Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

Giles Corey and the Pressing Past

Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

Giles Corey and the Pressing Past

Article excerpt

Within the finest writings of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, the New England past is rarely far removed from present action or inaction. Her characters often function in the context of restrictions others or they themselves have placed upon them in earlier days.(1) In Freeman's world, consequently, such characters proceed with a present negotiated for them so that the passing of time requires little contemplation, little renegotiation. Rarely, though, does Freeman explore the more remote periods of her region to depict historical reasons for the atrophied world her women and men populate. Unlike Hawthorne or Stowe, for Freeman the patterns of the recent past were usually dramatic enough. Her 1893 play Giles Corey, Yeoman is the one notable exception to this tendency in Freeman. Through her depiction of the sole character to be pressed to death during the Salem witchcraft frenzy two centuries earlier, she demonstrates how personal failure and frustration can be projected into a society as a whole if that society has deadened itself to the point of self-belittlement.

The torturous death of Giles Corey was not only an historical reality but served as an apt metaphor for a culture repressed by perceptual error. Freeman, according to Perry Westbrook, drew heavily for the play upon Charles W. Upham's two-volume study of 1866, Salem Witchcraft. She had, in fact, a familial interest in the Salem accounts since her earliest American ancestor, Bray Wilkins, was instrumental in having his grandson hanged as a witch (Mary Wilkins Freeman 134). She must have read with layered fascination, consequently, Upham's explanation of the origins and events of 1692. The similarities to the New England of Freeman's day must have seemed striking and oddly personal, particularly his assessment of how the Puritans

   had been agitated by great revolutions. They were surrounded by alarming
   indications of change, and their ears were constantly assailed by rumors of
   war. Their minds were startled and confounded by the prevalence of
   prophecies and forebodings of dark and dismal events. At this most
   unfortunate moment, and, as it were, to crown the whole and fill up their
   measure of affliction and terror it was their universal and sovereign
   belief, that the Evil One himself was, in a special manner, let loose, and
   permitted to descend upon them with unexampled fury. (11-12)

The Puritan society, in scourging itself for its failures, had weakened itself so badly through those scourgings that minor disruptions had come to seem catastrophic.

The so-called "New England decline" had gripped Freeman's region since the Civil War, if not longer. Unlike the rest of the country, however, New England at the end of the nineteenth century had shown little ability to recover from this malaise. In an 1899 article for The Atlantic Monthly, Rollin Lynde Hartt wrote with rancor, horror, and indignation of a Vermont hill town that he depicted as crumbling under the weight of endemic defeat. It could not, he wrote, "maintain itself in opposition to relentless forces of social reconstruction; and consequently, those who hold all neighborly, ancestral, homely things most dear must witness not merely the aesthetic, but also the industrial, moral and social decadence of the beloved Sweet Auburn" (572).(2) Mary Reichardt notes how particularly harmful this aura of regional defeat was for those in Freeman's stories who deflect from the norm: "Women in particular risked being labeled `witches' in an environment not substantially different from that which led to hanging such offenders two centuries before." Reichardt points as an example to the 1888 story "Christmas Jenny" in which the protagonist, "[b]ecause she tends sick animals and a deaf-and-dumb child ... is suspected of witchcraft by townsfolk to whom `everything out of the broad, common track was a horror'" (xi).

As Freeman spun out Giles Corey, therefore, she was in part dramatizing an earlier model for the regional dynamic of her own time. …

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