Scapegoating Tradition in America

The Witches: Salem, 1692

By Stacy Schiff

We offer up this book by Stacy Schiff (Cleopatra: A Life, Véra: Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov, others) up not because it is the best ever about the dark side of American life. Instead, we spotlight it to illustrate the scapegoating and fear mongering we see in the 2016 presidential election has its routes in the very foundations of our country. And, too, because Schiff makes reading history and biography such a pleasure.

Here she tries to raise those dead for over three hundred years and restore flesh and minds to them. She succeeds, up to a degree. Though with a cast of hundreds, accused, accusers, religious jurists, and doubters, her excavation naturally offers up too many individuals to focus on any in-depth.

However, one thing becomes clear. It is that while accused witches languished in chains in fetid jails, everybody seemed chained by a stifling religious rigidity, superstition, unyielding call for conformity, astonishing Stasi-like self-policing, constant fear of nature and enemies, and ironic isolation on a vast continent; all this concentrating natural human emotions and urges, as if in a pressure cooker, until they boiled over. It’s a story repeated periodically, though in different guises, throughout American history. Thus, while the events are old, the lessons are current.

You’ll see these things for yourself, for what Schiff does well is paint a very detailed history of events. Even more, she does a very good job of recreating what life was like in earliest colonial times. Walking though museums and recreated towns glosses over the hardness and harshness of life in the New World. You can’t but help feeling grateful you’re living in the twenty-first century.

Though Schiff doesn’t offer much in the way of analysis, apart from cursory commentary at the end, and doesn’t draw connections to future events in America’s development, thoughtful readers will see the flowing forward right up to today.

Schiff’s storytelling style makes for easy reading, though the whole affair gets repetitious after a few hundred pages. Includes footnotes, a bibliography, and index, for those who wish to explore the subject further. w/c

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