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Phillips Exeter Academy: The School of Legend

November 20, 2013 in American History, American literature, New England Travel, New Hampshire Travel

There is a special kind of lore for boarding schools. They are full of century-old traditions, ghost stories, and sneaky romances. This might be why so many famous books have taken place at boarding schools. Jane Eyre escaped from her awful relatives to the sanctuary of Lowood Institution. Nicholas Nickleby tutored at a terrible school run by the odious Mr. Squeers. In A Little Princess, Sarah Crewe bravely suffers at Miss Minchin’s Boarding School for Girls. And, of course, there’s Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s exploration and adoration of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

There is one boarding school in New Hampshire that has been so immortalized by books and lore that it seems almost fictional. The prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy has been the home to many a literary figure, from Dan Brown to John Irving. Robert Langdon of Brown’s hugely popular Da Vinci Code went to Exeter, as did Patrick Bateman of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. Irving has immortalized the school in many of his popular novels, including in A Prayer for Owen Meany and The World According to Garp. It is also the setting of John Knowles’ A Separate Peace, the coming-of-age story read by high school students throughout New England.

Phillips Exeter Academy, often known simply as Exeter, was founded in 1781 by a Harvard University graduate. It has since been the home to many historical figures, from Daniel Webster to Mark Zuckerberg. At first it was seen as a stepping stone to Harvard, though today its students go on to many different colleges, most in the Ivy League. In 1930 the school received an important gift: a series of round tables meant for classrooms. The learning style associated with these tables was the Harkness method, named after the gift-giver Edward Harkness. Small groups of students today still sit around the Harkness tables and are encouraged to participate in a Socratic discussion, often with little involvement from the teacher. Exeter is now known for this method of teaching, and it’s mimicked in schools throughout the country.

The campus is regal and collegiate, with its stately brick Academy Building and vast green grounds. It’s located in the beautiful town of Exeter, New Hampshire, an historic and quaint New England town. The school’s grounds feature a huge modern library, holding thousands of volumes and lots of space to study. Just entering the library imparts a feeling of studiousness. You can sense that many great literary minds have come and gone through its doors. And Phillips Exeter, with its prestige and literary significance, feels even more magical.

If you find yourself in New Hampshire, take the time to drive by Phillips Exeter. You can stop and wander the beautiful grounds. See the building in which Owen Meany squeaked his way to the head of the class, view the gym where Garp joined the wrestling team, and take in the breathtaking chapel (now called Assembly Hall) where the climactic end to A Separate Peace takes place. Who knows – maybe some of that literary genius will sink in.

Gatsby: Under the Red, White, and Blue

May 28, 2013 in American History, American literature, Classic Literature, Classic Writers, Kickstarter

Did you know that F. Scott Fitzgerald was distantly related to the man who composed “The Star-Spangled Banner?” That, in fact, he was named after him?

I didn’t – Though, of course, Fitzgerald geeks are probably way ahead of me. Since beginning research for our latest project, the Literary Traveler team has closely followed the media attention that the Fitzgeralds attract even from beyond the grave. This sounds both melodramatic and macabre – but the Fitzgeralds are among those writers  – like Sylvia Plath – who attract the kind of personal, possessive fan attention that most celebrities only endure while they’re alive. Jumping in a fountain at The Plaza, or curled up asleep after a party, it seems as if they belong to us, American sweethearts in disgrace.

At Literary Traveler, however, we have been gearing up, not for the glamour of the movie or for dirt on the Fitzgeralds’ personal lives, but the real-life ingredients that went into The Great Gatsby. The main ingredient for us, since we’re a travel website, is place. We don’t only want to know why and how it happened — we want to know where, and we want to show where.

Many associate The Great Gatsby with the archetypal mansion or resort setting. But we think it’s crucial that readers understand the connection Fitzgerald himself made in the novel, between origin and destination, between starting out and success. That, after all, is the essence of the American dream: the difference between the two, and the near impossible journeys of those who made it to the top.

Readers of Gatsby will notice how the novel is structured along the arc of the journey east, from humble Midwestern origins, to glitzy palatial homes on the Gold Coast.  When Nick Carraway picks his Midwest, he rejects the wheat fields and lazy prairies. Instead, he relishes the sharp air of homecoming at Christmas, the bite of the bone-dry, wintry weather and of the bittersweet feeling of homecoming itself. Gatsby is a novel about heart as well as heartlessness – it is a book about how the heart experiences a wrenching journey from what’s familiar to what’s extraordinary – and ends up pining for the thing it cannot have.

Through the virtual travel of my research, I found myself at the grave of Scott and Zelda. Fitzgerald chose to be buried with his Maryland family members, one of whom was the famous author of “The Star-Spangled Banner” (Francis Scott Key), who gave Fitzgerald part of his name. But Scott and Zelda had to wait to settle down in their final resting place until the 70s – Fitzgerald, having married a protestant, was barred from being buried in his ancestral plot at St. Mary’s in Rockville, Maryland.

