United States History Up to 1877 Book Review

Excerpt from Book Review :

United States History Up to 1877

The work of literature examined within this analytical book review is entitled Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England. It is written by John Demos who is a professor of history at Brandeis University. Demos is largely regarded as "one of the pioneers in this field" (Rakove, 1992) and that which is based on the 17th century witchcraft phenomenon. Demos' purpose in this book is relatively simple: he is looking to examine the pervasive culture of witchcraft that was prevalent in New England during the aforementioned epoch, and link that culture to the instances of witchcraft that were detected and prosecuted. What is truly remarkable about this purpose is that the author chooses to pursue it via an interdisciplinary approach, one which was considered "new and fashionable" (Doerner, 2013) at the time of the writing in the latter part of the 20th century (the book was initially published in 1982). Essentially, the author is looking to prove the fact that witchcraft was much more pervasive than most historians have acknowledged, and that it actually played a fundamental part in the lives of many New Englanders during this time.


After reading this work of literature, it appears fairly dubious as to whether or not Dubos was able to actually accomplish his purpose in writing this manuscript. Part of the reason such a statement is true is due to the paucity of convincing evidence that the author deconstructs to buttress his viewpoint. However, more alarming still is the methodology that he employs -- particularly the interdisciplinary approach that was vaunted at the time the author applied it. In examining both of these factors -- which are certainly interrelated -- it is most logical to discern the boons and the circumscriptions of the author's usage of this interdisciplinary methodology. The best way to accomplish this task is to analyze the way the author chose to structure the book.

Demos' manuscript is codified into four different sections, each of which pertains to a particular academic discipline. The first of these examines the culture surrounding the instances of witchcraft in 17th century New England according to a biographical perspective. The second does so through a psychological lens, while the third and fourth, respectively, do so from a sociological and historical approach. A particularly utilitarian aspect of stratifying the book in such a ways is that the author is able to dedicate approximately three chapters to each segment, two of which function as case studies while the third provides a medium for Demos to interpret these events according to the particular lens they are in. The author, therefore, is credited for attempting to deconstruct this phenomenon through a variety of academic perspectives, each of which have varying points of focus and help to offer a more comprehensive analysis of the subject.

The limitations in such an approach, however, relates to the way the author attempts to use some of these disciplines. Doing so proves to be more pragmatic for certain lenses than for others. For instance, a biographical and historical lens is well suited for analyzing people and events which took place a couple of centuries earlier. A psychological lens and a sociological, lens, however, are less so for the simple fact that that there are a number of differences with the way these fields are perceived now and as they were in the 17th century. Notions of psychology and sociology did not necessarily exist (certainly as they do now) during the time in which Demos attempts to apply them. Moreover, he has given himself the considerably difficult task of attempting to psychoanalyze people whom he has never met, and who have not been able to give them a comprehensive overview of the factors affecting their psychological welfare. In this respect, the other is working with limited facts and applying theories that were not applicable at the time that these people existed.

Demos is at his most cogent when he is analyzing the biographical and historical aspects of the tradition of witchcraft in 17th century New England, and leveraging his experience to write "as a historian" (Smith). These two lenses enable him to produce a fair amount of information about witches and the particular forms that their witchcraft took. In these sections, the author is able to provide a compelling amount of information about individuals who are suspected of witchcraft. Not all of these people were the stereotypical old ladies with few close associates and family members. Some of them were actually men such as John Godfrey, who lived in Massachusetts and did not appear to have any lasting ties to the community or to the people in it. In this regard, Demos is quite well to illustrate the fact that someone such as Godfrey -- who was somewhat antisocial and prone to disputes with those he encountered -- was actually brought up on charges of witchcraft numerous times, none of which resulted in a conviction (Rakove). Moreover, illustrating a number of such case studies helps to dispel the notions of witches wearing black and flying on brooms, and instead pertains to a repute superstition which, in the case of Godfrey, was attributed to his penchant for appearing in more than one place at the same time. The abundance of this type of evidence as well as the way in which the author is able to convincingly recreate details about such people and their lives from a historical perspective certainly corroborates his principle thesis.

Nonetheless, Demos is far less believable when he attempts to utilize various aspects of psychology and sociology -- especially the former. One of the chief points of contention that the prudent reader would have with the author regarding his usage of psychology is the lack of specificity that he has regarding the individual psyches of any of these people, since he was not able to interact with them in this or in any other capacity. Furthermore, Demos is a professor of history, which makes him best suited to dispel academic theory along the lines of biography and history, and much less so for sociology and psychology. Thus, when attempting to offer an authoritative perspective on the psyche of those who were accused of witchcraft, the author makes the egregious error of generalizing and discoursing about the psychology of these people as though there was a way their minds were linked with one another. Perhaps more so than other facets of academia, psychology is predicated on the concept of individuality since it is all about one's mind and the varying aspects of one's influence that pertain to one's mind. It little matters what parts of psychology Demos attempts to utilize for these purposes; without knowing the events that took place in the lives of the suspected witches as individuals, he is merely drawing unsubstantiated conclusions in this segment of his book. The author has the same penchant of relying too heavily on theory when he attempts to deconstruct sociological phenomena that could have influenced a climate in which witchcraft was not only regularly practiced but also commonly accepted. One can only infer that he stoops to generalizing and broadly theorizing due to a lack of evidence regarding the social and psychological components of witches during this time period.


Another considerable drawback of this manuscript is the fact that Demos appears to go out of his way to neglect the issue of gender and sexuality in regards to witches. The vast majority of those categorized as such are women, yet neither in the sociological nor the psychological sections of this book does the author address issues of gender with any degree of modernity denoting serious scholasticism in this particular area. To the contrary, most of his psychoanalysis of women involves stereotypical notions of…

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