The Millions

Kathleen Kent and Laird Hunt on Witches and Wickedness in American History and Literature

The concept of the witch has figured prominently, not only in American history but in American literature as well. From Cotton Mather’s cautionary essays to Nathaniel Hawthorne to Arthur Miller, readers have been held in thrall by accounts of accused practitioners of dark magic, primarily women. Vilified and persecuted, “witches” were often portrayed in earlier novels as confederates of the devil—evil, ugly and terrifying. In more modern-day novels the witch has been transformed into a powerful, often majestic figure, capable of both creative and destructive magic, and unmoored from patriarchal judgement and censorship. She is a force of nature, and the possessor of ancient healing arts.

Laird Hunt: What was your earliest encounter with witches?

Thanks to my maternal grandmother, I had a unique introduction to the history of “witches” and, in particular, the Salem Witch Trials. When I was quite young I was told that I was the 10th-generation descendent of , one of 19 men and women hanged in Salem for the crime of witchcraft in 1692. My only perspective before that had been what was usual for most children exposed to the Halloween-ish parodies of the supernatural: scary, unwholesome, devil-worshipping women who flew around on broomsticks, frightening peasants and livestock alike. When I asked my grandmother if Martha Carrier had truly

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