One of Fitzgerald’s preferred titles for The Great Gatsby was “Under the Red, White, and Blue.” And the other place I found myself investigating (again virtually) was an ostentatious Long Island Dwelling. A New York Times article from June 30th, 1918 reports that Clarence H. Mackay had a dinner for forty guests and a reception for several hundred people at his mansion, Harbor Hill.

“A large American flag done in colored electric lights topped the house and, as Harbor Hill is the highest point on Long Island, it could be seen for miles around,” the article tells us.

The Fitzgeralds were in Paris by this time, but they had attended a party there the year previously. They may have heard about this blow-out event and drawn on its legendary parties for inspiration. For the one night that this glittering flag was flying over Long Island, everything there was “Under the Red, White and Blue.” But what about the family connection with the star-spangled banner?

Naming your son or daughter after a famous family member is an aspirational gesture. Similar to naming your child after a celebrity, it’s a blueprint for a green light, imparting a fatedness and limitlessness to the child’s future – whether they asked for it or not.

It’s very likely that when it came to mapping the red white and the blue of an American success story, Fitzgerald felt that he was expected to go far. There are more connections between Jay Gatsby and the humble James Gatz than you might expect, and the clues are found both between the pages of the novel and in Fitzgerald’s life – in the places Gatsby aspired to and the places he left behind.

At Literary Traveler, we want to visit those places and show you the real roots of the Gatsby myth. We’ve done a lot of reading, we’ve plotted our mental maps – the next step is to talk to the experts and get filming!

Check out our Kickstarter page for more information on what is to come.

Exploring the Origins of the Charleston

May 21, 2013 in American History, American literature, Classic Literature, Dance, Kickstarter, Literary News, Music

Frank Farnum coaching Pauline Starke in the Charleston for a film role.

My recent trip to Charleston, South Carolina was incredible.  I have wanted to visit the city for years and I was delighted to partake in historical tours, hearing tales of the American Revolution and the Civil War, leisurely strolls and an abundance of incredible food and drink. The week-long getaway was exactly what the doctor ordered to cure the stresses, anxieties, and routine of day-to-day life.

But despite the feeling of freedom and blissful contentment at having no responsibilities, I found myself falling victim to that same sneaky trap that so many American travelers fall into: I was preoccupied with work.

Now let me say, for the record, that I love working with Literary Traveler. It’s a great company with great people and often when I’m working there it doesn’t feel like work at all.  This preoccupation may have been due, in part, to the knowledge that our Kickstarter was going live while I was away. It was weighing on my mind that if we were successful in meeting our funding goal we would be shooting our TV pilot and, that if we weren’t, we would be back to square one. The pilot episode and the Kickstarter campaign were just too big to put out of my mind.

Now, Charleston is a city rich with history and old-world elegance. One of the most preserved cities in the U.S., it looks today much as it did one-hundred years ago (besides the paved streets, upscale shopping boutiques and foodie hotspots). Meandering past war monuments, hotels and houses dating back as far as the 1800s, it was easy to imagine a world long ago and far away. But my mind wasn’t on war and it wasn’t going back that far. What I kept finding myself thinking about was The Great Gatsby, Nick, Daisy and Jordan, and of the roaring twenties.

Specifically, what I was wondering was whether that flapper-essential dance, the Charleston, was in fact named for my destination city. After digging up a little research, I found that the light and carefree dance had some dark history behind it.

Yes, the dance is named after the coastal landmark city. To be more precise, it is named for the show tune it was first danced to, “The Charleston,” by James P. Johnson, which premiered in the 1923 Broadway show Runnin’ Wild. The show was one of the most popular of the decade and created widespread love of the Charleston dance by women around the country who wanted to kick up their heels, flap their arms and let loose.

But long before the glamorized show-dance ever made its Broadway debut, it was being performed, though in a far less choreographed fashion, by African and African-American slaves. The Charleston, you see, is said to be based on the “Juba” dance, which originated in West Africa and was brought to America during one of our most shameful times in history.

The city of Charleston was a hub in the slave trade, housing an abundance of plantations for which slave labor was used and Ryan’s Mart, one of the most well-known slave auction centers ever to exist. Enslaved Africans and African-Americans have passed a number of our cultural treasures along including gospel, blues, and jazz music and the dancing to go with them. The Juba, sometimes called the “Hambone” or “Pattin’ Juba,” was usually danced in groups and consisted of slapping, clapping, and stomping in rhythm while rotating in a counterclockwise circle. The slaves were not allowed to use drums or other rhythmic instruments for fear that they were communicating with each other through the music, so they made their own rhythm using their bodies. This may not sound like the Charleston you have seen, but much of what has become jazz and tap dance originated from these steps.

