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Linda Hilton

Reader, Writer, Merciless Reviewer and Incurable Romantic

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The devil is in the details

The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Enquiry Into the Salem Witch Trials - Marion Lena Starkey

This is another of those paperbacks I've had forever and never read.  How it ended up on my BookLikes shelf with a 4-star rating I have no idea, unless it came from the original GR upload.  It certainly does not deserve four stars.


But . . . . 


The author, Marion Starkey, was a native of Massachusetts with a New England pedigree going all the way back to the Mayflower.  Good for her, and whatever the hell that has to do with the quality of the writing.  Educated at Boston University and Harvard, she worked as a freelancer and teacher.  The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Enquiry into the Salem Witch Trials was published in 1949.


Starkey makes clear in her preface that she is trying to project a modern psychological analysis onto what happened in Salem Village in the early 1690s, or as modern as she could in the 1940s.  What she doesn't make clear, however, is the extent to which her text is a dramatization of the actual recorded events.  And that's where I began to feel uncomfortable reading this.  Perhaps with more of a disclaimer, the book might have served as a better picture of the community and its members and how they fell under the sway of their own delusions.  Or perhaps that kind of disclaimer is too contemporary with the later, much later, 20th century and 21st to have even existed when Starkey was writing.  Perhaps, therefore, I judge her too harshly.


According to Starkey, "the witchcraft" began with two young girls, nine-year-old Becky Parris and her eleven-year-old cousin Abigail Williams.  Both lived in the household of Becky's father, Rev. Samuel Parris of Salem Village.  Starkey blames simple boredom and lack of outlets for youthful exuberance for much of what happened, which may or may not have been the truth.  It's certainly believable.  Yet Starkey even admits in her chapter notes that much of her description of the girls is derived from secondary sources or extrapolated from the testimony of others on unrelated issues.


I found that sort of admission distanced me from the credibility of the book in a way I hadn't expected.  As I read beyond the opening chapters, I hoped that original impression would fade, but it didn't.  Despite the dramatic narrative that should have made the events and locations and personalities more "real," I never got over the sense that Starkey was making a lot of it up for effect.


What compounded this was, I think, another part of that preface, which I quote at length here, for what I believe will be obvious, 21st century reasons:


For Salem Village, for all its apparent remoteness, was not "an island to itself," but a throbbing part of the great world.  Its flare-up of irrationality was to some extent a product of ideological intensities which rent its age no less than they do ours; its swing to sanity through the stubborn refusal of the few to give way to the hysteria and mad logic of the many marked the turn of a moral season in New England.  During the witchcraft, and to some extent through the witchcraft, thinking people in Massachusetts passed over the watershed that divides the mystery and magic of late medieval thinking from the more rational climate of opinion referred to as "the Enlightenment."


Yet although this particular delusion, at least in the form of a large-scale public enterprise, has vanished from the western world, the urge to hunt "witches" has done nothing of the kind.  It has been revived on a colossal scale by replacing the medieval idea of malefic witchcraft by pseudo-scientific concepts like "race," "nationality," and by substituting for theological discussion a whole complex of warring ideologies.  Accordingly the story of 1692 is of far more than antiquarian interest; it is an allegory of our times.  One would like to believe that leaders of the modern world can in the end deal with delusion as sanely and courageously as the men of old Massachusetts dealt with theirs.


Well, except that first those men of old Massachusetts dealt cruelly and delusionally with theirs.  It's almost as if Starkey were trying to exonerate them.


She's not unaware of the tradition of witch-hunting, witch-naming, witch-blaming.  "Only twenty witches were executed," she notes, "a microscopic number"  in comparison to those who were condemned by the thousands in Europe, or in comparison to the millions who had been systematically slaughtered just a few years before Starkey wrote.  She is aware of the politics involved, the struggles for power and so on.  All of that seemed lost in what came across as an attempt to psychoanalyze and excuse.


It's been too many years since I read Shirley Jackson's The Witchcraft of Salem Village to make a fair comparison, but Starkey's injection of a fiction style to a factual narrative just didn't work for me.  The facts are there, of course, because the entire campaign was well-documented.  And for that much I suppose this is as good an account as any.  But one shouldn't have to struggle to figure out how much is fact and how much is speculation.


That she uses the phrase "the witchcraft" to encompass the larger episode on both sides is also irritating.  The efforts of the churchmen to identify, try, condemn, and execute the witches may have been part of their ideology and theology, but it was not part of any witchcraft. 


It is, however, worth noting that Starkey credits the infamy of the Salem Village episode with having at least some effect on decisions to separate ecclesiastical courts from justice courts as the various colonies evolved toward independence   That in itself is an idea to be explored.


I'd have given this three stars on the basis of the information, but the foggy narrative that seemed too much like "faction" than fact brought it down to two.


Halloween Bingo square -- Witches.