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Friday, March 1, 2019

March 1, 2019: The Salem Witch Trials: Collective Memories

[On March 1st, 1692, authorities in Salem, MA questioned Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and the slave known as Tituba over allegations of witchcraft, the first event in what would become the Salem Witch Trials. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Salem Witch Trials contexts and legacies.]
On two very different but not disconnected ways to remember the Salem Witch Trials.
As this week’s posts have illustrated, the Salem Witch Trials comprise one of America’s lowest points, a moment when the kinds of discrimination, hatred, and over-zealous self-righteousness that can characterize any human community (especially a self-defined “city on a hill”) congealed into a period of frenzy and terror which left a score of innocent people dead. The question of how 21st century Americans reconnect with that extreme period, with indeed whether it’s even possible for us to recognize and analyze the kinds of individual and communal attitudes and perspectives that can lead to such madness, is to my mind a profoundly important one, not only for our understandings of American history but also for our ability to analyze our own identities and communities. Few questions are more serious and significant.
So of course the primary way Salem has chosen to remember the Witch Trials is deeply, deeply silly. The so-called “witch city” has entirely embraced that designation, from semi-highbrow institutions like the Salem Witch Museum to thoroughly lowbrow ones like the numerous occult shops and t-shirt vendors and the like. For the entire month of October the city becomes America’s unofficial but undisputed Halloween headquarters. One of its prominent squares even features a statue of Bewitched’s Samantha (donated by the cable network TV Land, in honor of the two-part Bewitched special episode set in Salem that helped turn the city into the tourist attraction it now is), for crying out loud. For AmericanStudiers like this one, the city’s embrace of the occult can seem irritatingly trivial at best, and downright offensive to the victims and memories of the Trials at worst. Yet it’s also possible to argue that the Witch City moniker has brought much more attention and tourism to Salem than would otherwise be the case—and, this argument might proceed, once that awareness and those visitors are present, it’s entirely possible for them to gain additional and more complex perspectives on the city’s history.
Without doubt, at least to my mind, the city’s best opportunity for such shifts and strengthenings of perspectives lies in the Witch Trials Memorial. As I wrote in this post, I think the Memorial represents the very best of what public art can be and do; and like all such public art, it depends on your presence to achieve those effects (so nothing I write here, nor even the photo at the first link in this paragraph, can do it justice). Moreover, unlike another complex and powerful work that seeks to remember the Trials, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1952), the Memorial does not in any way link the Trials to 20th or 21st century events, nor make any other concessions to a contemporary audience; instead, its great success lies in its ability to transport its visitors into a combination of emotions (holiness and horror, peace and pain, calm and chaos, injustice and inspiration) that capture both the heart of the Trials and their continued presence and effects in our collective consciousness. But of course it can’t achieve that success if folks don’t visit it—and maybe the Witch City narratives, silly as they can seem, can bring a lot more such visitors to the Memorial.
February Recap this weekend,
PS. What do you think?

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