Similarly, the women of the 1920s were using dance to express ideals that had once been forbidden and taboo: freedom, fun, carelessness and independence. As a matter of fact, the Charleston was outlawed in many places during the 20s because it was seen as crude and scandalous. It is interesting to see how these two groups of people, the slaves in the direst of circumstances and American flappers, many of whom were privileged monetarily and lived seemingly happy and easy lives, do relate to one another. Their environments were so ostensibly different, and yet, the feeling of being stifled, caged, confined, existed inside them all.  The dances of the day, the Juba and the Charleston, helped each group to cope with their circumstances and feelings and enabled genuine creative expression.

I wonder if Daisy ever thought about this.

Happy Halloween From Literary Traveler!

October 31, 2012 in American Authors, American History, Bookstores, Classic Literature, Dark New England, Edgar Allen Poe, Famous Museums, Halloween, History, Holidays Literary Traveler, Horror, Horror Writers, Massachusetts Travel, New England Travel, Psychology, Short Stories, Stephen King, Vampires in Literature

Literary Traveler has been very excited about Halloween…and it’s finally here! To celebrate, we’d like to show off all the work we did in advance of the spookiest day of the year. All Treats.

Halloween Reflections – “Halloween is a time when the veil between the dead and the living was at its thinnest.”

Mercy Brown: American Vampire – “Like the vampire, tuberculosis visited ordinary communities seemingly at random – preying upon family members, slowly robbing them of their life and turning them into fevered ghostly individuals with a persistent bloody cough.”

The House of the Seven Gables – “If Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables house was once haunted by the uneasy ghosts of family (his ancestors were involved in the Salem witch trials), the resident ghost today seems to have the philanthropic and busy spirit of Miss Emmerton.”

The Hawthorne Hotel – “Despite general manager Judi Lederhaus’ assertions, hundreds of tourists stream into the stately lodgings ready to embark on a supernatural safari.”

The Psychology of Salem – “The most dangerous element of the teenage mind is the inability to grasp the concept of linear thinking. Some teenagers cannot see beyond immediate gratification.  This makes decision making tricky.”

Master of Creep: Edgar Allen Poe – “Poe created complete universes in which the reader starts to believe the narrator.”

The Salem Witch Trials – “In 1692, fear spread through Salem, Massachusetts like contagion, infecting the minds of the mainstream, and claiming the lives of those among the periphery.”

Literary Traveler Goes to Salem – “I mosey by a zombie playing the saxophone for a couple of onlookers and I am officially sold on the city of Salem.”

Mercy Brown: American Vampire

October 24, 2012 in American Authors, American History, American literature, children's literature, Dark New England, European Writers, Gothic Literature, Halloween, Horror Writers, Literary Movies, New England Travel, Vampires in Literature, Women Writers

Halloween is big in the Northeast – a liberating blast of Pagan thrills before the bleak snows and Puritan thrift of winter. As the festival approaches, New England’s colors turn from fresh blues and greens to the long black shadows and pantomime reds of autumn. Many associate this creepy side of New England with Salem and its persecution of ‘witches’. Vampires, it is widely believed, were a European legend that was successfully exported to America, and from there they entered myth, legend and popular culture.

For anyone looking for clues about the origins of the modern American vampire, the papers of a London playwright seem to offer a tantalizing possibility. It is true that Bram Stoker kept a newspaper clipping about the 1892 case of the exhumation of a Rhode Island ‘vampire’ called Mercy Brown, but the date of the source seems to have been too late to have influenced Dracula. These ‘hick’ vampires from a depressed Rhode Island farming community are not like the aristocratic vampire of Stoker’s fiction: for one thing they really existed, and for another they tragically reveal attempts to come to terms with an urgent problem – TB.

Like the vampire, tuberculosis visited ordinary communities seemingly at random – preying upon family members, slowly robbing them of their life and turning them into fevered ghostly individuals with a persistent bloody cough. The disease could manifest soon after it was contracted, dragging on for years – or, as in the case of Mercy Brown – it could lay dormant for a decade before it quickly progressed.

Mercy Brown was the second last member of her family to die from the disease. Several years after her mother and sister were buried, Mercy and her older brother Edwin took ill. When Mercy died, the community immediately began looking for answers. After a doctor reported that Mercy’s heart contained tuberculosis germs, the locals insisted on extreme measures.  They burned Mercy’s heart and fed the ashes to her brother, who died soon thereafter. It seems that Mercy’s father allowed the exhumation because he was under great pressure from his frightened neighbors in Exeter, Rhode Island.

Mercy’s grave is now a destination for tourists, goths, and ‘legend trippers’ – those who visit graves to seek evidence of the occult at supposedly haunted spots in Rhode Island. In Mercy’s time, these myths seemed disturbing eruptions of superstition. New fiction was even blamed by some observers for encouraging this superstitious behavior in a century that considered itself progressive and rational.

