I’ll be giving a presentation at this year’s Susman Graduate Conference on my research into changing beliefs about magic and witchcraft in Enlightenment America (British colonial and early U.S.), and the links between these intellectual changes and the formation of national identity.
Accusations, trials, and persecutions of witches form a fascinating and peculiar episode in colonial American history, with the famous Salem trials as the most well-known example of what is often conceived of as a Puritan, New England, or 17th century phenomenon. However, the memory of earlier beliefs in magic and actions upon those beliefs still exerted influence over British-American colonists and U.S. citizens in the 18th century. A review of American magazines from this period reveals a continued, but different, preoccupation with magic and witchcraft. Elite Americans of this period thought about magic, but at a distance, with distaste and no small amount of shame. Published works repeatedly consigned it to a kind of local dark age; the colonial forefathers had to be defended from criticisms for their prosecution of witchcraft as a crime; and increasingly, magic became less a threat to be controlled, and more a mere “superstition” clung to by the “vulgar.”
A complex process was underway, by which early Americans disposed of their culture of magic, alternatingly forgetting and reconsidering it. Americans of the 18th century distanced themselves from their historical beliefs in magic, and then conceptually relocated this belief elsewhere, reattaching it to a variety of Others: the English, the French, Africans, Native Americans, and the superstitious masses, an “other within.” Through this transformation of memory and history, the myth of an ideal America – enlightened and reasonable, free of the irrational superstitions that plagued its past, its rivals and victims, and its own inferior members – was born. My upcoming paper on this topic will show how a sea change in early American perspectives on the supernatural influenced and constituted the formation of a U.S. American national identity.
The 35th annual Warren and Beatrice Susman Graduate Conference will be held on April 20, 2013 at Rutger’s New Brunswick campus. Its topic is “Myth, Memory, and History: New Approaches to an Elusive Past.”