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New book takes page-turning approach to Salem witches

Just in time for Halloween, there’s a new book out about the Salem witch trials.

It’s not clear  we needed a new book about the Salem witch trials, but it’s coming anyway. The Witches: Salem, 1692, is due out from Little, Brown and Company on Oct. 27. The book is written by Stacy Schiff, who has previously penned popular works on Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Véra Nabokov, Benjamin Franklin and Cleopatra. She won a Pulitzer for Véra: (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov) and achieved bestseller status with Cleopatra: A Life. Now she turns her attention to Puritan New England.

The jacket copy promises a book that is “as psychologically thrilling as it is historically seminal,” and says “the first great American mystery” will be “unveiled fully for the first time.”

Schiff, for her part, acknowledges a lot of historical work has been done on Salem, but says she wanted to take a different approach.

“Most of the really good books,” Schiff told Publishers Weekly, “are thesis driven: it was geographic hostility, or it was the trauma of Indian warfare, or it was conversion disorder. I felt that was cheating. The whole point is that you want readers to want to turn the page—you don’t want to tell them, here’s what you should be thinking . . . I wanted the reader to pick up the hints and put them together. Only at the end do I say, oh, yes—if you saw this and this and this, that’s how the pieces fit together.”

Some early reviews have been critical on exactly this point.

41+p60iyA1L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Library Journal Review reports that “Schiff’s goal appears to be creating a complete accounting—it’s hard to tell, though, because the work is weak in structure and organization and lacks a solid thesis.”

Kirkus faintly praises the book for being “intelligent and reliable,” but generally dismisses the effort. According to its review, “While Schiff has marshaled the facts in neat sequential order … she doesn’t have anything new to say or at least nothing that would come as a revelation to even general readers, until the final pages.”

Others found the narrative approach to the story of the Salem witches more compelling. Booklist Review, for example, calls Witches “a compulsively readable slice of Americana that will appeal to both book clubs and a wide variety of
individual readers.”

Some reviewers are also arguing that Schiff’s work is very thesis-driven, even if she doesn’t come right out and declaim it.

In the Minneapolis, Minn. Star Tribune, reviewer Hamilton Cain writes that “Schiff nimbly connects Salem’s fatal mania to subsequent witch-hunts, such as McCarthyism and the rise of Movement conservatism, revealing how close we remain to the specters and demons that stalked the Bay Colony more than three centuries ago.”

At the Atlantic, reviewer Adam Goodheart reports that Schiff re-tells the witch trials as befits “our own peculiar cultural moment.” She places the children at the center of the story, not unlike what one finds in wildly popular young adult fiction, like Harry Potter and Twilight. She also connects the hysteria to, among other things, problems of media and the uneven distribution of knowledge. Demonic possession is imagined as a matter of memes.

“The whole scholarly infrastructure of the 17th century—books, universities, learned societies—helped disseminate accounts of witchcraft and its dangers to the far ends of the Christian world,” Goodheart writes. “The judges in Massachusetts, and probably also some of the accusers, were deeply influenced by accounts of a witch outbreak in distant Sweden some years earlier. Witchcraft was science, and vice versa.”

Readers can judge for themselves at the end of the month. Or, for a sneak peak, check out the extended excerpt of Schiff’s book in the New Yorker.

“In isolated settlements, in smoky, fire-lit homes,” Schiff writes, setting the scene. “New Englanders lived very much in the dark . . . The seventeenth-century sky was crow black, pitch-black, Bible black, so black that it could be difficult at night to keep to the path, so black that a line of trees might freely migrate to another location, or that you might find yourself pursued by a rabid black hog, leaving you to crawl home on all fours, bloody and disoriented.”

Just in time for Halloween.

— Daniel Silliman

Edit Jonathan Edwards

Volunteer editors are wanted for a new project that will make more of Jonathan Edwards’ sermons — some of which have not been studied since they were first preached more than 250 years ago — widely available.

The Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale has announced the launch of the “Global Accelerated Sermon Editing Project” this week, and is inviting scholars, pastors, graduate students and interested lay people to help edit transcripts of 750 sermons.

According to the Center, there are about 1,200 manuscripts of Edwards sermons that have survived from the 18th century. Of those, 750 have been transcribed. The literal transcriptions replicate, as much as possible, the peculiarities of the originals.  Irregular line length, spelling, shorthand, etc., have been maintained from the originals, which means the texts are difficult for the modern reader. Edwards’ sermons were often written on scraps of paper, with inconsistent and archaic spelling, such as “alwaies” for “always,” and a lack of punctuation. The aim of this new effort is to edit the sermons to make them more accessible, and then to make the edited sermons widely available online and in print-on-demand volumes.

To do that, volunteers are needed.

Volunteers will use the Edwards Centers online software, and submit edited texts for review by the Jonathan Edwards Center, which is led by Kenneth P. Minkema, executive editor and director, and Adriaan C. Neele, associate editor and director. The edited sermons will go through a review-and-revision process, the staff working with the volunteer editors, and then the volunteer editors will have the option of drafting a head note summarizing the sermon and highlighting interesting features for future scholars. The work of the volunteers will be acknowledged in the online and print editions of the sermons.

This is your opportunity, the Center at Yale says, “to work with an original Edwards text that has not been heard since he first preached it.”

The editing project has set a goal of 50 sermons edited in the first year.

Those interested should direct inquiries to: edwards@yale.edu.


— Daniel Silliman


We at the Jonathan Edwards Center Germany are proud to announce the official inauguration of the center will be held on July 11, 2012.

There will be a number of presentations and a panel discussion, with a keynote address by Peter J. Thuesen, Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, author of the acclaimed Predestination: The American Career of a Contentious Doctrine, and editor of the final volume of The Works of Jonathan Edwards.

Thuesen will speak on Edward’s reading and intellectual formation, using Edward’s studies as a window into the 18th century history of ideas.

Thuesen has written extensively on the development of Edward’s thinking. In The Princeton Companion to Jonathan Edwards, he examined the wide range of Edwards’ reading, and looked at the “competing influences” on his thought. Edwards’ thinking was not only shaped by traditional Puritan sources, Theusen argued, but also by a wide array of Enlightenment thinkers, such as John Locke, the Cambridge Platonists, and even the deists and Arminians that Edwards so fiercely opposed.

Thuesen explored this subject in more depth in Vol. 26 of Edward’s collected works, where he wrote a 113-page critical introduction to the first-ever publication of the Puritan preacher’s personal record of books of interest, and the notebook where he kept track of books he loaned to family, friends, and fellow clergy. In looking at these records, Thuesen traced Edwards’ reading agenda, shedding light on the “mental universe” Edwards’ inhabited.

At the Heidelberg Center for American Studies on July 11, Thuesen will turn his attention to the light Edwards’ studies shed on thinking in the trans-Atlantic world of the 18th century.

For more information or details about attending the inauguration, e-mail Daniel Silliman at dsilliman@hca.uni-heidelberg.de.


— Daniel Silliman