Nearly every year, someone from “outside” writes an opinion piece on the exploitative, hypocritical, and tacky nature of Salem’s month-long celebration of Halloween which is pretty much ignored here in the Witch City. Last year, there was a riveting piece by a Huffington Post columnist, and this year we have a column by the Pulitzer Prize winning author Stacy Schiff, who just happens to have a book coming out about the Trials entitled The Witches: Salem 1692. Schiff’s piece has a great title, “First Kill the Witches. Then Celebrate Them”, and asks the key question, “How did Salem, Mass. repackage a tragedy as a holiday, appointing itself Witch City in the process?” but offers few new insights in the way of an answer. It’s the same old inevitable story, told time and time again: economic decline, Arthur Miller, Bewitched, entrepreneurial “Museum” owners, shopkeepers, and Wiccans. She really dwells on the dreadful Samantha statue (which I don’t think Salemites take a seriously as we perhaps should) and concludes that “You can leave Salem today without a hint of what happened in 1692; in a sense we’ve moved from tragedy to farce without the pause for history in between”. At first reading, this seems like a great line, but I’m not sure about the use of the collective “we”, nor of the reference to history–as the Salem Witch Trials is one of the most intensely researched topics in American history. Every year we get a new Salem book or three or four, while notable trials in Europe during the same era have yet to receive even sufficient attention. Yet we seem to learn very little, or just want to read the same old (inevitable) story, over and over again. I haven’t read Schiff’s book yet–it comes out this week–but I did read her preview article in The New Yorker last month and found it to be rather….conventional, and quite dependent on the well-worn path of context and causality charted by historians like Richard Godbeer, Mary Beth Norton, and my colleague Emerson Baker (and generations before them). Nevertheless her publisher asserts that the book is “historically seminal” and I keep seeing the words “masterful” in initial reviews. The word “new” crops up a lot too but it seems like the same old story to me. In terms of novelty, I’m a bit more interested in the book that seems to be paired and compared with Schiff’s Witches in reviews due to their coincidental, opportunistic publication dates, Alex Mar’s study of contemporary Paganism, Witches in America. The most recent scholarly publication, Benjamin Ray’s Satan & Salem. The Witch-Hunt Crisis of 1692, seems to be getting squeezed out by these two blockbusters, although it was published earlier in the year.
Martha Coburn’s illustrations for Stacy Schiff’s Oct. 25, 2015 column in the New York Times: “First Kill the Witches. Then, Celebrate Them”. Just three witchcraft titles published in 2015.
There is a great review of Schiff’s work by a historian who I really admire, Felipe Fernández-Armesto, in the Wall Street Journal which praises the author on her narrative abilities and contemporary allusions but faults her on her knowledge of the historical context: he observes that “Her knowledge of the 17th century is less secure than her grip on journalistic topoi.” Indeed it is difficult to develop mastery of personages as diverse as Cleopatra, Véra Nabokov, and the victims of Salem. Despite the glut of Salem Witch Trials studies, Fernández-Armesto believes we have room for one more: “We still need someone to do for 17th-century Salem what Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie did for 14th-century Montaillou in his work on the Cathars”. That would be a dream as Montaillou: Promised Land of Error is indeed one of my favorite books, but I don’t think Salem–the city, the “problem”, the industry–is ready for that kind of definitive l’histoire totale: “we” need to continue our search for the “real” story and feeding the beast.