How a Generation of Historians Lost Sympathy for the Victims of the Salem Witch Hunt
- ISBN: 9781421424378
- Published By: Johns Hopkins University Press
- Published: November 2017
As the subtitle indicates, and as Tony Fels makes explicit early on and throughout Switching Sides: How a Generation of Historians Lost Sympathy for the Victims of the Salem Witch Hunt, he believes that there is a single, proper way to produce historical work on the Salem witch hunts and he understands every scholar after Marion Starkey, the historian whose writing fundamentally influenced the tone of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, to have failed. Essentially, Fels approaches the events of Salem as having a single cause, mass hysteria, and a single meaning, to serve as a cautionary tale against moral panics in the future. Therefore, in order to study Salem properly, Fels believes that scholars must exclusively emphasize the valor of those accused, especially those who insisted on their innocence in the face of the false accusations, and roundly condemn the hunts as simply evil and apparently inexplicable, beyond anxiety caused by dangerous Puritan religion.
Unfortunately, this approach places a great flaw at the heart of the book’s project. Fels insists that attempts to understand structural issues that created an environment in which accusations of witchcraft could occur are the same as justifying the hunts, and ironically he does so in the name of liberalism and intellectual freedom. Taking this position forecloses any possibilities for actually understanding underlying and contributing causes and reasserts a clear-cut world in which there are good people – the accused and the historians that dedicate themselves to championing their suffering – and bad people – the accusers, the broader community that indulged them, and the historians that investigate their complex interrelationships. By taking this position, Fels not only unreflectively reproduces the kind of dichotomous worldview he decries, dividing the world into the virtuous and the corrupted, but also, most damagingly, forecloses possibilities for truly understanding the larger picture of influences and conflicts that culminated in the hunts at Salem. Fels asserts that his goal is to prevent future moral panics, but in order to accomplish this objective pragmatically, historians need to understand what causes them, rather than label them as reprehensible and leave it at that. Logically, then, it would not only be justifiable but imperative to understand the perspectives of the hunters; yet this is precisely what Fels rejects as morally faulty research.
Fels understands his orientation to put him in valiant opposition to what he labels New Left scholarship, essentially any work that considers cultural systems as complex and includes intersecting factors such as class, race, gender, or colonialism in its analysis. His preferred focus is on the causal effects of Puritan theology, which, against the consensus of the academic study of religion, he asserts can and should be analyzed by separating it out from other cultural areas that mutually constitute it. He sees theology’s effects in other social systems, but not the effects of other social systems on it. Further, his work also puts him in opposition to the field of historical witchcraft studies more broadly and betrays an unfamiliarity with major methodological approaches in the discipline, including: distinguishing between the mechanisms of quotidian witchcraft beliefs as compared to extraordinary panics; the social mechanisms of witchcraft beliefs within communities; and the understanding that witchcraft accusations can both serve a larger social function and be personally devastating.
Though outweighed by the inherent flaws of the project, I do want to highlight some positive contributions of the work. First, Fels compiles an incredibly thorough collection of historical scholarship on Salem. The bibliography will be of use to scholars seeking a detailed overview of literature in the field. Nonetheless, because he reads everything with one criterion in mind, whether the authors' “sympathies” properly and exclusively lie with the accused, the usefulness of his analysis of these extensive materials is severely curtailed beyond his personal project. To approach this another way, the book could be understood as an extensive annotated bibliography on a single question. Second, his short aside at the end of chapter 2 gives a very useful summary of the scholarly consensus that no one actually practiced maleficia, or harmful magic, but instead that early modern magical practice, as it did exist, was entirely protective counter-magic. In other words, like Britain and Europe, there were never any actual witches in colonial New England, despite wide acceptance of fears of witchcraft throughout society. This concise overview of the topic could be useful as a teaching tool for courses on historical witchcraft or new religious movements.
Throughout Switching Sides Fels liberally accuses the scholars whose work he analyzes of implicit biases, but seems remarkably unaware of his own. Over the course of the book he reveals tendencies to favor especially the men accused, particularly John Proctor, and passionately defend elites, such as government officials, against implications of incompetence, corruption, or malicious intent. He also has a soft spot for Rebecca Nurse, as an illustrative example of the socially vulnerable victim. These personal sympathies suggest that his introduction to the history of Salem through the affective narrative reflected in The Crucible may be continuing to influence his response to subsequent scholarship that involves different perspectives.
Laurel Zwissler is Associate Professor in the Philosophy and Religion Department at Central Michigan University.Laurel ZwisslerDate Of Review:January 31, 2019