Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

The "Possessed" Reassessed: Elizabeth Stoddard's the Morgesons, the Salem Witchcraft Hysteria and Literary (Anti)nationalism

Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

The "Possessed" Reassessed: Elizabeth Stoddard's the Morgesons, the Salem Witchcraft Hysteria and Literary (Anti)nationalism

Article excerpt

The nineteenth century was a time of profound literary nationalism in the United States. As Van Wyck Brooks and Henry Steele Commager have written, beginning with the end of the War of 1812 and extending through the outbreak of the Civil War, readers and critics hungered for narratives whose subject matter was uniquely and unequivocally American. As a result, authors mined events such as the Revolutionary War, the clashes with American Indian tribes, and the settlement of the frontier in their quest for the nation's "usable past."

Although the Salem witchcraft hysteria is less often discussed than these phenomena, it constituted another uniquely American event. In what has become an oft-retold summary, the outbreak began with the insistence of two young girls that they were being tormented by the handmaidens of Satan and ended with the execution of nineteen people and the arrest of more than 150 others for the crime of witchcraft. Even though the events of 1692 formed an embarrassing blemish on the nation's history, they also embodied fertile narrative ground for nineteenth-century interests in literary nationalism. As James William Clark has written, given both the size of the tragedy and the scant historical records kept about it, the episode constituted a "literary treasure-trove" for writers, poets, and dramatists during this era (3). In a telling index of this phenomenon, Clark estimates that fictional and nonfictional works about the events of 1692 numbered in the hundreds and maybe even the thousands between 1820 and 1870. From lectures by Charles Upham, poems by John Greenleaf Whittier, and short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne, writers from nearly all literary strata seemed to engage the subject at some point in their careers.

Although Elizabeth Stoddard was a prominent figure in the nation's literary circles during this era, had relatives who lived in Salem, and was even distantly related to Hawthorne, her 1862 novel The Morgesons has surprisingly never been connected with this phenomenon. While past and present critics have argued that the text engages with an array of literary modes and styles--from realism and regionalism to the domestic novel and gothic tradition--it has never been associated with historical fiction in general or mid-nineteenth-century efforts at literary nationalism in particular.

This essay calls such common critical tendencies into question. Stoddard's The Morgesons contains a tacit but traceable engagement with the Salem witchcraft hysteria, and this connection allows the novel to join as well as disjoin the era's gravitation towards historical fiction and attendant interest in literary nationalism. The way in which the 1862 text engages with seventeenth-century diabolism may even be announced by or alluded to in the opening sentence of the novel: "'That child ... is possessed'" (5). Aunt Merce utters this bold and even unsettling observation while gazing at the novel's narrator and main character, her niece Cassandra Morgeson. The primacy placed on this remark has prompted numerous critics to contemplate the role that possession plays in Stoddard's text. As Sandra A. Zagarell notes, "What [Cassandra] possesses, and what possesses her, are central issues for The Morgesons" (47). Echoing this sentiment, the bulk of critical examinations addresses various manifestations of possession and how these elements collectively form the defining trope of the novel. The ways in which the rambunctious young Cassandra is "possessed" by mischief, how she escapes being "possessed" by love-interest Charles Morgeson, and whether she can inherit (or take "possession" of) the family estate after the death of her great-grandfather are issues around which the many investigations pivot.

While critical essays on The Morgesons illuminate the numerous forms of possession operating within Stoddard's novel, they remain narrow in scope. Limiting their application of what possesses and can be possessed to the novel's main character, these analyses do not apply this trope to alternative figures, scenes, or situations. …

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