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ws: hamlet

This is the blog of Sarah Monette/Katherine Addison, a professional writer of horror, fantasy, and science fiction. Sarah Monette is my real name; Katherine Addison is a pen name, intended to be transparent.

If you've found me here, odds are pretty good you're looking for something to read, so the following is--to the best of my knowledge--a complete list of everything I've written that's available online:

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If you know of anything I've missed, please leave a comment!
13th-Jan-2014 01:42 pm - UBC: Briggs
ws: hamlet
Briggs, Robin. Witches & Neighbors: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchhunts. New York: Viking-Penguin Books, 1996.

For most of this book, I was planning to blog about it and say basically, "This is a pretty good book." And then I hit the last chapter and the evolutionary psychology and no. He lost all the good will he'd built up and I started yelling.

LEAVING THAT ASIDE, this is a pretty good book. It is interesting and helpful because it is a comparison of witchhunts in various countries, and since I don't know very much about European witchhunts except what "everybody knows," I found the material fascinating. And he pointed out something about why Salem is so weird that I knew, but hadn't ever really noticed, which is that only in the Salem witch trials would confessing save your life. In Salem, if you confessed to being a witch, your life would be spared. Those who were hanged were uniformly those who refused to confess. But in other places and times, unless you got incredibly unlucky, if you could withstand a round or two of torture and still profess your innocence, you were likely to be released. Those who confessed were burned. It's an incredibly important point--and like I said, it's something I knew--and one thing Briggs does very well is foregrounding the backwardness of the Salem trials.

But Briggs is a sloppy writer; in particular (and crucially for discussions of witchcraft accusations), he is sloppy about pronouns and antecedents, so that it becomes very difficult to tell what is the accused's testimony (i.e., what they actually said) and what is the accuser's testimony about what the accused said. This is very problematic.

He also falls into a logical fallacy--and it's all over the evolutionary psychology conclusion--which goes something like this:

1. There were people genuinely practicing witchcraft, that is, cursing their neighbors in the belief that they had the power to make that curse work.

2. There were people accused of witchcraft.

ERGO, the people accused of witchcraft were practicing witchcraft, and were therefore actually a threat to their accusers.

He's very insistent about citing the studies about present day cultures in which witchcraft is still a powerful belief, the studies we've all heard about where it's shown that if a witch curses someone who believes in the witch's power, the victim will, in fact, die. (He ignores some pretty crucial differences between those cultures and the culture he's studying.) And there's a lot of handwavy elision around the evidence that some accused witches did utter curses and threats against the people who would go on to accuse them, and things get all turned around until the people making accusations of witchcraft are actually right to do so. (This is largely where the evolutionary psychology comes in.)

And that is so completely wrong that it makes me yell at the book. There are so many victims of the witchhunts that, yes, the laws of probability say that some of them did practice maleficium and did believe that they were witches. But it is abundantly evident, over and over again, that the vast majority of people accused of being witches were no such thing. They were generally misfits, not outsiders so much as people who just didn't quite fit with their neighbors, who were quarrelsome or pushy or just inconvenient. They did not deserve what happened to them, and I'm actually kind of furious at Briggs for twisting things around to suggest that they did.
5th-Apr-2011 06:55 pm - UBC: Salem Story
ws: hamlet
Rosenthal, Bernard. Salem Story: Reading the Witch Trials of 1692. Cambridge University Press, 1993.

This book is about the historiography of Salem, specifically about the way that the mythology of Salem has gotten into the history and caused problems in terms of what we think we know a priori and thus never bother to track down and verify. Rosenthal is quite good at digging into the primary sources and the early secondary sources and pointing out where divergences happen and why. Particularly interesting is the case of Bridget Bishop, who was in fact not a tavern keeper and not noted for wearing a red Paragon bodice. Two of the afflicted girls, and many historians and researchers thereafter, got confused and conflated her with Sarah Bishop, who was both those things . . . but not accused of witchcraft. He also addresses, quite usefully, the question of why the Mathers, having been publicly skeptical about spectral evidence and the choices the judges were making, suddenly became very publicly gung-ho (particularly Cotton) when George Burroughs was condemned. Short answer: Burroughs was a Baptist, or had Baptist leanings, and as such was anathema to Increase and Cotton. I'm not sure I buy Rosenthal's argument 100%, for reasons I'll discuss in a moment, but it's a useful factor to know about.