One thing that makes supernatural literary tourism so accessible in New England is the way real places and events often influence fiction. The great American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft referred to Mercy Brown’s case in his story, “The Shunned House.” Just as Mercy’s sad quiet grave can be found in a small cemetery in Rhode Island, the real Shunned House still stands – a private residence in Providence Rhode Island.  H.P. Lovecraft based his story on the history of the family who lived there, imagining the dead family members preying on the living, like the Exeter vampires. Even those who did not write about the vampire TB cases were aware of them. Thoreau for example wrote about a TB exhumation in his diary.

62 years’ after Mercy Brown’s exhumation, Richard Matheson published I Am Legend, a story about vampires that had a medical explanation. The story’s protagonist Robert Neville holes up in a house after a vampire apocalypse and studies the vampires that were his former neighbors until he finds the cause of their condition: a bacteria that fades with sunlight. Though the source of Matheson’s imaginings has not been revealed, it’s possible that he heard stories of vampire TB scares growing up in New Jersey.

For Young Adult author Sarah Thomson, history proved juicy enough to build her novel Mercy on. After many years of vampire fiction based on legend and folklore, Thomson’s is a historical vampire novel that tells the story of a real person, Mercy Brown, or the ‘last New England vampire’. As Thomson said in an interview, real life can often be scarier than fiction.

These days, thanks to its history of vampire panics, Rhode Island is the destination for ‘vampire hunters’, just as Salem is the home of witches. This time of year you’ll find a wealth of flamboyant tours, including the Ghosts of Newport and Providence Ghost Tour, of the area’s most haunted spots – but be prepared to find the real history a lot more frightening and tragic than your guides’ costumes.


Living Literary History at Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables

October 19, 2012 in American Authors, American History, American literature, Dark New England, Famous Museums, Gothic Literature, Halloween, Holidays Literary Traveler, Massachusetts, Massachusetts Travel, New England Travel, Travel

Located on the waterfront in Salem, Massachusetts, The House of the Seven Gables is a higgledy-piggledy pile of secret staircases, parlors and garrets – an eccentric collage architectural styles that has borne the stamp of every owner who lived there. But the strangest thing about the house is that, since the publication of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous novel of the same name in 1851, The House of the Seven Gables has been gradually evolving to look more like the house of Hawthorne’s imagination.  As our fabulous and knowledgeable tour guide, Jeff Horton, explains, “in a sense, the fictional novel saved the real house.”

It’s clear that, for Horton, associate to the group tour coordinator of The Gables, this is not just a job, but a personal passion.  Upon learning that we are literature enthusiasts, he insists on running to his car to procure his own 1922 edition of Hawthorne’s book, animatedly pointing out that it was edited by a high school teacher from Somerville, Massachusetts,  Literary Traveler’s home-base.

Horton is extremely well-versed in all aspects of the Turner-Ingersoll House (the official name of The Gables), as well as the Nathaniel Hawthorne House, where the author was born.  The latter was located across town until 1958, when, to the delight of certain Hawthorne enthusiasts, it was transported on a flat bed truck to its present location next door to The Gables.

Originally built in 1668, the Turner-Ingersoll House is the oldest wooden mansion still standing in New England.  Upon the start of the tour we are struck by the low ceilings, built to conserve heat.  Horton segues into an overview of the hardships of seventeenth century living, which far exceed ducking through doorways, and than swiftly recovers our spirits with a little historian humor: “we love history – it’s like The Hunger Games everyday of your life.”

One of the most surprising things that we learn on our tour is that Nathaniel Hawthorne never knew the seven gabled house that he wrote about. Its first owner was the wealthy merchant family Turner, which accumulated a fortune through its involvement with the ‘Triangle Trade’ in China.  In what was to become a tradition of great wealth lost and gained, the house passed from the Turner family to the Ingersoll family, after the third generation Turner squandered the family fortune. The Ingersoll family, in an attempt to adapt the house to a Federalist style, removed four of the seven gables. It was only through his Ingersoll cousin Susanna’s descriptions of the house that Hawthorne conceived of the uncanny seven gabled house of his novel.

And it’s Hawthorne’s book that is the reason the house is preserved today. A fan of the author’s work, Caroline O. Emmerton, who acquired the house in 1908, founded The House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association to commemorate the literature of Nathaniel Hawthorne and educate the community. If Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables house was once haunted by the uneasy ghosts of family (his ancestors were involved in the Salem witch trials), the resident ghost today seems to have the philanthropic and busy spirit of Miss Emmerton. Emmerton replaced the remaining gables, turned the back room of the house into a sweet-shop like the one in Hawthorne’s novel, and used the profits from tours to educate local Polish immigrant children. The Settlement Association still works within the Dominican community to help immigrants today.

With the assistance of the architect Joseph Everett Chandler, who was known for his controversial restorations, Miss Emmerton hammed up the house’s Gothic credentials by restoring the staircase embedded in the house’s chimney as a ‘secret’ one, complete with false paneling and a concealed lever to open the secret door. This staircase was designed as a literal representation of how the novel’s character, Clifford Pyncheon, moved from room to room without being seen. Thus the house’s Gothic elements were, within less than a century of Hawthorne’s death, no longer fearful evidence of the house’s bad karma, but of great literary worth.

