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Archive for May, 2013

Margaret Rule Redux

with 7 comments

This is my big teaching day, so I really don’t have time to write a proper post.

I did want to respond to jd’s assertion that the story of Margaret Rule–that was the name of the teen-aged girl Increase and Cotton Mather had strip to below the waist so that they could rub her naked body in an attempt to “cure” her from being tormented by the spectral presence of a witch–anyway, that the story must have come from private documents.

In fact, it came from PUBLIC records.

This was, first, because the Mathers were not secretive about what they were doing.

They invited their neighbors in to watch the “treatment,” and the neighbors told the story all over town.

It was also reported in Robert Calef’s book castigating the Mathers about their part in what became known as “the witchcraft.”

The Mathers were shocked and outraged when the people of Boston and other towns simply assumed that they were rubbing the girl not to treat her, but to…well, to rub her.

The people of Puritan New England were considerably less prissy about this kind of thing than people would be a hundred years later. 

I think I said on the blog that Perry Miller did not report this incident.

When I went back to look over the text, I found that although he did not report it, he did allude to it, very obliquely, so that if you did not already know about it you wouldn’t know what he was talking about.

I then found that he alluded to an awful lot more that I wish I knew about.

Cotton Mather is said to have not as much control over his carnal appetites as he should have had. 

Exactly what that is supposed to mean is not made clear, but the implication is that  people who read Miller’s history at the time he wrote it–the early 1950s–would probably have already known.

Miller also says, without compromise, that Cotton Mather was “neurotic.”

I think we can give him that, even if the meaning of “neurotic” isn’t really clear.

I agree with Cheryl that a lot of the sex abuse trials in recent history have proceeded under what would normally be unConstitutional as ex post facto laws–but there’s been a lot of that going around.

And now, it being my big teaching day, I’d better go pack up.


Written by janeh

May 8th, 2013 at 6:25 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Sex in Massachusetts

with 3 comments

So, the month wrapped and I still hadn’t gotten around to posting a list of the April books, and then in between not doing that and finally doing it, I read another book, and then–

 Okay, so let’s back up a little.

I want to talk about a book, sort of, and things the book connects to in my life and thinking.

And that book–called The Devil in Massachusetts, by Marion L. Starkey–will appear as the first on the May list. 

It’s a short book and a very good one, but that doesn’t begin to cover the issue here.

So I’ll start with–

By now, anybody who has read this blog  regularly knows that I am very much interested in all things New England, and especially in New England history,  intellectual history, and literature.

Because of this, I sometimes get accused of “liking” things I don’t actually like–the works of the New England Transcendentalists, for instance.

Ralph Waldo Emerson makes my head ache, and I think Hawthorne–although a more interesting and powerful mind–is a leaden writer who tells too much and shows too little.

Still, I am interested in them both, because they are part of a region and a history that are deeply a part of me. 

Sometimes I get interested in things simply for the fact that they belong to me. 

I never studied American history in a classroom setting after I got past high school. 

Over the course of my life, my reading patterns have mimicked my father’s–lots of novels to start, veering into nonfiction, veering into general history, veering into American history.

I have no idea why that should be the case, but there it is. 

The book in question–Marion L. Starkey’s The Devil in Massachusetts–has been lying around my house for a long time.

I think I may have gotten it from the History Book Club back when Bill was still alive.

For a long time, I resisted reading it, because I assumed that it was a contemporary book, and contemporary books on the Salem witch trials make me very nervous.

Too many of them take a Women’s Studies approach to the issue, which ends up being a lot of ahistorical fulminating about Sexism and Repression and Older Women as the Other.

I own a number of very good books written by academics in Women’s Study, including one of my favorites (Women of the Left Bank, by Shari Benstock), but there is a particular WS mental illness that creeps into a lot of this stuff, and I’d rather not bother.

I picked up The Devil in Massachusetts this time because I had just finished rereading Gone With The Wind.  GWTW is long and fiction.  I wanted something short and nonfiction to follow it with.

Me being me, there is not a lot of short on my TBR pile, but my younger son dutifully started deconstructing the thing to see what we could find, and this was what turned up.

I read the introduction cautiously, and it was good news and what I thought might be bad news.

The good news was that The Devil in Massachusetts was not written by a contemporary Women’s Studies professor.  It wasn’t written by a professor at all.

The author, Marion L. Starkey, was one of those  amateur historians from the  Thirties, Forties and Fifties who seem to have died out with the coming of Major Social Change.

