Category Archives: History

Review: Carol Karlsen’s “The Devil in the Shape of a Woman.”

Carol Karlsen’s The Devil in the Shape of a Woman, was first published in 1987 and reissued as a paperback by W.W Norton from New York, NY in 1998 with a new afterword.  The Devil in the Shape of a Women focuses its attention on Massachusetts and Connecticut during an eighty-year period of history from 1630 to the early eighteenth century. Karlsen pays special attention to the outbreaks of witch hysteria that brought fear to New Englanders from the mid to late seventeenth century. Using the tools of the social historian and the anthropologist, Karlsen painstakingly reconstructs the demography of witchcraft in colonial New England to answer the question of why women were seen as witches in New England Puritan society, a question that Karlsen accuses previous scholars of the period such as John Boyer, Stephen Nissinbaum and John Demos of leaving unasked.[1]

Karlsen’s thesis argues that independent, older women who were the sole heirs of an estate, had acquired their estates through non-traditional means, or who were in a precarious social and/or economic situation were most likely to be accused of witchcraft because of the challenges to the economic, social and gender hierarchy these woman presented; challenges that threatened the precarious order of Puritan society.

Karlsen breaks the work into three main sections.  The first examines religious beliefs of the Puritans and early New Englanders arguing that belief in witchcraft was not an anomaly but an integral part of the ever-changing doxa and praxis of Puritan religion.  The second section delves into the demography of witchcraft, analyzing what seems to be the entire extant records of the period to discover the common social and economic characteristics of accuses witches.  The final third of Karlsen’s work uses the same set of primary sources and demographic data to explore the gender relationships that were predominant during the time-period and why the accused represented a challenge to the established order.

Karlsen’s work is thoroughly researched using what seems to be the entire body of extant records from the period to draw her conclusions.  These conclusions themselves are well-supported by the evidence presented to the reader.  The numerous tables and lists showing ages, economic status, inheritance patterns and other social and economic data conclusively support her claims as to the ages, social position and familial relationships of the accused witches. However, the latter third of the book relies more on anthropological analysis and inference than previous sections, making this part of the text most likely to be challenged by future historians.

The Devil in the Shape of a Women is an essential read for any who wish to understand witchcraft its relationship to the prevailing social and gender patterns of early colonial society and provides a wealth of information for the scholar of early American history and could be used as a starting point for understanding the ever-changing gender roles in US history.  Karlsen’s book could also serve as the starting point for an analysis of the few male witches brought to trial during the seventeenth century, to see if any of the same concerns apply to this overlooked demographic

[1] Karlsen, Carol F. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England. W. W. Norton & Company, 1998. 212f.

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Posted by on April 6, 2013 in History, non-fiction


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Review: Alan Taylor’s “American Colonies: The Settling of North America.”

Alan Taylor’s American Colonies: The Settling of North America, published by Penguin Books in 2002, presents to the reader an important interpretation of the early history of the United States that expands upon the traditional Anglocentric narrative.  Taylor’s work of historical synthesis takes in a broad sweep of history, looking back to the earliest peopling of the North American continent by Asiatic hunter/gather groups circa 13,000 BCE to the early national period c.1820 CE.  Taylor argues that the many different waves of colonization originating in diverse regions of the globe have had a lasting and profound impact on the history of the nation helping shape a unique American identity.[1]  In presenting this argument, Taylor moves the narrative away from the Anglocentric point-of-view that dominates the historiography of the period replacing it with a more dynamic, diverse, and holistic account.

By including the histories of the many different peoples who have inhabited the North American continent form the earliest Asiatic peoples who would become the forebears of today’s native peoples to the Spanish, French, Dutch, Russians, and English who freely choose to settle the “New World”, to the forced migrations of African peoples from a wide variety of nations, Taylor successfully forces the reader into thinking about American history differently through the use of a compelling narrative and a thematic approach to history.  By breaking history into small geographic and temporal segments, Taylor provides a framework that allows the narrative to explore individual groups and time-periods, while keeping the intercultural narrative of the text at the forefront of the reader’s attention.

Taylor’s work is an important text that should be at the top of any history buffs to-read list.  Those interested in colonial America, Native American history, the histories of non-Anglo colonial powers will find this large but eminently readable tome of great value while giving them a much more nuanced vision of the colonial period.

