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Puritans and the Salem Witch Trials

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Puritans and the Salem Witch Trials and the American Short Story

Contextualization Throughout their formation in the 16th century, the Puritans were a strict sect of the Church of England which believed that the church needed to be reformed further to make it less Catholic and incorporate more of the Calvinist philosophy. However, by 1620, various subgroups of the Puritans -- like the Pilgrims, had broken away from the Anglican Church and by 1629, the Puritans had begun emigrating to America to escape religious persecution in England, settling in New England. Once in America, the Puritans had the religious freedom to practice their new religion, which banned activities such as dancing, playing cards, and drinking alcohol and even dictated the dress of its members to dark somber colors. Writing and education were valued as part of their religion however, and several writers emerged among the Covenanters, including Anne Bradstreet, Edward Taylor, Thomas Hooker, and William Bradford.

The Salem Witch Trials started in January of 1692 in the Puritan village of Salem when Betty Parris, Abigail Williams, and Ann Putnam accused three local women of being witches. It ended in September of the same year, after 25 people died, 19 of whom were hung for being witches, and one (Giles Cory) who was crushed to death because he refused to stand trial. A driving force behind the witch trials was Cotton Mather, a Puritan minister whose book Memorable Provinces was viewed as an authoritative work on witchcraft. The trials eventually stopped after Increase Mather and Governor Phipps denounced the use of spectral evidence, a main component of the trial and which led to the release of 49 other accused witches. Ironically while known for strictness and the punishment meted out for minor infraction, the Puritans believed that once a person made a full confession, his or her fate should be left in God's hands, not man's. The death sentence for accused witches was not a mandate from the community elders, but a English law passed in 1641 which the colonists were bound to observe. (University of Missouri)

Salient Points Puritan writers, such as Thomas Hooker and William Bradford, valued plain speech in their writings. Both Bradford and Hooker stated respectively that they preferred a plain style, with singular regard to the simple truth in all things , and that [it] is beyond my care to please the niceness of men's palates with any quaintness of language. This particular style of writing is one which became highly valued in American literature for its straightforward appeal to the general public. Also Cotton Mather's account Memorable Providences, while providing an account of a similar witchcraft trial which Mather had participated in, also allows insight into the sort of visual manifestations which the Puritans believed constituted witchcraft, and which were used as evidence throughout the witch trials. Gustaaf Van Cromphout has posited Cotton Mather as the most impressive exemplar of the Renaissance Man in American Puritanism, remarking that his magnum opus, Magnalia Christi Americana of 1702 is not only colonial history and glorification of its faith, but also a work whose style and rhetoric reveal his adherence to humanist literary principles. In his highly conscious choice of style, adds Cromphout, Mather shows himself as a historian in the classic tradition of Renaissance humanism: one who tried to bridge the gap between history and rhetoric, between history and literary art.

Influence on the American Short Story The emphasis on ethics and morality which permeated the Puritan society, both in its negative and positive aspects, has become an enduring theme among American authors. For example, morality, especially moral courage, shows up repeatedly in Stephen Crane's works, in particular his novel The Red Badge of Courage. Also, various literary analysts like James Cox and Amy Lowell have noted that the Crane's more poetic pieces have several components of traditional Puritan writers and even stronger moral overtones than in his prose. Also the simple speech patterns and realism which the Puritans prized even in their own authors have remained important mainstays for American writers, even leading to the neo-Puritan movement in writing during the mid 19 th century. Several American authors have drawn from the Puritan culture and Salem Witch Trials for their stories including Theodore Dreiser, Arthur Miller, and H. P. Lovecraft, creating works like An American Tragedy, The Crucible , and Pickman's Model. Stephen Vincent Benet also uses elements of his setting and characters from Puritan culture in his short story The Devil and Daniel Webster to build the atmosphere of the story, the most obvious example of which is his inclusion of Judge Hathorne as the judge for the trial of Jabez Stone. However, the most notable writing of the Puritan's culture comes from Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Descended from a prominent Puritan family, Hawthorne was the son of a sea captain who died when Nathaniel was 4 years old. When he was 14 he and his mother moved to a lonely farm in Maine. After attending Bowdoin College (1821-25), he devoted himself to writing. His first novel, Fanshawe (1829), published anonymously, was unsuccessful. His short stories won notice and were collected in Twice-Told Tales (1837; second series, 1842). Unable to support himself by writing and editing, he took a job at the Boston customhouse. Later, Hawthorne lived at the experimental community Brook Farm for about six months, but he did not share the optimism and idealism of the transcendentalist participants, and he did not feel himself suited to communal life. In 1842 he married Sophia Peabody, a friend and follower of Emerson, Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller, and they settled in Concord. There he wrote the tales and sketches in the collection Mosses from an Old Manse (1846).

In order to earn a livelihood Hawthorne served as surveyor of the port at Salem (1846-49), where he began writing his masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter (1850). Set in 17th-century Puritan New England, the novel delves deeply into the human heart, presenting the problems of moral evil and guilt through allegory and symbolism. It is often considered the first American psychological novel. Hawthorne's next novel, The House of the Seven Gables (1851), takes place in the New England of his own period but nevertheless also deals with the effects of Puritanism. For a time the Hawthornes lived at "Tanglewood," near Lenox, Mass., where he wrote A Wonder Book (1852), based on Greek mythology, which became a juvenile classic, and Tanglewood Tales (1853), also for children. At this time he befriended his neighbor Herman Melville, who was one of the first to appreciate Hawthorne's genius. Returning to Concord, Hawthorne completed The Blithedale Romance (1852), a novel based on his Brook Farm experience. A campaign biography of his college friend Franklin Pierce earned Hawthorne the post of consul at Liverpool (1853-57) after Pierce became President. Hawthorne's stay in England is reflected in the travel sketches of Our Old Home (1863), and a visit to Italy resulted in the novel The Marble Faun (1860). After returning to the United States, he worked on several novels that were never finished. He died during a trip to the White Mts. with Franklin Pierce. Aside from his importance as a novelist, Hawthorne is justly celebrated as a short-story writer. He helped to establish the American short story as a significant art form with his haunting tales of human loneliness, frustration, hypocrisy, eccentricity, and frailty. Among his most brilliant stories are "The Minister's Black Veil," "Roger Malvin's Burial," "Young Goodman Brown," "Rappaccini's Daughter," "The Great Stone Face," and "Ethan Brand." (Bartleby)

Connections to Our Class In Young Goodman Brown, one of the Hawthorne stories that is included in the American Literature Anthology, Hawthorne combines the ideals of Puritan spirituality and the scandal of the Salem Witch Trials in the conflict with which the title character is confronted. The Minister's Black Veil, another story addressed in the anthology, also contains a character who seemingly embodies the Puritan spirituality, but also addresses the fear of the unknown which is represented by the black veil in the story.

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