I’m not sure why.  In general, these writers–and they’re almost all women–wrote clearer and more interesting history than most professionals, and the world is poorer for the passing of people like Barbara Tuchman and Catherine Drinker Bowen.

And yes, I do  know that Alison Weir is still writing.

At any rate, Marion L. Starkey was not a Women’s Studies person but one of these, and that made me very happy.

What made me less happy was her announced intent to bring Freudian analysis to bear on the witchcraft incident.

So I started with the feeling that I might have to pitch the thing across the room a few times before I finished it.

As it turned out, I had nothing to worry about.  Whatever Starkey meant about taking Freud into account in understanding the witch trials, it did not result in the kind of heavy handed “exploration” of everybody’s subconscious motivations accompanied by overconfident declarations of the existence of the Oedipus Complex that I’m used to in the worst of Freudian criticism.

In fact, it didn’t seem to me to engage in any Freudian criticism at all. 

It puzzled me for a while, and I finally came to the conclusion that Starkey’s interest in Freud had led her to report–and analyze–a set of incidents and circumstances I’d never read about before.

Those incidences and circumstances pertain specifically to the character and life of Cotton Mather and his father, Increase Mather.

And they’re a pip.

Increase and Cotton Mather were big time intellectual heavyweights in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, active as both ministers and politicians in every important issue of the day.

Puritan New England was an intellectual society that placed enormous emphasis on study and erudition.  These are the people, after all, whose first act after hatcheting a living out of a wilderness was to found Harvard.

And I already knew something about Increase and Cotton Mather, including the fact that Increase wrote a book about how to discern true witchcraft from false allegations that was–well, let’s just say that if you ever came to trial for any reason, you wouldn’t want your court to be relying on those rules.

The Mathers were not intellectuals I respected, and there were a number of other intellectuals in the colony at the time (and later) that I respect very much.


You’ve got to understand that witch trials were driven by accusers who claim to be possessed by witches who sent their spectral bodies to pinch,  hit and otherwise torment their neighbors.

And these accusers–the girls who claimed to be afflicted by witches–were almost always  teen-aged girls.

Afflicted girls would fall down to the ground and writhe in fits and tell the authorities that the “spectral body” of Mrs. X was grabbing at them and giving them pain.

The authorities would t hen arrest Mrs. X and “examine’  her.  Then they would demand that she confess.  If she would not confess,  she would be sent to trial and convicted.  If she would still not confess, she would be hanged.

And she would inevitably be convicted, because the assumption was that “the devil can’t appear in the form of the righteous.”

That is, if the Accuser saw the “spectral body” of Mrs. X, it really was Mrs. X, because the Devil was incapable of sending a spectral body that looked like a good Christian.

If this is beginning to sound to you like what was going on in the day care child sex abuse hysteria of the Nineties–children never lie about being abused!–it is.  In fact,  it’s virtually exact. 

It’s exact right down to the “if you confess, we won’t totally destroy your life” bit.  Gerald Amirault remained in jail for decades because he adamantly refused to “confess” to something  he didn’t do.  Salem’s accused witches went to the gallows for the same refusal.

And you think this thing can’t happen any more. 

At any rate, Increase Mather didn’t start the Salem witch trials and he didn’t participate in them, but he also did nothing to stop them and did a lot to insure that the hysteria continued  unabated far longer than it would have done by endorsing (albeit ambiguously) that business about how the devil couldn’t appear as the spectral body of a good person.

And his son Cotton was worse.

Anyway, I knew all that before I started this book.  And Increase and Cotton Mather were never among my favorite New England people.

But then came the information I’d never read before.

The first inkling I got that something was even more wrong with the Mathers than I’d realized was when Starkey reported that Cotton Mather would often take “afflicted” girls to help “cure” them of the influence of witches upon them.

Cotton Mather was, by then, a middle aged man.  His father was an old man.  And these were teen-aged girls.


But then there was the report of an incident–actually, a series of incidents–where the Mathers took in an afflicted girl and then called the neighbors in to watch while they worked to affect a “cure” of demon possession.

The cure consisted of stripping the girl to well below the waist and having father and son rub her naked breasts and belly until she stopped having “fits” and calmed down.

I mean–um?

And no, the people of the time were not all in awe of the Mathers or driven into blindness by the idea that important ministers like the two of them couldn’t possibly  be engaged in–well, what that looked like.

Increase and Cotton, however, were outraged at any suggestion that what they were doing had anything to do with sex.  And they were powerful enough in the colony that you didn’t want them outraged at you.

In the long run, it didn’t matter.  The witch trials destroyed both of them.  Their reputations haven’t recovered to this day.

