Think back to American history class. What, if anything, do you remember about the 1600s? Puritans, pilgrims, Thanksgiving and the Salem witch trials, right? And how much of what you remember about the Salem witch trials is actually based on The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s very 20th century, allegorical play about control, power and governance?
Stacy Schiff, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and scholar known for her fascinating and freshly framed biographies of historical figures including Cleopatra and Benjamin Franklin, has a new book out called The Witches, Salem 1692 that delves into this enduring moment in American history. It’s written in a lively and engaging style that brings into sharp relief the many spiritual and physical terrors of Puritan life on the edge of the wilderness. We chatted on the phone with Schiff, who is appearing at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, in conversation with Jodi Kantor, tonight, Nov. 12, at 7:30pm.
Brooklyn Based: Salem is a story that seems to capture our imaginations so strongly, why is that? It’s not the only story of witchcraft in American history.
Stacy Schiff: It’s fascinating, the story is both loopy and delusional and utterly seminal. It’s so rich and so much of what contributes to this episode is still at work today.
How do you mean?
It’s an apocalyptic, absolutionist strain of thinking that we still see today in political debate. It’s a frontier mentality–it’s about intruders, really, whether we’re talking about building a wall against Mexico or about diabolical intruders flying through the air. It’s all about terror, terrorists, being out there.
So the idea of diabolical intruders–what really did people in Salem think of when they said the word, “witch” in 1692?
It’s difficult to square as a modern reader, you think, “These are our enlightened, bible-loving ancestors” and the idea of witches and a witch trial seems absolutely medieval. You have to keep reminding yourself as you read that this was not delusional thinking, from their point of view. There was a palpable sense of the devil, and confederates of the devil could assume any form. There had been reports of witchcraft in Boston in 1688–the devil, in this world view, is constantly after your soul.
You’ve written biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Cleopatra and other historical figures–how was it different researching and writing about an event with so many players and motivations?
This was more of a horizontal story–the others were more vertical, conceptually. It was a relief, really, to have different sensibilities, to be able to slip around and see different sides of the events.
What are you reading right now?
Whenever I finish I project there’s this moment where I realize, I get to go back and really read books again. The Mary Karr memoir book [The Art of Memoir] is in my bag right now. I recently read Black Swan Green by David Mitchell–he’s such a beautiful writer. And you know, I re-read Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum…
That’s so funny, I just put that book in my re-read pile, too. I love that novel!
It’s so structurally brilliant, I just love it.
Do you have a list of subjects or historical events you’d like to write about in the future?
I have this idea that I’m looking for a moment in time when people do the right thing in a stressful time in history.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.