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Fairytales and History

Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft By Paul Boyer '61 and Stephen Nissenbaum '61 Harvard University Press, 221 pages, $10

By Seth M. Kupferberg

VIEWED FROM THE 1950s, the Salem witch trials seemed a liberal's nightmare: a classic instance of arbitrary persecution by meddlers and busybodies, like the busybodies who accused obviously innocent reformers of trying to subvert the American republic. Arthur Miller's The Crucible gave this perspective its most eloquent convincing and popular expression, dramatically pitting John Proctor, the skeptical but self-respecting hero who would not save his life by making a false confession, against people like the Reverend Samuel Parris, who "believed he was being persecuted wherever he went," cutting a "villainous" and bloodstained path into the history books.

Salem Possessed advances a different view of the Salem witch trials. Instead of relying on alluringly lurid depositions about accused witches's diabolic practices or heroic self-defense and their accusers' sufferings or reprehensible motives, Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum base most of their case on ordinary town records of ordinary villagers in ordinary times--tax records and records of people's opinions of Parris and the two ministers who preceeded him.

With the help of maps comparing the households which supported Parris in his battle for a higher salary, with the households whose members denounced their neighbors as witches in 1692, Boyer and Nissenbaum root their account of Salem's trials not in individual villainy and heroism, but in social changes important all over New England. In other words, they believe the Salem witch trials meant something, that the trials grew out of genuinely important conflicts, not an early instance of man's rationally inexplicable inhumanity to his fellow man.

Boyer and Nissenbaum trace the efforts of Salem Village--an extension of Salem peopled mainly by farmers who led their lives in time-honored ways--to win independence from an increasingly maritime and commercial Salem Town. The two authors interpret the support given both Parris and the witch trials by the Village's well-to-do but socially immobile farmers as an expression of deep-seated, complex anxieties provoked by the increasingly individualistic and commercialistic outlook of the townspeople who had hired Parris. Traditional patterns of order and hierarchy throughout New England were giving way to what would become 18th century capitalism, and Boyer and Nissenbaum argue that in Salem--where the battle for Village independence and the town's quick development led to intensified conflict and where an influential family's difficulties with an apparently witch-like stepmother provided the kindling to spark it all to life--frightened believers in the old communal ways took the offensive against people who represented the ungodly new ones.

THE CONFLICT WOULD have been simpler and less bitter if everyone in the changing society hadn't belonged, just a little, to both sides. Salem Possessed's poignant portrayal of Parris--whose attacks on moneygrubbing were in large part efforts to purge himself of a grievous and integral sin--demonstrates the ambivalence at the heart of Salem, and New England as a whole, and makes traditional, straightforward dichotomies between victims and accusers seem embarrassingly naive.

Because it doesn't treat the trials as historical accidents with purely personal causes, Salem Possessed makes them weighty and comprehensible in a way traditional accounts cannot. It's the difference between a polemic about the Watergate scandals and a carefully written history of the Indochina war. Or between an attack on McCarthyism as the work of misguided fanatics and a reflective consideration of its roots in real conflicts between groups of people with genuinely conflicting interests. It's the difference between fairytale and history, melodrama and tragedy.

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