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The Self-Flattering Assumptions Behind Stacy Schiff’s “The Witches”

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Schiff and her researchers parachuted into the Puritan world bringing nothing but the current fashionable, fixed, and self-serving idea of Puritans as sanctimonious scourges and prigs.

By Jim Sleeper

Stacy Schiff was “dressed up like a whiskered black cat to play along with the Halloween costume edition of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” enthused an item in USA TODAY, noting that Schiff’s fat new book, The Witches: Salem, 1692, “was published (cleverly) on Oct. 27 to take advantage of the witchy holiday” and that Colbert “was surprised to learn from Schiff that the Salem witches were hanged, not burned at the stake. ‘That’s much nicer than burning, kind of a happier ending than I thought,’ the host joked.”

But it’s taken more than a joke and a broomstick to whisk Schiff from a Manhattan Barnes & Noble on Oct. 27 to a Cambridge bookstore on Oct. 28, to Portsmouth, New Hampshire on Oct 29, back to Gotham for a New York Public Library luncheon and “The Late Show”, then to Philadelphia on Nov. 2, the Smithsonian the next day—and many more, right up to (drum roll, please) Salem, Massachusetts.

That part of the schedule is just for starters: Miami? Savannah? She’s going. Meanwhile, not only Colbert but credulous reviewers are crediting The Witches with unearthing new revelations about Puritans. Soaring to the top of best-sellerdom has required a long excerpt in the Sept. 7 New Yorker and no fewer than four New York Times features in one week, including an Oct. 22 interview; an Oct 25 Sunday Review column by Schiff; a laudatory Oct. 26 review of “her haunting new book… the first major commercial nonfiction book on the subject”; and, on Nov. 1, a long (and, at last, a knowing, indeed, scathing) assessment by the historian of colonial America Jane Kamensky.

Great yarns and myths can be retold brilliantly by talented writers like Schiff, who won a Pulitzer for Vera: Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov. But she and her eight (!) researchers parachuted into the Puritan world bringing nothing but the current fashionable, fixed, and self-serving idea of Puritans as sanctimonious scourges and prigs. Schiff reinforces that idea by cherry-picking her subjects’ voluminous preachments, diaries, and even weather reports with the creepy, faux-solicitous intimacy that the worst Puritan judges brought to their own examinations of accused young women in Salem.

There were other, far better dimensions in Puritanism, as I explained this summer in “Our Puritan Heritage” in these pages. On their better side, Puritans, admittedly sometimes almost despite themselves, gestated some of our best but now-disappearing civic-republican understandings of how to balance personal conscience with communal obligation and how to keep capitalism in its place without crushing it. “It is a true rule that particular estates cannot subsist in the ruin of the public,” said John Winthrop, first governor of their “city upon a hill” in Massachusetts.

When the Gilded Age’s “new money” would-be aristocrats revived a simulacrum of Winthrop’s faith to give their plutocratic ambitions some gravitas and steel, their faux-Puritanism was debunked mercilessly and effectively by H.L. Mencken as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

Mencken’s words have stuck to the Puritans for decades. But instead of curbing our continuing compulsion to bash them in order to feel better about ourselves, Schiff intensifies it, even salting her account of the trials with anachronisms that serve our prejudices. For example, she characterizes a stubborn, rear-guard defender of the witch trials as “a surviving 1963 Dallas Secret Service agent hawking his wares.”

Far too many such cheap metaphors compromise her account, hyped at a “Now it can really be told!” pitch. Once again, an author and her publishers have joined to strip-mine American history and civil society for sensation and sales. In her Times column about how today’s Salem has been commercializing, ironizing, and thereby trivializing its Puritan past, Schiff writes that “in a sense we’ve moved from tragedy to farce without the pause for history in between.” But the Halloween-style huckstering here is hers.

I’m not suggesting that Schiff, much less her publishers, has a particular ideological or polemical agenda. They’re simply captive to fixed assumptions and market imperatives that happen to be selling. When we assail Puritans as sanctimonious scourges and shout, “Out, damned spot!” at any suggestion that we could learn something from them, we’re only projecting onto them our fear that our own domestic and international conduct is more murderous and degrading and hypocritical than theirs was.

The novelist John Irving has likened our compulsion to displace our own sins onto the Puritans—a compulsion borne of tormented consciences that we call “puritanical”—to wearing dirty socks that we never wash or discard but keep turning inside out and putting on again and again. Even some of our “liberated” LGBTQ moralism about sex and race winds up recapitulating the worst Puritan sanctimony and repression, as sobering reassessments of “rape culture” accusations in Rolling Stone, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, and the Yale Daily News have shown.

Hyping such charges sensationally instead of assessing them is profitable for a publishing industry whose moral opportunism, as Bookforum editor Chris Lehmann wrote years ago, is rivaled by few professions “for timorousness and predictability, or for the enforcement of the most sterile kind of groupthink…. So blinding is the publishing world’s hubris, so numbing its traffic in bosh and piffle, that it often simply defeats those of us who by historical accident have come to serve as its civilian interlocutors.”

When I was writing my book Liberal Racism back in 1996, an editor asked me to “put more red meat up front” in the book. These days, conglomerate-owned book publishing, quite as much as in journalism, is driven to maximize profit and market share, not ideas. Hence the jeremiadic arm-waving about undergraduate crises in William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep, which nearly shrieks about “the panic, the exhaustion, the sense of emptiness and aimlessness, the fearfulness and cynicism” of students at highly selective colleges, along with “the mediocrity, the cluelessness that comes of social segregation….”

Which brings us back to The Witches. Publishers could still profit, but not as handsomely, from books that evoke the more loving, communal, just, and courageous dimensions of Puritanism that the Yale historian John Demos presents in his Bancroft Prize-winning The Unredeemed Captive and in his books about witchcraft itself, Entertaining Satan and The Enemy Within.

Instead of zig-zagging as Schiff’s narrative does among so many possible causes of the witch hysteria that its origins come to seem almost as spectral as witchery itself, Demos emphasizes the effects of the terrifying Indian Wars and of the Puritans’ own sectarian factionalism. There’s no comparison between Demos’s or Kamensky’s work and Schiff’s caricaturing some of the best of America’s civic origins to ease our own compromised consciences and careers.

In a remarkable 2001 essay, “Quarrels With Providence,” Lewis Lapham recounts that Yale College, founded by Puritans in 1701, remained three centuries later still “geared to the production of a ministerial elite, still pious and orthodox, but secular in spirit and corporate by inclination.”

The point isn’t that we should or can return to Puritan ways. It’s that, if we can understand what was best in them well enough to reckon with what’s lacking in ourselves, we can hope to avoid recapitulating what was worst. These days, we’re doing too much of the latter, marching on in a beheaded Calvinism whose soulless discipline we punctuate with marketed bacchanals (the gladitorialization of sports, the pornification of entertainment) and grand-strategic brutalities (the Iraq War, the “Global War on Terror”) that are degrading enough to create a market for displacing the horror onto past witch trials.

“It turns out to be eminently useful to have a disgrace in our past,” Schiff insists in her conclusion. “Salem endures not only as a metaphor but as a vaccine and a taunt”—a vaccine against a temptation to disgrace others, a taunt against self-righteousness.

But will a hyped and obsessive account of Salem’s witch-hunting vaccinate today’s readers against the new, supposedly liberating premises and protocols that wind up suppressing more social freedom than they enable? Or will they merely drive the credulous and conscience-stricken among us to turn their dirty socks inside out?

Jim Sleeper is the author of The Closest of Strangers and Liberal Racism, and teaches a political science seminar at Yale on “Journalism, Liberalism, and Democracy.”

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