As we finish up the tour, I wonder whether this strange house – like so many other mansions before it – has been fixed in this perfected, seemingly final state, nevermore to evolve. As a national tourist site, it would seem so.

However, Horton gives us a more nuanced impression.  In the famous accounting room, typically closed in October due to the heavy flow of tourists, he shows us a map – a battered, old looking artifact that seems to fit perfectly into the room’s furnishings next to an authentic wooden chair.  But we soon learn that the map was created by a museum employee, who baked it in his oven to create its time-worn, weathered look. Horton’s advice says a lot about both the house and our view of history: “You have to be careful when you come to museums”, he warns, “things aren’t always what they seem.”

The “Psychology” of Salem

October 18, 2012 in American Authors, American History, Dark New England, Halloween, New England Travel, Psychology

And mark this. Let either of you breathe a word, or the edge of a word, about the other things, and I will come to you in the black of some terrible night and I will bring a pointy reckoning that will shudder you. And you know I can do it; I saw Indians smash my dear parents’ heads on the pillow next to mine and I have seen some reddish work done at night, and I can make you wish you had never seen the sun go down!

– Act I:  The Crucible, by Arthur Miller

Returning as an adult to historic Salem, Massachusetts, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I also didn’t know what I was looking for. As a child, Salem was terrifying. Make-believe witches were scary–carrying off children in the night to eat them–but now what’s frightening is that innocent women were accused of being witches simply because they didn’t fit in, and then hanged for it. My father claims that one of our people, a ‘Morse’ in Newburyport, Mass., was at one point convicted of witchcraft and consequently hanged. There is something so utterly inhuman about it. The idea of a swinging body in a tree (a “strange fruit”) is completely disarming. It’s eerie and odd and tragic. But what of the girls who had the women accused in the first place?  Without them, would the hysteria have occurred?

Were these girls just bored? Like drugs or petty theft, did they decided to get there hands dirty. Is that why they cried ‘witch’, to slyly watch the horror unfold?  Was it for the attention? Were these girls so incredibly starved for attention and excitement that they took to writhing around on the ground foaming at the mouth? One account states that one of the girls took to crawling around on the ground like a dog, barking. Having been a teenage girl myself not so very long ago, I can recall the strange psychology of a girl’s mind at this pivotal age. The mind of a teenage girl is a slippery and amorphous thing. It is unpredictable, wily, and damage that may occur during this time period can have long-lasting affects on both the teen, and those around her. Perhaps the most dangerous element of the teenage mind is the inability to grasp the concept of linear thinking. Some teenagers cannot see beyond immediate gratification.  This makes decision making tricky.

Having said all this, can I understand letting something that started out as a prank get so out of hand that innocent people would be put to their deaths? I think I can. I can remember that out of control feeling that comes with being a teenager, that feeling that the world was slipping out my control and I was  powerless to stop it. These girls must have felt the same.

As mentioned in the presentation at the Salem Witch Museum, life would have been incredibly dull and stifling for the daughters of Puritan households. The day would have been long and tiresome, and imagination, creativity and individuality were certainly not acknowledged or encouraged in a typical home. Where would these girls have channeled their pent up energy? Where would they have looked to for entertainment? Living in the 21st century, there are endless distractions: Facebook, Twitter–the virtual world is practically designed for bored teenagers. But in 1692, all young girls would have had was each other. It seems only natural that as Abigail Williams and her cousin Betty Parris became “afflicted”, each girl simply followed suit…and then tried to out-perform.

Another aspect of teenage mentality is pack-like thinking, in which groups are formed and leaders are chosen, and followers fill in the gaps. Clearly some girls were more invested then others, but all the girls were bonded together by what must have been the greatest play-acting of all time. Once a single lie is told, the subsequent lies becomes easier and easier. Perhaps these girls took on the role of the bewitched so intensely that they began to believe it themselves. Not to mention how important these girls must have suddenly felt! How powerful! Physicians, priests, parents and townspeople, looking to them for answers. They went from being virtually powerless to dictating the fate of members of their community. It must have been addicting.

In Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, he creates a complicated network of relationships, suggesting that Abigail Williams and John Proctor were engaged in an affair, and that Williams was acting out of jealousy. Miller paints the girls as conniving and selfish; power hungry and intoxicated by the affect their accusations have. Abigail Williams is charismatic and ruthless and will stop at nothing to have John Proctor back. Reading The Crucible, it becomes possible to blame the trials on Abigail alone. But what about the townspeople and juries who fell for it?

Sitting in the darkened room at the Salem Witch Museum, watching the representations of the trials light up, and seeing these young girl’s faces illuminated, I realize there are no easy answers. Because wrapping up the details in a neat little story is exactly the kind of thing we can learn from.