My problem with Rosenthal is that he is so committed to demystifying Salem that he reduces it all to fraud, "hysteria" (which he doesn't define anymore than anyone ever does define it when talking about Salem), self-preservation, and greed. He proves that some of the afflicted persons (he rightly points out that many of them were not girls) must have been committing fraud--pins stuck into afflicted persons' hands are particularly damning. But he generalizes from that, notwithstanding some vague comments about hysteria, to assume that all of them must have been frauds, just as, although he says that some of the confessing witches believed in their own witchcraft, all the confessors he talks about specifically were confessing (he argues) because they had realized that if you confessed, you wouldn't be hanged. He also uses the evidence of Thomas Brattle, a particularly outspoken critic of the trials, to argue that, since one contemporary Puritan did not believe in witchcraft and thought everything about the Salem crisis was specious, all contemporary Puritans must have felt the same. He's arguing, quite passionately, against cultural relativism in the form of, "the poor dears, they didn't know any better," and while I agree with his principle, I think he's gone too far in the other direction and overstated the degree of empirical, material-based reasoning to be found among the general population of New England.

And he has the same problem other advocates of the fraud thesis have, namely that fraud provides an explanation for the physical manifestations, but it doesn't do anything to explain either the motivations of the afflicted persons nor the behavior of the judges--who, in Rosenthal's account, might as well be twirling their mustaches and laughing evil laughs.

In other words, he's very good at debunking some of the accreted misconceptions about Salem--and that's very valuable in and of itself--but he doesn't have a persuasive new history to offer.
29th-Jan-2011 03:50 pm - UBC: The Devil's Dominion
ws: hamlet
Godbeer, Richard. The Devil's Dominion: Magic and Religion in Early New England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

There are two problems that I complain about persistently when I'm blogging about the Salem Witchcraft Crisis. One is the tendency of Salem historians to go around proclaiming that they have found the One! True! Cause! The other is the failure of modern historians to cope with witchcraft beliefs.

how Godbeer stacks upCollapse )

As with Escaping Salem, the other book of Godbeer's that I've read, The Devil's Dominion is competent to very good research-wise: he's read a lot more Puritan divines than I could ever bear to, that's for sure, and he did an excellent job of laying out primary evidence for the schism between the legal definition of witchcraft (a covenant with the Devil) and the popular definition of witchcraft (maleficium: doing harm to others by occult means), and I only wish he'd done a better job of talking about why that schism persisted and its causal relationship to the history of witchcraft proceedings. Analytically, the book ranges from plebeian to reductive to what I would call out and out wrong.

So, interesting but frustrating. As so many books on the subject seem to be.
29th-Jan-2011 01:01 pm - morbid much?
ws: hamlet
So I've figured out why American history always bored me stupid in school. It's because I could care less about the Narrative of Progress which is how American history is generally taught. I'm fascinated by the disasters.
(There's a reason one of my tags is clusterfucks of the old west.)

And something reminded me this morning--I can't even tell you what--of what may be the first of these obsessions with morbid Americana: the terrible death of Floyd Collins. I first learned about Floyd Collins on a Girl Scout trip to Mammoth Cave when I was fourteen or so, and I've had a sort of aversion/compulsion complex about him ever since. Someday, I am going to figure out the story that wants to be written around him and write the damn thing.

But in the meantime--yes, what interests me is the underbelly2 of the American Dream.

1On the other side of the Atlantic, I was fascinated by Angela Bourke's The Burning of Bridget Cleary, which is of the same morbid genre.
2Like Shelob's: "Her vast belly was above him with its putrid light, and the stench of it almost smote him down" (J. R. R. Tolkien, The Two Towers 428).
19th-Jun-2010 06:07 pm - UBC: The Logic of Millennial Thought
ws: hamlet
Davidson, James West. The Logic of Millennial Thought: Eighteenth-Century New England. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.

