I fell asleep last night reading Charles Wentworth Upham on the Salem witch trials. First published in 1867, the work is prey to racism common at the time, though Upham seems rather uneasy at the genocide of the Native Americans. He also doesn’t mention chattel slavery in the colonial period more than glancingly–of course, with the Civil War reaching its final bloody conclusion two years earlier, he may have thought it indelicate to refer to. There’s also a regrettable lack of women in his text–they’re wives or daughters, rarely even rating their own name. It will be interesting to see how he approaches the actual trial events themselves.
Right now (well, a good 200 pages in) he’s carefully laying out all the property disputes that set the stage for the witchcraft fury, untangling the resentments that no doubt gave it dry fuel. Surprisingly, for a man who no doubt had several Confederate sympathies, he seems to be trying to be…fair and even-handed? Kind of? At least, he has the idea that we cannot point out a mote of dust in historical eyes without dealing with the beams in our own to some extent.
“They did not understand the great truth which Hugh Peters preached to Parliament, “Why,” said he, “cannot Christians differ, and yet be friends? All children should be fed, though they have different faces and shapes: unity, not uniformity, is the Christian word.” They admitted no such notion as this. They thought uniformity the only basis of unity. They meant to make and to keep this a country after their own pattern, a Congregational, Puritan, Cambridge-Platform-man’s country. The time has not yet come when we can lift up clean hands against them. Two successive chief-magistrates of the United States have opened the door and signified to one-eighth part of our whole people, that it will be best for them to walk out. So long as the doctrine is maintained that this is the white man’s country, or any man’s, or any class or kind of men’s country, it becomes us to close our lips against denunciation of the Fathers of New England because they tried to keep the country to themselves.” Excerpt From: Charles Wentworth Upham. “Salem Witchcraft, Volumes I and II.” iBooks.
I’d be more impressed if he wasn’t the guy who got Hawthorne dismissed from the Salem customs-house, or if he hadn’t gotten Jones Very institutionalized. I’d be truly impressed if he went the extra step and denounced genocide and chattel slavery in America as the cancer it was, and remains. Still, the book is public domain, and it remains a good and careful tracing of a seminal event in American history.
One of the side effects of reading about the Puritans is a distressing feeling of having sinned just by breathing. (This was particularly marked when I read Cotton Mather and watched The Witch in short order; Puritanism is somewhat of a virus, and its infection of the American body politic is insidious.) This morning’s coffee felt like a stolen pleasure, hence all the more intensely enjoyable. I’m going to need a palate cleanser after going from Serge’s Russia: Twenty Years After straight to Upham. Maybe that latest Bernie Gunther novel.
*wanders away, muttering about the Colonial Era*