[1] Alan Taylor, American Colonies: The Settling of North America (The Penguin History of the United States, Volume 1) (Penguin (Non-Classics), 2002). xii.

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Posted by on April 6, 2013 in History, non-fiction


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Review: Richard Godbeer’s “Sexual Revolution in Early America.”

Published by the Johns Hopkins Press, Richard Godbeer’s 2002 monograph Sexual Revolution in Early America provides an in-depth look into sex and sexuality in the colonial and early national periods of American history.  Using the tools and methodologies of social and cultural history, Godbeer seeks to shine a light on an overlooked theme in American history, early American sexuality.

The bulk of Godbeer’s analysis focuses upon New England and the Puritans, with the occasional foray into Philadelphia, Virginia and the Carolinas.  The work takes in a period of two hundred years, from the years immediately prior to the British settlement of North America in the early seventeenth century, to the period immediately after the Revolutionary War in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  Throughout the text, Godbeer argues that during the eighteenth century a new sexual ethos regarding sex and sexual culture emerged in British North America as the result of a culture war that pitted differing conceptions of proper sexual etiquette against one another.  This shift represented a move away from traditional conceptions of sex and society brought to the New World by English colonists toward a more individualistic worldview informed by, and predicated upon, the revolutionary ideology of the late 18th century.[1]  By showing the evolution in American sexual culture, Godbeer challenges conventional wisdom used by contemporary culture warriors that looks to the early years of American society as the exemplar of traditional sexual mores and shows this point-of-view to be little more than a wishful fiction.

Sexual Revolution in Early America begins with an examination of popular attitudes toward pre-marital sex, the sexual proclivities of exotic natives of the uncivilized New World, and inter-racial sexual relations as portrayed through English high and literary culture in the years immediately before permanent British colonization of North America.  Godbeer’s use of theses accounts works to show that these concerns were emerging but does little to show that these pre-conceptions were normative or even widespread in English society of the period.  Despite this shortfall, this small introductory section provides a foundation that highlights the contested nature of sexuality in early seventeenth century English society, and the existence of a multi-faceted discourse regarding sexual mores.[2]

Godbeer moves the focus of the discussion in the first part of the book to New England and its most famous inhabitants: the Puritans.  Here Godbeer challenges the traditional notion of the Puritans that dominates the modern mind, by showing them to be highly sexual beings exhibiting many of the same sexual foibles as modern Americans.  Furthermore, even the small group of Puritans who evangelized regarding sexuality were concerned not with controlling all sexual activity but with delineating licit and illicit behaviors and relations; relations then enforced through a punitive legal system and societal pressure.  This pressure by Puritan moral evangelists to enforce a rigorous moral code in a heterogeneous society is the first of the sexual revolutions in Godbeer’s account.

The second of the books three parts moves the narrative to the southern colonies, focusing heavily on the Carolinas and the special circumstances that many early settlers found themselves.  Many of those who lived on the border between civilization and the untamed wilderness found themselves having to create a new type of moral code suited to their new environment.  This pragmatic and unorthodox approach to sexual morality was in many cases in direct opposition to the prevailing religious and civil notions of correct behavior.  Religious and civil powers regulated licit sexual behaviors in an attempt to provide order in chaos.  Worries of miscegenation and its affects on English civility and civilization provided much of the impetus for a new set of mores—especially after the move from a society with slaves to a slave society—while the serial monogamy and seeming licentiousness of these frontiersmen and women spoke of a breakdown of civil society itself.  It is in this region that Godbeer first sees the identification of womanhood with virtuousness that would become a popular trope as the colonies moved toward independence and the new ideology of republicanism took shape.

In the third and final section of the text, Godbeer argues that with the declension of Puritan ecclesiastic power and the increasing complexity of civil society, the power of the state/church to enforce its own brand of sexual morality waned as other matters took legal precedence.  A moral code that had once been the purview of the legal system now relied more on the sanction of society to enforce sexual ethics.  A consequence of this move was that as society changed so to did the ideas about proper sexual etiquette.  As revolutionary ideas swept the colonies and the rhetoric of individual freedom seized the imaginations of the citizenry, especially those who lived in the urban north.  This philosophy of individual liberty clashed with the emerging concept of virtuous womanhood that came to the fore during and after the Revolutionary War.

