Date of Award
Master of Arts (MA)
This thesis explores a particular type of irrational pattern-seeking — specifically, “spectral evidence” — in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Giles Corey of the Salem Farms (1872) and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953). It concludes with observations of this concept’s continued and concerning presence by other names in Trump-era politics. The two works by Longfellow and Miller make a natural pairing because both are plays inspired by the Salem witchcraft trials (1692-93), a notorious historical miscarriage of justice. Robert Warshow calls the Salem witchcraft trials, aside from slavery, “the most disconcerting single episode in our history: the occurrence of the unthinkable on American soil, and in what our schools have rather successfully taught us to think of as the very ‘cradle of Americanism” (211). Spectral evidence plays a central role in Giles Corey and The Crucible; it is directly responsible for the conviction and execution of the main protagonists and several other characters in both plays. This thesis is particularly concerned with how religious and judicial authoritarians in Longfellow and Miller weaponize “spectral evidence” to establish cultural and legal hegemony through fear and by scapegoating a marginalized, demonized other. It is my contention that spectral evidence is very much with us today, operating under other similarly oxymoronic names such as “alternative facts” and “fake news.”
This thesis also takes issue with a common reading of The Crucible, and perhaps Giles Corey, as a play about the Salem witchcraft trials as a product of “mass hysteria”: “a collective phenomenon in which a group experiences delusions, fear and perceived threat.” That reading also seems to be a popular interpretation of the actual Salem witchcraft trials (Blakemore). Certainly, I vividly recall the phrase “mass hysteria” (and, sadly, not much else) from my own junior high encounter with Miller’s play. Perhaps this reading was considered more appropriate for impressionable schoolchildren than one that sharply critiqued religious and state authorities. The latter reading — the reading explored here — would have turned this play into provocative fare indeed. No longer would it have been a play merely about Puritan or even McCarthyite craziness; it would have gained a dangerous contemporary relevance. My contention, consistent with an elite theory of the state, is that Longfellow and Miller focus their concerns not so much on the populace but on the political and religious authorities who lead us. Certainly, mass hysteria is an important part of these plays and the historical witchcraft trials, but it is more symptom than cause. The verdict of “mass hysteria” should not be allowed to overshadow the state-driven authoritarian violence detailed and deplored by these plays.
Hyde, Paul, "Weaponizing Faith: ‘Spectral Evidence’ in Longfellow, Miller and Trump" (2021). All Theses. 3560.