My problem is that I can’t get the image out of my head, and it’s a foul and nasty image.  Those two old man, rubbing and rubbing at the breasts and bellies of a girl younger than their own daughters, with an audience of neighbors for a kick.

It’s like the plot of a bad porn movie.

And I will never, ever be able to think of the Mathers in any other way but this.

I followed The Devil in Massachusetts with volume two of Perry Miller’s intellectual history of New England, The New England Mind: From Colony to Province.

He devotes a chapter and a half to the witch hysteria, without, of course, mentioning the Mathers and their young girls.

Miller has no  more use for the Mathers than I ever did.  Even without the young girls, it’s hard to see how anybody could have any use for them except as cautionary tales for stopping witch hunts–and given the day care sex abuse hysteria, we aren’t using them for that.

But the young girls are, I think, an important piece of information–a part of what caused both Increase and Cotton to think about witches and witch trials in the way they did.

Maybe that’s how Freud affected Starkey’s writing of this history.

Unlike everyone else, once she was in possession of the information about t hose girls, she thought it was important to report it.

Written by janeh

May 7th, 2013 at 8:53 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The April List

with 4 comments

I know, I know.  I’m a little late here.   But May 1st was a Wednesday, my biggest teaching day, and I’m trying to finish a new Gregor.

That being said, I’ve got the list, and the notes.

I do want to point out one thing–there is a novel on this month’s list, and I intend to go into my feelings about it at length.

If you don’t want spoilers, stop reading when the title comes up.

I hate that thing where people write SPOILERS in capital letters and make that sort of fuss about it, so you are forewarned.

The list is this:

24) Eric Alterman.  Why We’re Liberals:  A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals.

25) David Hackett Fischer.  Albion’s Seed: Four  British Folkways in America.

26) Corliss Lamont.  The Philosophy of Humanism.

27) Margaret Mitchell.  Gone With The Wind.

          e) Avram Davidson.  “The Necessity of His Condition.”

And, the notes:

Alterman is a columnist for The Nation, and earlier known for a book called What Liberal Media?

This was actually a reread for me.  One of my sons bought it for me when it first came out in hardcover, around my birthday a few years ago.

The format, which is a kind of question and answer thing, is really helpful. 

And the book is very good at getting across positions for a certain brand of liberalism, and on that basis I would definitely recommend it.

What’s more, there’s a lot less of the casual snobbery you get in many of these things, and the man is remarkably clear and admirably lacking in arrogance in most of what he writes.

Unfortunately, he does tend to go for the straw man in all the predictable places, and in some–discussing the work of Charles Murray, for instance–he leaves the realm of valid argument altogether.

On matters of liberal argument,  he’s good.  On matters of liberal faith–well, he’s responding from faith.  It shows.

Especially interesting is his attempt to connect modern-day Liberalism with the Liberalism of Locke and Mill.

The argument is torturous, and it doesn’t work.  The principles of modern liberalism–and especially modern liberalism’s understanding of the relationship between citizen and government–are in near polar opposition to what goes by the name of Liberal today.

Still, Alterman’s exposition is interesting, and especially interesting because he so obviously wants there to be a connection.

I went into Albion’s Seed here on another occassion, so I’ll skip it here.

Corliss Lamont’s The Philosophy of Humanism was another reread for me, and the second time around gave me pause about my ability to remember what’s in a book when I haven’t reread it in a few years.

Corliss Lamont was one of the original signers of the first Humanist Manifesto and one of the founders of the American Humanist Association.

He was also an outright apologist for Stalinism while it was going on and unrepentant about that fact for all of his life, which lasted into the Sixties. 

It’s a fact that nobody at the American Humanist Association these days seems to care about one way or the other, if they even know.  And there’s a lot of not knowing. 

Lamont was the uncle of Democratic Senate candidate Ned Lamont, who tried to take Joe Liebermann’s seat a few election cycles ago.

During that period, politic discussion groups on the Web buzzed with people outing CL’s Stalinist support and other people declaring that it was all just a lie.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t.

In case you’re wondering, I never did buy this book.  Several years ago, it used to be the standard premium for subscribing to The Humanist magazine, which I did on and off in those days.  As a result, I ended up with two copies.

When I read this book the first time, I remember being very angry at it. 

When I read it this time, I found myself being just flabbergasted.

A lot of it consists of lists–these people are declared Humanists, these other people were probably Humanists even though they said they weren’t because when they lived they couldn’t say they weren’t without getting into a lot of trouble.