As an adult in Salem, I found myself still amazed by the power this particular group of young girls managed to grasp. Should we fear witches, I thought? Or should we fear the dangerous nature of a bored mind?

The Salem Witch Trials: A Retelling and Commentary

October 12, 2012 in American History, Massachusetts Travel

Literary Traveler took a trip to Salem, Massachusetts this week, so expect a bunch of interesting posts and photos next week. Before we get rolling, here’s a refresher on the Trials and the profound affect they had on American history, by contributor Wes Newbury.

It was the dead of night and John Louder lay awake, listening to the dead leaves scratch across the cobblestone streets. Moonlight beamed through his frail windowpane, pale and haunting. Upon his chest he felt a suffocating weight and his strength left him altogether. Later he would testify  ‘It was her, the woman from the tavern.’ She sat “upon my stomake and… layd hold of my throat.”[1]

In 1692, fear spread through Salem, Massachusetts like contagion, infecting the minds of the mainstream, and claiming the lives of those among the periphery. In the span of ten months, over 150 people, mainly poor, ill-reputed women, were accused of witchcraft. Of the accused, 19 were hanged, five died in prison, and one was slowly crushed by the weight of piled stones.[2] Fourteen of the nineteen hanged were women.

Bridget made her way up the stairs, patting her sleeve to her lip to check for blood. “The old devil,” she whispered under her breath, “The old rogue.” She heard his footsteps pounding up the stairs, and when she turned to face him she met another blow. “You witch,” he accused her, “Trying to curse me on the Sabbath.”*

Bridget wore her bruises to the court where she was convicted of fighting with her husband, Thomas Oliver.[3]  When he died in 1678, Bridget was accused of bewitching him to death.

Salem of the late seventeenth century was a male dominated society that regarded the souls of women as corruptible vessels for the devil’s work. Sexual repression, Puritan law, and old English folklore were all part of a misogynistic tradition that viewed women as an inferior sex to be dominated and controlled. Bridget was not a woman of her time. She was independent and far from being a submissive Puritan wife. She left her first husband in England, quarreled with the other until his death, and transformed the home of her third and final spouse into a tavern where she served apple cider to late night drinkers.

The boys were rowdy tonight. Bridget wasn’t expecting so many sailors and they had nearly cleaned her out of her last batch of cider. They laughed heartily and rammed their mugs together over the shovelboard, already sticky with sweet cider. It was late and her neighbors had doused their lights long ago. Bridget wasn’t expecting any other visitors when the door burst open. It was the woman from across the street, Christine Trask, and she had a crazed look in her eye. The sailors stopped laughing and Christine charged them. She swiped the shovelboard clean and threw their board pieces into the fire.. “You have no right entertaining this riff-raff at such an unseasonable hour!”* she shouted at Bridget.

Christine began having fits a few days after the strange encounter. When she eventually killed herself in a moment of self-destructive rage, Bridget Bishop was again accused of witchcraft. The year was 1686.

Six years later, the Minister Parris’ girls began behaving freakishly. It started with nine-year-old Elizabeth, but spread quickly to her sisters and friends. The girls had convulsions and became entranced at times. They claimed to be cursed and tormented by evil specters. When they started pointing fingers, Bridget Bishop was accused of witchcraft for the third and final time.

A court of Oyer and Terminer had been created to deal swift justice to the overflowing population of accused witches in the Salem Prison. The court was composed of magistrates and a grand jury ripe with fear. Their objective was to rid Salem of devilry and Bridget was the first to stand trial.

When she walked into the courtroom the girls began to twist and scream in agony. They broke into fits. “What witchcraft are you conversant in,” hissed Judge Hathorne, glancing at the contorted figures of the young girls.

Bridgett looked at them in horror. Then she turned to the grand jury and surveyed the sea of suspicious faces. “I take all this people to witness 
that I am clear,” she demanded.

“Why do you seem to act witchcraft before us?”

“I know nothing of it,” Bridget protested. “I am innocent to a witch. I know not what a witch is.”

“They say you bewitcht your first husband to death.”

“If it please your worship I know nothing of it.”*

Despite her pleas of innocence, and there being no tangible evidence to prove her guilt, Judge Hathorne sentenced Bridget Bishop to death. Her grave reads, “Hanged June 10, 1692.” Eighteen more people would follow her to the grave, they all claimed to be innocent of witchcraft.

Five years after the executions, people tried to come to terms with what they knew had been a gross miscarriage of justice. The nine girls confessed to their trickery and lies. Salem was ashamed.

A century later, Nathaniel Hathorne, the great grandson of the infamous judge, changed his name to Hawthorne to distance himself from his family’s despicable legacy. It became clear that the only evil spirit the town had encountered was fear.

