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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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5. History Repeating


“It’s 1692 all over again.”

(The Lace Reader 171)

All the texts discussed in the analysis of contemporary Salem demonstrate the strong grip of the past on the present. In The House of the Seven Gables Clifford even voices his belief in the “ascending spiral curve,” a cyclic structure of history: “the past is but a coarse and sensual prophecy of the present and the future.” (259/260) The plays of Williams and Miller where “the past repeats itself” (Tituba’s Children 294) in the political climate of 1950s America showed how the Salem witch trials turned from a local phenomenon into an (inter)national metaphor. This chapter, on the other hand, addresses how topics of (inter)national significance are problematized in the shape of a Salem story back in the local, in Salem itself: in several contemporary novels, social structures in modern Salem mirror colonial Salem so strongly that history seems to be repeating itself. And it is of little surprise that in her afore-quoted character analysis, Brunonia Barry writes that “history repeating” is “Salem’s biggest fear.” (Happy Halloween! Love, Salem” n.pag.)

It was already discussed in II.3. how in The Lace Reader the modern Calvinists’ goal “to rid Salem of the witches” (170) lets the past eerily resurface, especially as the sermons of their leader, Cal Boynton, “were plagiarized from Cotton Mather, old movies, and any number of late-night televangelists. (144, emphasis mine)

Their dangerous power is exemplified in the subplot concerned...

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