This is another book that I bought mostly because it was there that turned out to be excellent. James West Davidson is a careful and respectful--but not at all reverent--scholar of the eschatology of eighteenth-century New Englanders, and he pursues his exploration mindfully, discussing overtly and straightforwardly the differences between what modern readers expect of the eighteenth century Puritans and what they get, and the problems inherent in trying to make sense of a mindset that we no longer share or even fully understand. He also has a dry, snarky sense of humor that I enjoyed immensely (certainly the last thing I expected when I started this book was to be giggling over it); in particular, I appreciate the fact that he does not take Cotton Mather at that gentleman's own self-valuation: "Mather often had a sneaking suspicion (and sometimes not so sneaking) that God might be using him as a principal instrument in fulfilling the Revelation" (13).

As someone who has written a dissertation (this book began as Davidson's doctoral thesis), I appreciate the meta-level at which Davidson periodically assesses his progress: "The argument thus far has led to two not very helpful conclusions: first, biblical prophecies seemed important to many eighteenth-century New Englanders; and second, prophecies and expositions of them are strange to us" (37). This is one of the most transparent academic books I have ever read, and I really liked the way that transparency allowed the reader a sense of the work being done by the author: we're watching Davidson construct and test and then reconstruct his theories.

The thing that this book makes me very aware of, vis-a-vis the Salem witchcraft crisis, is that no one whom I have yet read on Salem has been a historian of ideas, and I'm beginning to think a historian of ideas is what the conversation needs. No one--again, whom I have read--has made any concerted effort to get inside Puritan witchcraft beliefs in the way that Davidson is working to get inside Puritan eschatology, and I think that failure is one reason that so many of these arguments have one leg that just won't support them. Because that aspect of the witchcraft crisis needs just as much rigor of examination as all the other aspects, and it isn't getting it.
10th-Jun-2010 12:00 pm - UBC: A Quest for Security
ws: hamlet
Gragg, Larry. A Quest for Security: The Life of Samuel Parris, 1653-1720. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990.

Ironically, while I was very excited to find Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem and picked this up mostly because (a.) it was right there and (b.) it seemed unlikely I'd ever find another copy, this was by far the better book.

It is exactly what it says it is: a biography of Samuel Parris. And Gragg doesn't try to make Parris seem either better or worse (or more interesting) than he actually was. The picture that comes through is quite clear: an ordinary man with a mediocre mind, not quite as smart as he thought he was, dumped into a situation that he had no hope of dealing with. Most of Gragg's primary evidence is Parris's sermon book, and he admits he's using that to make what conjectures he can about Parris's daily life and behavior, but he quotes the sermons extensively and persuasively to support his ideas. Like every other historian of Salem, he claims to have found the real reason the witchcraft trials happened as they did, but in Gragg's case, I'm actually persuaded. The decisions that Samuel Parris made were crucial: Parris decided not to treat the afflicted girls through isolation and prayer, which had been a successful method in a recent and widely publicized case (except for his own daughter Betty, whom he sent out of Salem Village, and Betty, it should be noticed, recovered without causing any further public drama); Parris seems to have been an instigator in the decision to ask the girls to make accusations and to act on their answers; Parris certainly was a champion of spectral evidence*; and Parris was the one, when members of his church started being accused, who decided to condemn and excommunicate them, rather than question the testimony of the afflicted.

And Gragg doesn't make the mistake of saying it's all Parris. He's very aware of the other factors; although, like most historians who focus on the male adults in Salem, he pays little to no attention to the afflicted girls and women, he at least shows some awareness of the absent subjectivity. And he has a wonderful lengthy footnote animadverting about other historians' tendency to explain away witchcraft as a transparent vehicle for psychological/social/sexual/economic/other discontents.

The only bone I would pick with this book is that Gragg works much too hard to try to find a unifying theme in Parris' life (the "quest for security" of the title). It's the one place where he seems to me to make the mistake of trying to inflate his material beyond what it is, and it just isn't necessary. Other than that, this is a patient, well-documented, coolly non-partisan biography that does an excellent job of explaining how and why Samuel Parris was instrumental in making the Salem witchcraft crisis the large-scale tragedy that it was.

