For anyone who needs a reminder about the distinctive region around us, just check the new issue of the New Yorker magazine with two major articles about historical happenings and people from our general area. Our local history keeps making news. Pulitzer Prize-winner Stacy Shiff writes about “The Witches of Salem: The Terror in New England, 1692,” drawing on research from a forthcoming book on this subject of enduring interest; and Dan Chiasson has a review-essay about Concord’s Ralph Waldo Emerson as a consequential American poet. Emerson is reported to have given 25 lectures in Lowell while he was popular on the lyceum circuit in the mid-1800s.
Reading the witches article, I was struck by how fresh it all felt as the familiar place names showed up. A 1692 map of the Mass Bay Colony is included to help readers visualize the area. Lowell’s not there, of course, but the confluence of the Concord and Merrimack rivers is clearly marked. Andover, Amesbury, Salisbury, Newburyport, Rowley, Ipswich, Gloucester, Groton, Concord—all there. Schiff writes, “The population of New England at that time would fit into Yankee Stadium today.” Picture that. She adds: “In isolated settlements, in smoky, fire-lit homes, New Englanders lived very much in the dark, where one listens more acutely, feels most passionately, and imagines most vividly, where the sacred and the occult thrive. The seventeenth-century sky was crow black, pitch-black, Bible black, so black that it would be difficult at night to keep to the path, . . . .”