In 1952, Arthur Miller used the Salem Witch Trials as an allegory of McCarthyism in his play The Crucible. By suggesting the same phenomenon that occurred in Salem 1692 could reoccur on a national scale in the 1940’s, Miller illustrates how history has always had its witches. They are the enemy, the source of our woes, and the antagonist of our endless hunt.

Bridget Bishop wasn’t a communist, but she challenged societal norms. She was killed by a society possessed by fear and in need of a scapegoat. Her story is one of innocent defiance, not sorcery. Literature that indulges in the satanic and mystical nature of the Trials skewers the real reasons they are so horrifying. Ghosts, ghouls, and witches are inventions of our imagination used to justify the irrational fear we have of each other. The fear that pervaded Salem in the seventeenth century is the same fear that fuels witch hunts today. Our history is scarier than our imagination; for when fear takes hold of us, we can become the monsters we were hunting.

Salem is the capital of Halloween.  If you visit, enjoy the festivities, zany costumes, haunted houses, and ghost tours. But, please remember what really happened in 1692. To better understand the history of the Salem Witch Trials stop by the Salem Witch Museum or sign up for a show with History Alive. Come find out why Salem truly is one of the spookiest places on earth.


*All quotations are taken from the Verbatim Transcripts

[1] Verbatim Transcripts of the Legal Documents of the Salem Witchcraft Outbreak of 1692.

[2] The Witches Curse. Secrets of the Dead.

[3] Cry Innocent: The People Vs. Bridgett Bishop. History Alive!


The Master: a Peculiar Bromance

September 28, 2012 in American History, Movies

By Melissa Mapes

A winning film must succeed in three essential categories: production, performance, and plot. The Master scores highly in first two categories, but falters in the third. Surely, one may ask, a nomadic cult, a disturbed World War II veteran, and a lost love create the perfect recipe for an enthralling story? The answer should be yes – I wanted it to be yes – but the payoff never came.

The plot instead meanders like its erratic man-child lead, Freddie Quell, whose issues extend well beyond his time at war. Joaquin Phoenix seems an odd choice for the character. Many times throughout the film he is referred to as “boy,” and the love of his life is a 16-year-old girl. But Joaquin appears to be well-weathered forty, and, unfortunately, the suspension of disbelief can only extend so far when it comes to age. He needed to be twenty years younger for the audience to sympathize with Freddie’s romance rather than feel relief at his failure to consummate it.

Joaquin’s exaggerated body language does not help. He hunches over with severe scoliosis and juts his elbows out at his sides with his hands on his hips – thumbs placed in an unnatural forward position. The camera often locks on the sharp edges of his shoulder blades and bumps of his spine. His teeth are brown from neglect. Despite apparent deterioration of mind and body, he wins numerous fights and outruns adversaries with ease. We see one or two fleeting glimpses of wit, but the vast majority of the time Freddie seems to suffer from a severe mental handicap rather than PTSD.

Lancaster Dodd, the leader of a Scientology-esque cult, sees Freddie as the endearing embodiment of the animal in us all, and takes him on as a pet. Philip Seymour Hoffman channels the narcissistic Master with ease. The chemistry between Hoffman and Phoenix is extraordinary, and makes the film worth watching. Their relationship in the film vacillates between heartwarming and sadistic. Dodd is the only person in the world with an affinity for Freddie Quell, despite his family’s strong misgivings, and Quell is willing to do (quite literally) anything to please and protect him.

Though the visuals are beautiful and acting is exceptional, the audience is left waiting for it to all come together. While exiting the theater, I heard a young man say, “I’ll need someone a lot smarter than me to explain it later.” But quite honestly, I don’t think the issue was with him. The audience knows that the story is about re-assimilation after war, as told by an unreliable narrator. It is also about our baser instincts and our ability to control them. And lastly, it is about bromance. Despite heading down all of these roads, it never quite reaches a destination – at least not a satisfying one – leaving the audience to wonder, “Did I miss something?”

The director, it seems, was in love with his actors and the post-war era and did not wish to distract with a big plot. If his goal was to compile over 2 hours of beautiful images of some of the most talented actors in existence, then he succeeded. But, if his goal was to make the audience feel something, I hope that feeling was confusion.

Behind the Article: Rediscovering James Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Legacy

September 4, 2012 in American History, American literature, Behind The Article

Join us as Literary Traveler takes a look “Behind the Article” with Victor Walsh, author of our August 17th article,  “James Fenimore Cooper: Cooperstown’s Literary Ghost.”  We were fascinated by the town’s oft forgotten literary history and were eager to hear more about the writer, whose father gave the town its name.

painting by John Wesley Jarvis, Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY

Literary Traveler:  What first piqued your interest in James Fenimore Cooper?

Victor Walsh:  Probably seeing the film, The Last of the Mohicans, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Hawkeye. I thought the cinematography, the acting and sets were superb, although the film does take literary license with the novel’s plot and characters. As Michael Mann, the director acknowledges, the film was based on the 1936 film version starring Randolph Scott as Hawkeye.

