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The Malefic Unconscious: Gender, Genre, and History in Early Antebellum Witchcraft Narratives

From: Journal of Narrative Theory
Volume 42, Number 2, Summer 2012
pp. 119-148 | 10.1353/jnt.2012.0001

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

“Our witches . . . are displays of lost lore, displays of a past always already going out of fashion, dissolving, requiring exorcism or presentation, but always requiring action on our part.”

By the nineteenth century, the age of witch hunting in America had come to an end. Although witchcraft beliefs still lingered in some rural parts throughout the eighteenth and even into the early nineteenth centuries, influential elites no longer took them very seriously.2 But while repressed in courtrooms, narratives of the supernatural returned in other venues—in “art and literature, in aesthetic and imaginative incarnations and in a frisson for spectacle” (Porter 240). In particular, magical characters and worldviews resurfaced in nineteenth-century fiction. Such narratives of witchcraft were especially fascinating to writers of the early national period of America who were mining colonial witchcraft histories in a broader effort to construct a uniquely “American” literature. For this reason, writers repeatedly resurrected the sordid story of the Salem witch trials of 1692.3 Literary nationalism clearly motivated these writings. More recent interpretations explore how these texts register class, religious, and political anxieties of nineteenth-century America: Jacksonian politics, literary ambitions in a newly professionalized marketplace, clerical anxieties, or nationalist desires.

Yet, with a few notable exceptions, critics of antebellum American witchcraft narratives have dismissed the power of gender ideologies in shaping these fictions.4 Some convincing and complicated factors perhaps explain this neglect. For one, these studies largely adhere to the strict historicist perspective that nineteenth-century texts can only register nineteenth-century anxieties. Gender, strict historicists argue, may have played an important role in seventeenth-century witch-hunts.5 However, as Philip Gould, for instance, argues, early national enactments of Salem had little to do with gender; instead, they revealed more about conservative fears of the dangers of democracy, its deluded masses and designing demagogues, than any sort of persecution of women. Gould writes, “Clearly, more than theology, or even race and gender, the issue of class shaped early national historical discourse about the Salem trials,” and if gender and race did indeed play a “significant role” in such narratives, it was only to the extent that nineteenth-century stories of Salem depicted all sorts of subordinates rising up against their social superiors (184). In these stories, a specifically early national discourse placed “the blame for ‘the tempest of passion’ on the politically disenfranchised—Caribbean blacks, white women, and young children—who temporarily assumed a political voice” (185). Nonetheless, why does Gould feel the need to explain why he does not see gender as an overriding concern of early national narratives of witchcraft narratives, or assume that his audience would expect an analysis of gender in an interpretation of witch-hunting historiography and fiction in the first place?

I would argue that a certain specter haunts Gould’s dismissal: popular feminist writings of the 1970s on witchcraft. After all, he does criticize feminist literary critics earlier in his study for their tendency to “inscribe their own language and values onto texts of the 1820s,” and for projecting twentieth-century concerns onto seventeenth-century events (93). Gould is not the first to level such a charge. Historians, according to Diane Purkiss, have “gleefully” rejected popular feminist analyses of the early modern European witchcraft trials for a similar transgression against historicity (92). Purkiss recounts the strident backlash of witchcraft historians against popular feminist writings of the early 1970s such as Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English’s Witches, Midwives, and Healers (1973), which read the witch hunts as “mass gynocide” or “womanhating.”6 These historians insisted that witch hunting was not women hunting—pointing out that twenty percent of “witches” executed were men and that women, too, served as accusers of other women—and that to apply a gender analysis to the study of the witch-hunts was therefore inaccurate, if not entirely irrational. Such disregard led historian Elspeth Whitney to exclaim in 1995, “The extent to which gender has ‘fallen out’ as a category of analysis among the majority of historians of the witch-hunts is quite startling” (2). In a similar vein, Katherine Hodgkin argued in 1998 that witchcraft’s “central place...

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