In 1953 in The Crucible playwright Arthur Miller seized upon the guilt that has always attached to the Salem witch hunt to make a contemporary parallel with militant anti-Communism. He implied that Salem was the source of a continuing battle between those in America who attempt to stifle free-thinking dissent and their victims among the good, common people. More than anything else the notion that dissenters represent a beleaguered class lent The Crucible its ideological thrust—one that has sustained it as a popular international repertory item for some thirty years. And yet, as Robert War-show and other critics forcefully demonstrated at the time, both Miller’s interpretation of American society and his historical analogies failed to stand up to scrutiny.
Miller’s emphasis on victimization, it was evident, could be maintained on stage only by altering the characters and motivations of his historical models (something Miller claimed scrupulously not to have done). For the truth was that the New England clergy and magistrates whom he described as having displayed “an absolute dedication to evil” acted for the most part to calm and ameliorate popular passions. The roles of the common people and the authorities, in other words, were largely the reverse of what Miller described.
In the thirty years since The Crucible, scholarly investigations have enormously complicated the picture, but each of them has served further to undermine the main popular tradition drawn on by Miller—that the Salem hysteria left an evil residue in American history. The piling up of evidence, however, has not prevented certain scholars from paying lip service to the notion that the spirit of Salem hysteria lives on.
In Witchcraft at Salem (1969), for example, Chadwick Hansen offered the first balanced, comparative account of the Salem episode. He showed that by seventeenth-century standards the evidence that supernatural crimes were being committed was overwhelming. There were practicing witches in New England—people who believed themselves in contact with the invisible world and able to harness it to do harm to others. Moreover, those who imagined themselves to be victims of the witches were truly “possessed.” This is to say that they suffered genuine torments, and that most of them honestly believed these to be administered by witches. Their fits were accompanied by physical symptoms that included the spontaneous appearance of physical marks exactly where they felt themselves being pricked. Their symptoms and behavior, Hansen showed, were typical of modern cases of extreme hysteria observed under clinical conditions.
Yet the New England courts, despite the apparently unmistakable evidences of witchcraft set before them, consistently acquitted far more witches than they convicted. Fifty people confessed to being witches in Salem, but thirty of them were never convicted (in the end twenty out of hundreds accused were found guilty and executed). Outside of Salem, sixteen witches were executed in America during the seventeenth century, and none thereafter. In France during the same period, Hansen pointed out, “approximately nine hundred witches were burned in the single city of Bamber, and approximately five thousand in the single province of Alsace.” It can be added that by some estimates five hundred thousand people were burned as witches between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe, most of them being first subjected to dreadful tortures. (In America witches were sometimes mistreated but never tortured.)
Hansen logically concluded that America’s was “a genuinely exemplary record.” In Salem Possessed (1974), Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum agreed. They concluded that the Salem incident took place in a context of exceptional legal and political circumstances. The witches did not receive fair trials by modern standards, but given “a society confronted with a tenacious outbreak of a particularly baffling crime at a time of severe political and legal disruption” the proceedings were “a remarkable testament” to the fairness and good sense of the magistrates. Yet, America’s exemplary record notwithstanding, Hansen ended his book, as Boyer and Nissenbaum did not end theirs, by pronouncing that “the spirit of the witch hunt is still with us.”
In Entertaining Satan, John Demos adds importantly to our understanding of witchcraft by reconstituting the New England culture out of which it grew. His A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony (1970), reconstituted the life of a small New England community as a microcosm of Puritan society. Demos’s exemplary use of local records helped establish social history as a dominant historical approach in this country—thus giving us a technique of close reading equivalent to that employed by the French annales school usually associated with the names of Fernand Braudel and Lucien Febvre. In undertaking the study of witchcraft, Demos might have been expected to focus again on a single community, this time Salem, the records of which are more full than those of other New England communities of the time. Instead he has chosen to take all of New England witchcraft as his subject, and only barely to touch on Salem. (It may be that he felt it unnecessary to go over Boyer and Nissenbaum’s work, much of which built upon Demos’s own important essay of 1970: “Underlying Themes in the Witchcraft of Seventeenth Century New England”) The first half of Entertaining Satan continues the kind of close analysis with which Demos has been associated, and extends the technique deep into personal psychology. The second half looks at New England culture from a broad, sociological perspective and offers theories on the social causation of witchcraft. Demos is at his best when capturing New England life in its everyday reality: the trading of goods and services, the casual visits next door, the daily gossip over the fence. He shows how these exchanges can reveal the petty jealousies, resentments, and personality clashes that often lay behind witchcraft accusations.