Cooper is part of a larger theme. He didn’t go West, but others did, venturing beyond the trans-Missouri frontier into a world they could scarcely imagine. What they saw—vast herds of bison and antelope, the great horse tribes, the incredible geological formations, the maddening prairie winds and hailstones big as turkey eggs—had an irrevocable impact on them and our national heritage. The overland experience—its astonishing range of landscapes and numbers of never before-seen animals and the first signs of their decimation—caused some westward-bound  ’emigrants’ to question the very notion that the westward advance was a “march of progress.”  No other experience in the 19th-century Republic with the exception of the Civil War elicited such an outpouring of letters, journals, diaries, memoirs, and reminiscences—a veritable ‘folk literature.’ It’s a story that I hope someday to write about.

LT:  How do you think Cooper’s imagined West compared to the reality of the West?  How do you think his writing would have been affected had he personally experienced the frontier?

VW:  I think his prose is too elaborate and sentimental; the action too slow—you are forever waiting—and many of the situations too contrived and invented. In an essay entitled “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,”  Mark Twain skewered the Leatherstocking tales, dismissing them as “a literary delirium tremens.”  He faulted Cooper for 18 literary ‘defects,” among them, “Use the right word, not its second cousin,” and “Employ a simple and straightforward style.”

Cooper’s work has literary merit. He not only gave voice to one of the seminal themes—the ongoing tension and struggle between civilization and wilderness—of 19th-century America, but he was also far ahead of his times in terms of his characters. He was the first major American novelist to include African and African-American characters. In The Last of the Mohicans, Colonel Munro’s eldest daughter, the raven-haired Cora is the daughter of a West Indian mulatto woman, not the typical sentimental European heroine. Cooper certainly used stereotypical and often idealized characters in his portrayal of native peoples and African Americans, but he portrays many of them with positive human qualities.

LT:  You talk about Natty Bumppo being a precursor to Huck Finn, as well as Western dime novels. What can you say about Cooper’s impact on such a wide range of works?

VW:  The impact of Cooper’s most renowned character, Natty Bumppo, on American literature is not something that I can summarize in a few paragraphs.  Cooper, suffice to say, grasped the essential myth of America: the ‘white Indian’ and the allure of the wilderness.  It was vanishing before the oncoming pioneers like a mirage. This was Cooper’s basic tragic vision.  Natty Bumppo embodies Cooper’s vision of the frontiersman as the preeminent individualist, a “natural aristocrat,” who is better than the society he protects. Poor and isolated, yet pure, he prefigures Herman Melville’s Billy Budd and Mark Twain’s Huck Finn.  Cooper’s novels reveal a deep tension between the lone individual and society, nature and culture, spirituality and organized religion.

LT:  Does your love of frontier literature and the Western genre extend past Cooper?  If so, can you suggest any other authors or texts for further reading?

VW:  The westward advance during the 19th-century was fundamentally a story of paradox, as the historian William H. Goetzmann notes. Something precious and irreplaceable—a continental wilderness—would be lost as the Young Republic advanced further westward. Some early westward-bound ’emigrants,’  the wildlife artist John Audubon, the Indian painter George Catlin, the English adventurer George Ruxton, the trapper Rufus B. Sage, the Mormon leader Brigham Young, and the Austrian nobleman Alexander Maximilian expressed a prophetic regret over what would surely be lost as a result of crossing and settling the Last West.

Primary accounts left by those who saw a vast, unspoiled West before it was forever overrun and changed by California’s great Gold Rush of 1849 are a rich lodestone of literature  Among the best are John James Audubon,  The Missouri River Journals  (1843); Rufus B. Sage,  Scenes in the Rocky Mountains  (1846); James Henry Carlton,  The Prairie Logbooks; George Frederick Ruxton, Adventures in Mexico and the Rocky Mountains  (1847); Maximilian, Prince of Wied, Travels in the Interior of North America, 1832-1834  (1843), and George Catlin,  Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians  (1841).

LT:  How do you feel about James Fenimore Cooper, an American legacy himself, sharing his Cooperstown legacy with the Hall of Fame of our National Pastime?  Is the town big enough for the both of them?

VW:  I don’t really have a problem with that. As mentioned, the family’s physical connection to Cooperstown had disappeared before the town’s transformation as the home to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.  The 600-acre Glimmerglass State Park overlooks the northern end of Lake Otsego.  Just up the hill from the parking lot of Hyde Hall, an early 19th-century limestone mansion with no association to Cooper, is a hiking trail that plunges into a dense forest of white birch and hemlocks. It evokes to some degree the setting of the great forest that once surrounded the 18th-century village. Perhaps, something could be done here to commemorate James Fenimore Cooper and his father, Judge William Cooper.

LT:  Next time our literary travels take us through Cooperstown, we will be sure to check it out and pay homage to the Cooper family, and I am sure our readers will be tempted to do the same.  Thank you!


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