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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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“Case closed was decidedly un-American.”

(The Map of True Places 14)

This study marks the first comprehensive profile of literary Salem. Celebrating 200 years of Salem literature, the most prominent works of this corpus were analyzed regarding recurring themes and motifs in novels, stories, and plays set during the witch trials of 1692 on the one hand and, on the other, those set in contemporary Salem, one of the most famous lieux de mémoire in the United States. As such, my study also marks the first thorough analysis of several contemporary novels, particularly those of critically acclaimed authors Brunonia Barry and Katherine Howe.

In the present ten chapters, it was shown that Salem literature mirrors the real place and its history – from the significance given to land disputes in the development of the trials to the town’s modern fame as a tourist hotspot and center of Wiccan practice – but literature also overrides Salem history, as when the affair of John Proctor and Abigail Williams in The Crucible is cited as a reason for the outbreak of the accusations. Birgit Neumann states in “The Literary Representation of Memory” that “[s]‌hared interpretations of the past, but also incompatible memories of the shared collective past, become visible” (339) – literature thus supports and deconstructs pervasive images of the place in the cultural memory and the metaphorical meaning ‘Salem’ has taken on, a metaphor for the dangers of scapegoating and denunciation.

It was initially addressed...

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