Taken together, Demos’s findings give the richest psychological picture of witchcraft to date. He describes a web of “psychic complicity” among the accused witches, their victims, and their accusers—all of whom were likely to be close neighbors. The accused tended to be not old, as has usually been supposed, but middle-aged women between the ages of forty and sixty. These women were often psychological misfits who had suffered reversals in life, had remained childless, and were prone to quarreling with their neighbors. Their possessed “victims” were usually teen-aged girls or young men in their twenties. Accusations of witchcraft were often made by one middle-aged woman, possibly menopausal, against another.
One can only touch on some of Demos’s fascinating speculations on these evidences of the intimate psychology of witchcraft, and then only at the risk of caricaturing a subtle, persuasively constructed argument. A Puritan woman in menopause, he points out, had in effect been robbed of something by an unseen force. In extreme situations she might find a personification of that force in a neighbor whose barrenness or widowhood gave her good symbolic reasons for wanting to meddle with someone else’s fertility. Young men in their twenties projected their psychological uncertainties over assuming the responsibilities of adulthood on the same women, who for them represented tormenting “women of their mother’s generation.” Young girls imagined themselves being urged to sign the devil’s “pact” by such women, or by the Devil himself, at a time when they were absorbed with the impending prospect of signing a marriage “pact of perpetual allegiance.”
Demos goes on to suggest—problematically but intriguingly—that these imagined victims of witchcraft suffered specifically from narcissistic disturbances. When he leaves the micro-level of analysis where he is a master, however, and begins to deal with the whole of Puritan society, the outlines of a questionable indictment begin to appear. First he suggests that “New Englanders seem to have felt vulnerable in their core sense of self,” a formulation that has the familiar ring of critiques directed against the “narcissistic” 1970s. He then traces their problem to the notorious repression of Puritan society, which is said to have given rise to a “narcissistic rage.” This rage, which represented “the whole dark underside of early New England character,” was directed away from society and deflected onto witchcraft. The result was that witchcraft came to serve society as a means of “social control.”
The implication seems to be that the ultimate guilt for witchcraft lay with society. Society is further indicted by Demos’s alternate, social theory of witchcraft. Here he traces the blame to “emergent mercantile capitalism,” a social factor that Boyer and Nissenbaum found important. But where they traced the psychological strains underlying witchcraft hysteria to the stresses of the transition from Puritan cooperation to modern, capitalist individualism, Demos singles out the new spirit itself, calling it “individualism with a vengeance.” This not only makes society responsible but has the effect of forging a link of guilt with the twentieth century, which is of course the descendant and current representative of that individualism. Yet Demos’s own description of the social evolution and “economic and occupational diversification” of a town in which witchcraft died out early— Weathersfield, Connecticut—seems to indicate not that the capitalistic forces contributed to the spread of witchcraft superstition but rather that they hastened its eradication.
Outside of the few passages that look at the seventeenth century in an unfavorable light, the overall impression in Entertaining Satan is of a work whose subtleties of analysis militate against narrowly accusational views. No single psychological or social type and no one class is made responsible for the scattered instances of witchcraft fears that broke out in New England. And even the idea of a repressive society as the ultimate agent of these fears is mediated by a lively sense of the crucial local and personal variables that were always at play. After all, repression or no repression, many towns never suffered a witchcraft incident.
It is particularly unfortunate, therefore, that at the very end of his study Demos, like Hansen, suddenly delivers a sweeping, and to my mind unthinking indictment. He writes that with regard to Jews, Catholics, atheists, Communists, and others, witch-hunting has been “repeatedly revived all through American history. The long and continuing life of the metaphor itself bespeaks an underlying connection” (his italics). But frequent recourse to a metaphor hardly proves the existence of a reality, though it can indicate the persistence of an attitude—in this case one of self-induced guilt. By suddenly switching to this attitude, Demos seems to throw the mantle of Arthur Miller’s belief in continuous American guilt over his own theories of social control and emergent mercantile capitalism.
Demos’s dubious homily is delivered more as ritual than as argument, and it cannot seriously mar an otherwise exemplary work of scholarship. But it does reflect a part of the general problem scholars seem to have when they confront the phenomenon of witchcraft. American historians might be expected to ask how New Englanders managed to avoid the enormities committed during the European and English witchcraft crazes. Instead they have linked this country’s witchcraft record to a putative tradition of intolerance throughout American history. In doing so they have added yet another element to the riddle of American witchcraft. For now one’s perplexities over the nature of the phenomenon itself are matched by wonderment at its ability to possess historians with an enduring conviction of guilt.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 1 Number 4, on page 81
Copyright © 2017 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com