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Salem's bedeviled history

To understand the witchcraft crisis of 1692, look north - to Maine

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"The Crucible," by Arthur Miller, is an illuminating piece of theater. But as one of America's most often produced plays, it casts a spell over our cultural imagination that complicates the historian's task. The factual inaccuracies - composite characters, age changes, the adulterous affair at the center of the play - are, in a sense, the least of it.

Embroiled in the cold-war paranoia of the 1950s, Miller needed a sufficiently distant setting to critique what he called a "perverse manifestation of the panic which sets in among all classes when the balance begins to turn toward greater individual freedom." The play, with its memorable portrayal of John Proctor as a hero who refuses to betray his friends, fundamentally casts the Salem crisis as a test of individual conscience.

Cornell history professor Mary Beth Norton doesn't finger him by name, but it's clear that with "In the Devil's Snare" she wants to wrest the witchcraft episode away from Arthur Miller. What happened in Salem, she argues, was not a timeless expression of the battle between conformity and individuality. Instead, her "new interpretation ... places it firmly in the context of its very specific time and place." There may be lessons here for us all, but, she insists, "The dramatic events of 1692 can be fully understood only by viewing them as intricately related to concurrent political and military affairs in northern New England."

Norton builds a strong case, but her recitation of the evidence is sometimes so repetitive that to move it along I would have bargained with Satan to endure "The Crucible" one more time. Her perfectly reasonable thesis, which she characterizes as radical, is that Indian attacks on the northern frontier created a climate of panic at a time when Massachusetts had lost its charter and was being ruled by a shaky interim government.

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