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Review of Tony Fels’s “Switching Sides: How a Generation of Historians Lost Sympathy for the Victims of the Salem Witch Hunt”

The Salem witchcraft trials of the 1690s continue to resonate in American political and popular culture as is evident in the almost daily tweets of President Donald Trump that investigations into collusion between the Russian government and the 2016 Trump Presidential campaign are a hoax and part of a contemporary witch hunt. Trump seeks to discredit investigators by identifying himself with the innocent victims of the Salem witchcraft accusations and executions who are celebrated in such literary works as Arthur Miller’s playThe Crucible(1953). Yet, Tony Fels, an associate professor of history at the University of San Francisco, suggests in Switching Sidesthat leading historians trained during the tumultuous 1960s have ignored the courageous victims of Salem in favor of concentrating upon the accusers. Rather than another history of the witchcraft trials in Salem, Switching Sidesis a historiographical study of how prominent scholars have treated this fascinating episode of American history. Thus, the book may be of less interest to general readers, but it seems sure to create a storm within the historical profession.

Fels challenges the scholarly findings of four books that are considered to be among the most prestigious academic studies available on the events in Salem: Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum’s Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft(1974), John Putnam Demos’s Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England(1982), Carol F. Karlsen’s The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England(1987), and Mary Beth Norton’s In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692(2002). This is not to suggest that Fels fails to discuss other scholarly investigations of Salem as Switching Sidesdemonstrates considerable familiarity with both primary and secondary sources on the topic and includes extensive explanatory endnotes occupying approximately half of the book. Nevertheless, Fels focuses upon the four academic texts mentioned above as he considers them to be the most influential post-1960s studies of Salem, and they provide the inspiration for his allegation that academic historians, influenced by the political events of the 1960s, abandoned the victims of the witch hunts in favor of the accusers.

While criticizing such esteemed scholars as Boyer, Nissenbaum, Demos, Karlsen, and Norton, Fels lauds Marion Starkey’s The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Enquiry into the Salem Witch Trials(1949) for endorsing universal principles of the post-World War II liberal consensus that attempted to understand Salem within the historical context of how mass hysteria and fear may drive a community to abandon rational judgment and engage in the scapegoating of innocent victims. Fels argues that postwar liberalism was influenced by the examples of the Soviet and Nazi terrors of the 1930s, but he also acknowledges that the extreme anti-communism of the 1950s found in McCarthyism also contained similar dangerous populist elements. He laments that liberalism was abandoned in the 1960s for radicalism by a younger generation of scholars influenced by the Vietnam War, Civil Rights Movement, feminism, counterculture, and social unrest of the era. The new generation of scholars, Fels argues. emphasized conflict over consensus and universal humanistic values.

Thus, Fels insists that Boyer and Nissenbaum overstated the economic conflict in the Salem community and identified with the accusers who represented a less affluent segment of the population who resented the growing capitalist economy benefitting more prosperous elements of the community. Fels is somewhat less critical of Demos for his emphasis upon psychological and anthropological explanations, but he concludes that in a more widespread investigation of witchcraft accusations throughout New England, Demos distracted attention from the violence perpetrated upon innocent victims in Salem. Karlsen is credited by Fels with focusing upon women who were overrepresented among the accused, but he chastises Karlsen for grounding her criticism of the Puritan patriarchy in a general reading of Christianity rather concentrating upon Puritanism. In fact, one of Fels’s central complaints is that the post-1960s scholars neglected to pay sufficient attention to the extreme religious views of the Puritans as an explanation for social unrest and the scapegoating of the witchcraft trials. 

Fels devotes most of his argument—two full chapters—to the scholarship of Mary Beth Norton, who currently serves as president of the American Historical Association. Fels concedes that Norton may be on target with her thesis that the violence of the warfare with the Wabanaki people on the New England frontier made a major contribution to the social unrest and fear perpetuating the hysteria of the witchcraft allegations. However, he parts company with Norton over the role of the colonial elite in the witchcraft outbreaks. Fels accuses Norton of taking sides with the accusers as a populist manifestation of class conflict against the governing and commercial elements who exploited and failed to adequately protect the common people of the frontier.

While acknowledging their work in the archives and primary sources Fels, nevertheless, accuses Norton and her scholarly colleagues of being biased and projecting their political prejudices into their scholarship. Labeling these scholars as members of the New Left, Fels writes: “These works mostly ignore the victims of the witch hunt, occasionally even expressing hostility toward them, and either write sympathetically about the accusers or else shift the reader’s attention away from the 1692 panic itself. In these accounts the role of courageous individuals standing up to mass prejudice moves out of view. Instead, social conflict among groups takes center stage, even to the point of seeming to justify the witch hunt” (2). This almost conspiratorial perspective on Salem scholarship seems to suggest that the work of an entire generation of historians is suspect. Reflecting upon what he perceives as the New Left period in American historiography, Fels concludes: “One hopes this era will be superseded by a period in which new works will rise to dominance, influenced again by the liberal universalist values that fell out of favor during the 1960s-inspired radicalism” (134).

Fels condemns a generation of scholars for introducing concepts of race, gender, and class while concentrating upon marginalized groups and attempting to tell history from the bottom up. He fails to consider how this broader perspective has increased our appreciation for the complexity of the past as well as contemporary events. Historically marginalized groups such as the LGBTQ community have been able to reclaim their history and place within the American story. And this search for a more inclusive past with multiple perspectives does not mean that historians have switched sides. The tragic execution of innocent victims in Salem is an important narrative that his been incorporated into American culture, but historians Boyer, Nissenbaum, Demos, Karlsen, and Norton have broadened our understanding of the witchcraft trials by asking different and more complex questions. Seeking to comprehend the motivation of those who made the witchcraft accusations does not mean that scholars have abandoned the victims. Rather, these historians have succeeded in producing a multi-faceted portrait of events that enhances our appreciation for the complexity of historical causation. In fact, Karlsen certainly expresses admiration for the “uppity” women of Puritan society who defied gender norms and became the targets of witchcraft accusations for their nonconformity. Expanding one’s perspective and understanding by taking a walk in someone else’s shoes does not necessarily constitute switching sides.

The detailed critique of Salem scholarship provided by Fels certainly raises some interesting questions regarding the evaluation of historical evidence on the witchcraft trials. His argument that scholars should pay more attention to the religious ideas of Puritanism also appears to have merit. Debates regarding sources and interpretation enhance our appreciation for the complexity of the past. However, dismissing an entire generation of historians for their alleged radicalism seems a simplistic exercise. 

In his evaluation of evidence regarding the witchcraft trials Fels is a stickler for detail; however, when it comes to evaluating the motivation of historians from the 1960s and 1970s he is quick to paint with a broad brush, assuming but offering little in the way of actual evidence, that scholars such as Boyer, Nissenbaum, Demos, Karlsen, and Norton were politically biased in their research and writing. In the eyes of Fels, the consideration of race, gender, and class connotes radical politics while liberalism is equated with universal humanitarian values above politics. It is a little like those who criticize kneeling football players for injecting politics into sports, while giant flags, marching soldiers, and military jets flying above the stadium are all apolitical. As the tweets of Donald Trump suggest, the politics of witch hunting is indeed complicated and conflicted.