What all this reminded me of was a participant in an Internet discussion group I knew a few years ago who would every once in a while insist that lots of particular religious people–say, William F. Buckley–weren’t really believers.  They just said they were believers because once they lost their faith, they were stuck with all their public expressions of belief and didn’t want to embarrass themselves by recanting.

How did the participant know these people were no longer believers?  Well, they couldn’t be.  They were too intelligent.

Yeah, I know, okay.

The bottom line, however, is that this book  just does not set out the philosophy of modern Humanism–or any philosophy of any modern Humanism–clearly enough or with enough detail to be useful to someone trying to find out what modern Humanism is all about.

As far as I know, there is no such book.  Which is too bad.  It would be a  useful thing to have. 

(And no, the New Atheism books are not useful here.  They’re about Atheism.  Humanism is a considerably wider philosophy and lots of atheists are not Humanists.)

And now we come to the novel, and I’ll repeat:  if you don’t want spoilers, stop here.

This is, I think, the third time I’ve read Gone With The Wind. 

I read it the first time when a paperback edition was released to coincide with the re-release of the film in theaters, sometime in the mid-sixties.

I still have that paperback around here somewhere.  It’s got a bright blue cover and the then-shocking  price of $1.25.

Gone With The Wind is one of the two books I think are going to come out of the 20th century and last a hundred years or more.  The other is Atlas Shrugged, and I can hear the howls  already.

For better or worse, though, those two books have significantly changed the way we live and think from what would have been if they’d never existed.

Gone With the Wind, of course, had a highly successful, and still highly popular, movie to help it along, and it’s probably the movie that most people remember.

The book, it turns out, is very, very odd.

In the first, place, the charge that the book is riddled with racism is absolutely true, and it’s riddled right through.

The problem is that it’s not riddled with the same kind of racism all the way through.

This causes some bizarre passages over the course of the book–and by bizarre, I mean completely bonkers.

At the beginning and end of the book, we get the casual racism of well-meaning upper class whites.  They think “darkies” are childlike, and that they look like apes and gorillas, but they also think they’re rather noble. 

If you ever doubted that the old myth of the Noble Savage is racist in its genesis,  you can see it work right here. 

But racist or not, it’s a gentle racism, and because it is it’s open to changes of heart and mind–or at least to doing the right thing in the long run.

What goes on in the middle of the book–and it’s far and away the longest part–is something else altogether.

In fact, the tone changes so drastically it’s almost like watching somebody suffering from Multiple Personality Disorder.

Okay, MPD probably doesn’t exist, but you know what I mean.

The narrative voice  just switches into this other thing and goes beserk.

The first real intimation I had of it was when Scarlett declared that the Yankees were “n– lovers.” 

This was after Mitchell  had taken several occassions in the first part of the book to point out that “ladies and gentlemen”–that is, quality folk–never used the N word.

But it was’t just this.

If all you knew about race relations in the United States was what you’d read up to that point in Gone With the Wind, you’d be hard pressed to explain why being an “N- lover” was a bad thing.

Scarlett herself is on record in several places as loving Mammy more than she loves her own sisters. 

In fact, the deep and abiding love of people like Scarlett for people like Mammy–and the fact that that love is supposedly returned–is one of the prime themes of the beginning of the book and its end.

So is the oft-stated contention that many “negroes” are far superior to certain white people, including most of the members of the Union Army and the eventual occupying force during Reconstruction.

And in those two bracketing parts, Mitchell trains a fine gimlet eye on both the white planter class and on slavery itself.

But then, as soon as she starts writing about Reconstruction, she goes completely off the rails.

The racism in the parts of the book that deal with Reconstruction is not only not mild, it’s completely bonkers.

The very narrative voice changes.  The vocabulary changes.  We get the Ku Klux Klan as a noble enterprise.

The effect is bewildering, and it gets even more bewildering because, as soon as Reconstruction is over and the Democrats are back in the Governor’s office, it just disappers.

As if it had never happened.

I don’t remember noticing any of this when I read this book before.

My guess is that the first time, when I was well under eighteen, I wasn’t paying much attention to the race issues because I was paying attention to Scarlett’s love life.

Scarlett’s love life is what most people pay attention to in this book, and it’s certainly what most people pay attention to in the movie.

To do the movie credit, however, it lacks the racial schizophrenia of the book. 

It was, all in all, a very odd experience. 

It’s also one of the few times I can say that I am thoroughly and unambiguously glad that the movie has more influence than the book.

And now, it’s getting to be that time of day when I need to go off and Do Things.

So I’ll go.

Written by janeh

May 4th, 2013 at 9:55 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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