*"Spectral evidence" is the term for descriptions made by the afflicted of being tortured by the "specters" of the accused witches: i.e., spirit forms that no one except the afflicted could see. There was a serious controversy in 1692 about whether the Devil could take the form of an innocent person, and most ministers in New England, while uncertain theologically, came down very firmly on the side of saying that since it was possible the Devil could do this, spectral evidence should not be used to convict a witch. Samuel Parris believed whole-heartedly the other way.
ws: hamlet
Breslaw, Elaine G. Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem: Devilish Indians and Puritan Fantasies. New York: New York University Press, 1996.

I was hoping to be able to make a post about how much better this book was than The Mysterious Death of Mary Rogers, and for about half the book, that was looking really likely. The first half of this book, in which Breslaw traces Tituba's probable early life, is quite good. She explains very clearly the speculative leap she's making in assuming that the slave Tattuba listed in the inventory of a Barbados plantaion is the same as the slave Tituba Samuel Parris brought to Salem Village, and she not only convinced me that the leap was justified, she demonstrated that even if Tituba and Tattuba were not the same person, the reconstruction Breslaw managed of Tattuba's life was still worthwhile, in that it illuminated a great deal about what Tituba's experiences would have been like.

Then we hit 1692, and the thing just fell apart. Breslaw has the Salem historian's disease, in which the one cause on which the historian has focused is proclaimed to be the ONLY cause. In Breslaw's case, she asserts that the reason the Salem witchcraft crisis exploded in the way it did, mushrooming to nineteen executions and well over one hundred arrests, the only important reason is Tituba's testimony. Even without the other problems (which I'll get to in a moment), I would disagree with this thesis; I think the crucial moment is when the adult authority figures asked the afflicted girls who had bewitched them and accepted their answers as unquestionable truth. I also think that moment has a tremendously complicated genesis of its own, as well as very complicated consequences. And I would certainly agree that Tituba's testimony encouraged the spread of suspicion. But she didn't cause it, and she certainly didn't create the ground-breaking paradigm of social upheaval that Breslaw claims.

So I disagree with the argument. But I also find that the argument is very shoddily put together. She talks a great deal about the impact of the story Tituba told, the importance of the words she used, and the ways in which her testimony was repeated, embroidered, and modified by the afflicted girls and the confessing witches, but she uses almost no direct quotes. It's all described in indirect discourse. The generalizations are breathtaking in their sweep, particularly in discussing the culture of "American Indians." She makes no effort to distinguish between the Arawak Indians of South America (Tituba's probable tribe)--whose folklore and beliefs she claims influenced Tituba's testimony--and the Indians of north-eastern North America (unlike with the Arawak, she never specifies which tribes are under discussion) whom the European settlers were intermittently at war with throughout the second half of the seventeenth century--whose folklore and beliefs she claims influenced the magistrates' reception of Tituba's testimony; I find it hard to believe that "American Indians" in her argument are anything more than a locum tenens for ... well, for something that Breslaw hasn't done enough work on.

And Breslaw is particularly inconsistent on the historians' bugbear I have complained about before: the nature of the participants' belief in witchcraft. She assumes that the nightmares Tituba describes in her testimony are real, and that she made the witchcake in a sincere effort to help Betty Parris. But she also assumes that Tituba deliberately and consciously tailored her testimony to give the magistrates what they wanted to hear, and that she equally deliberately constructed it as a subversive and subtle attack on her master, Samuel Parris. She also insists on describing it is a "model for resistance" (180). And when she talks about the confessing witches using Tituba's testimony, it is always as if they were in conscious control of a sophisticated strategy of resistance. I will give one example:
Tituba's unidentified evil presence, the imputations of elite responsibility, a witches' meeting, and assorted strange creatures provided a forum for the exposure of discontent with Puritan theology and ministerial intellectual demands; with the social class system and degradation of servants; and above all with the traditions of the late medieval world that valued communal goals above individual efforts. Tituba may have omitted sexual references because Indian cultures never made the erotic side of human behavior a factor in witchcraft prceedings. Others followed her lead for different reasons--sexual exploits might have negated their intent to parody Puritan values by conflating the godly and demonic realms. In this technique, as in others, Tituba again had supplied the outlines of a method that could be embellished and reformulated to fit the mental baggage of other cultures.
(Breslaw 155)

