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Switching Sides

, 280 pages

3 maps, 3 charts, 1 graph

November 2017



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Switching Sides

How a Generation of Historians Lost Sympathy for the Victims of the Salem Witch Hunt

Table of Contents

For most historians living through the fascist and communist tyrannies that culminated in World War II and the Cold War, the Salem witch trials signified the threat to truth and individual integrity posed by mass ideological movements. Work on the trials produced in this era, including Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and Marion L. Starkey’s The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Enquiry into the Salem Witch Trials, left little doubt that most intellectuals’ sympathies lay with the twenty innocent victims who stood up to Puritan intolerance by choosing to go to their deaths rather than confess to crimes they had never committed.

In Switching Sides, Tony Fels traces a remarkable shift in scholarly interpretations of the Salem witch hunt from the post–World War II era up through the present. Fels explains that for a new generation of historians influenced by the radicalism of the New Left in the 1960s and early 1970s, the Salem panic acquired a startlingly different meaning. Determined to champion the common people of colonial New England, dismissive toward liberal values, and no longer instinctively wary of utopian belief systems, the leading works on the subject to emerge from 1969 through the early 2000s highlighted economic changes, social tensions, racial conflicts, and political developments that served to unsettle the accusers in the witchcraft proceedings. These interpretations, still dominant in the academic world, encourage readers to sympathize with the perpetrators of the witch hunt, while at the same time showing indifference or even hostility toward the accused.

Switching Sides is meticulously documented, but its comparatively short text aims broadly at an educated American public, for whom the Salem witch hunt has long occupied an iconic place in the nation’s conscience. Readers will come away from the book with a sound knowledge of what is currently known about the Salem witch hunt—and pondering the relationship between works of history and the ideological influences on the historians who write them.

Tony Fels is an associate professor of history at the University of San Francisco.

"Fels knows the Salem witchcraft trials more deeply and expansively than anyone else ever has. With vivacious prose, palpable passion, and powerful reasoning, he delivers a book that is dramatic and dynamic. A rare work of critical historiography that could actually matter, Switching Sides is a brilliant and impassioned volume that will be a must-read for all students of early America."

"An important examination of the historiography of the Salem witch trials, this book demonstrates that we can assign blame, dismiss guilt, and reallocate innocence through the subtleties and nuances of language. Challenging a number of cherished interpretations that continue to define the subject's major arguments, this is a stunning, engaging, well-argued work. It will be difficult for any historian to discuss the events at Salem without introducing Switching Sides."

"Switching Sides is a tour de force of scholarly interpretation, but it is also an eloquent challenge to the political assumptions of some of America’s most distinguished historians. With his erudite critique of the reigning wisdom about the Salem witch trials, Tony Fels reveals as much about our own time as about the malevolence that wracked New England at the end of the seventeenth century."

"This is a book that is important in college, especially for young historians, because it helps us become better ones and shows us that ways of looking at things do change. Even people who are not historians will find this interesting, as it shows that history is a living, breathing, topic."

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