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Salem – A Literary Profile

Themes and Motifs in the Depiction of Colonial and Contemporary Salem in American Fiction

Clara Petino

To this day, Salem, Massachusetts, is synonymous with the witch trials of 1692. Their unique pace and structure has not only made the infamous town a strong cultural metaphor, but has generated countless novels, short stories, and plays over the past 200 years. This book marks the first comprehensive analysis of literary Salem and its historical as well as contemporary significance, from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s literature of the 19th century to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible to a growing corpus of contemporary fiction.

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4. Literary Memory

Extract

“Around every corner of Salem lurks a history lesson.”

(The Lace Reader 12)

This chapter traces how literature mirrors and fosters the memory culture in Salem. For unlike Danvers (historical Salem Village where the accusations started) Salem (Town) is shaped by the witch trials to this day – as one of the most prominent lieux de mémoire in the United States, witch-related tourism is the city’s most important source of income.

Salem’s difficult relation to the past, its exploration and exploitation, is hence also frequently discussed in literature. Brunonia Barry’s protagonists, for instance, sneer at the Salem city officials’ unsuccessful attempt “to limit the number of haunted houses that can be erected within one city block,” (The Lace Reader 13) and critically comment on Salem’s “endless array of tourist traps.” (The Map of True Places 159) But Salem literature also has an educative function. In The Lace Reader misinformation on the witch trials is corrected sarcastically (“So do they still burn witches in this town?” – “They don’t burn them, they hang them,”311 202), and the protagonists of both Mather’s and Howe’s young-adult novels study the witch trials in school. In How to Hang a Witch Sam and her classmates even contribute to “Salem’s annual history fair by doing a historical reenactment,” (28) and they undertake a school excursion to Gallows Hill, until recently believed to have been the site of the executions. Yet while Sam – new in town – thinks that “it’s kinda creepy...

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