m pleased with my choice but the sight of this McIntire sofa sent me back into Sheraton musing. I rounded up some more McIntire sofas for fun: not a difficult task as everyone who has one wants the world to know it. There are McIntire sofas in many of the major American museums, in the White House, in the Texas Governor’s Mansion, and of course in the Peabody Essex Museum here in Salem. I’m not sure what the market is for one of these precious pieces now, but a decade ago the very similar Silsbee family sofa sold for over $111,000 in a Christie’s auction, so it will be interesting to see what this Skinner lot fetches.
Sofas attributed to Samuel McIntire of Salem in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2), the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Clark Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Winterthur, the White House (the central hall in 1963, photograph from the White House Historical Association) and the Texas Governor’s Mansion. And below: my new/old very Non-McIntirish couch: you can see I went in a very different direction!