She assumes "resistance" to be behind all the confessions (though, oddly, she doesn't spend much time applying the idea to the afflicted girls, where I think it can be more plausibly deployed--although still with much more caution than Breslaw shows), without ever acknowledging that as a method of resistance, confessing to witchcraft is a dismal failure, and without doing any of the work necessary to show how her modern, theoretical concept of "resistance" actually applies to the lives and words of her subjects. And she consistently makes assertions about Tituba's motivations that she does not prove--and couldn't prove if she tried. Unlike with the identification of Tituba and Tattuba in the first half of the book, these speculative assertions are not defensible either historiographically or rhetorically. Like Srebnick, Breslaw overstates the importance of her central figure, and like Srebnick, rather than supporting her grandiose argument with evidence and careful reasoning, she supports it with buzzwords and academic obfuscation.

What really irks me about this book is that it could have been so much better. Not just in the general sense in which a poorly written book can always be a better book, but quite specifically. Mary Beth Norton's In the Devil's Snare (which I posted about here) has some excellent and provocative work on a subject one could encapsulate by Breslaw's subtitle: Devilish Indians and Puritan Fantasies; Norton's work makes clear that the Puritan construction of Indians, particularly in relation to the Devil, probably did have a profound influence on the Salem crisis, and that is a topic that I think could and should be written about more--and should include Tituba. But Breslaw, while she mentions various facets of Puritan beliefs about Indians, doesn't examine them carefully, or make any sustained or persuasive effort to show, at the nuts and bolts level, how those beliefs influenced what happened at Salem.

So half of this is a good book and half of it is a mess. Unfortunately, the good half, while good, isn't great, and the mess is really kind of awful. Unless you're a Salem-completist like me, I can't recommend this one.
25th-May-2010 09:52 pm - 5 things
1. The Columbus Zoo has otter pups, and video of the mama otter teaching one of her babies to swim (via Zooborns, and it's heresluck's fault I was over there in the first place).

ETA: also, the Sacramento Zoo's video clips of their new Sumatran tiger cub and her gorgeous mother are marvelous.

2. via @catvalente, this unspeakably awesome cartoon about angler fish. No really. Go read it.

3. "White Charles" is in the table of contents for Paula Guran's Year's Best Dark Fantasy and Horror 2010. w00t!

4. Fountain pen geeks, do any of you have comments on Noodler's black inks? I like my black inks REALLY BLACK, and Noodler's Polar Black is disappointing me by being more of a grayish sort of black. Are any of their other blacks better?

5. On Monday, as I was heading to the State Historical Society's reading room (which has just been renovated and is absolutely freaking GORGEOUS), I was diverted from my trajectory by a bookstore, where I found Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem (Elaine G. Breslaw); A Quest for Security: The Life of Samuel Parris, 1653-1720 (Larry Gragg); and The Logic of Millennial Thought: Eighteenth-Century New England (James West Davidson). It is possible that I am still smug about these finds.
Since it has occurred to me that somebody out there may be curious, below is an extremely incomplete list of the nonfiction books I'm currently looking for.

Caveat: Except in exceptional circumstances--such as a gift card--I don't buy books online. When I tell you that the complete (though of course infinitely expanding) list of books I'm looking for--fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama--is 17 pages, 10-point and single spaced, you will perhaps understand that this is an act of mercy upon my bank balance. So please, don't tell me where I can find these books from an online seller. You will only make the baby trellwolves cry.

On the other hand, if you want to recommend other books on these subjects, please feel free!

[ETA: Caveat 2: I'm not actually looking for help in finding these books. I know about libraries and interlibrary loan and all other such marvels. The reason my book posts are always headed UBC (Unread Book Challenge) is because I have MOUNTAINS of unread books in my house--although this doesn't stop me cheerfully going off and buying more books in used bookstores (I almost never buy books new anymore, unless they're written by friends). I get a profound and abiding satisfaction out of trolling used bookstores, a satisfaction which I don't think I can explain. If for some reason I needed one of these books urgently, I would certainly turn to the university libraries. As it is, this list is all about the hunt--and the thrill I get when I capture one of these books in the wild. *ahem* I just realized that my patron saint here is Professor Wormbog. Tra la la lally.]

cut to spare the worldCollapse )

There are dozens more, but I'm giving myself a headache, so I think it's time to stop.
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