Stacy Schiff taken to task for stereotyping the Puritans in her new book about the Salem Witchcraft Trials

Historians in the News
tags: Puritans, Stacy Schiff, Salem Witchcraft Trials

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 Kaminsky.

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.”...

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