The evidence mustered by Godbeer supports his thesis well.  The historian uses a wide variety of primary source material; court transcripts, plays and other fictional works, almanacs, newspapers, diaries, and sermons.   By highlighting a recurring theme of tension and conflict in American sexual history, Godbeer successfully shows that sexuality has always been a contentious issue in American society while undermining long-held but erroneous conceptions of the early American people’s and their attitudes toward sex.  Sexual Revolution in America successfully casts aside the stereotype of the Puritan, replacing the dull, staid, highly religious citizenry for a more nuanced vision that was intimately concerned with “proper” sexual relations.

One weakness is Godbeer’s almost exclusive focus on the British colonies of North America fails to account for the fact that during the colonial period people’s from all over Europe settled in what would become the United States.  As Alan Taylor argues so well in his 2002 monograph, American Colonies, these immigrants brought with them a wide variety of cultural and religious forms, which must surely have included culturally specific attitudes toward sex and sexuality.  By focusing so heavily on the English—and specifically the Puritans—these other cultures influence on the evolution of American society are seemingly discounted by Godbeer.

This book should benefit those with an interest in early colonial North America or human sexuality in history.  For the student of history, Sexual Revolution in Early America could be used as a starting point for a more comprehensive account of American sexuality by examining the whether the sexual attitudes of the German, Dutch, French and other non-Anglo colonists influenced American attitudes toward sex and sexuality.

[1] Richard Godbeer, Sexual Revolution in Early America (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002). 9-10.

[2] Godbeer, 1-4.

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Posted by on April 6, 2013 in History, non-fiction, US History


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“To Serve God and Wal-Mart: the Making of Christian Free Enterprise” by Bethany Moreton: A Review.

Love it or hate it, one cannot deny the impact that Wal-Mart has had on the business and physical landscapes of the United States since its beginnings as a single 5 and Dime store in rural Northwest Arkansas.  In this 2009 text, Dr. Bethany Moreton traces the rise of Wal-mart, and shows that in the process of becoming a global retailing behemoth Wal-mart responded to, and helped foment, the cultural changes of the mid-twentieth century.  While Wal-mart and the Ozarks are the author’s major foci, this book is more than a history of a company or a specific region; it is a history of the development of the current cultural milieu in America.

Moreton’s text argues that Christian free enterprise in our post-industrial service-based society grew out of the specific cultural, religious and economic environment of the Ozarks; the home region of Wal-mart.  Moreton argues that this far-reaching societal change was not entirely driven from the top-down, but is as much a grassroots movement with working moms, average consumers and college students being important players in the process. To argue her points, Dr. Moreton analyses a variety of cultural phenomena including conservative populism, the change in gender-roles with the coming of the two-income family, the Christian service ethos, and the shift from a liberal arts based university curriculum to a focus on vocational degree programs in the small Christian colleges in Wal-mart’s home territory.  These seemingly disparate and unrelated threads provide the foundation for the growth of Wal-Mart, which was able to expertly read these trends and use them to its advantage in helping create today’s Christian free enterprise.

To Serve God and Wal-Mart” is written in a scholarly, but not overly academic voice as some histories that I have read have been. Still this is not a light read, it demands one’s full attention, especially given that the individual threads that are Moreton’s focus are presented thematically in the text. While this allows the argument to be unfolded in a logically coherent manner it is sometimes difficult to place events chronologically.  Even within chapters the chronology jumps around as each theme is explored. This makes the text seem a little disjointed at times but does not detract too much from the argument at hand.  A timeline of major events would have been useful to keep track of everything.

Overall, this is a well-researched and fascinating read that provides a unique perspective on the development of both a major cultural movement and one of the giants of the retail world.

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Posted by on May 30, 2010 in History


“The Age of American Unreason” by Susan Jacoby.

Susan Jacoby’s 2008 “The Age of American Unreason” is a book in two parts. The first part is a highly readable history of the development of contemporary anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism; the second is largely a polemic against what could very well be seen as Jacoby’s personal pet peeves.

In the first part of the text Jacoby outlines the causes of American unreason arguing that the modern condition is a result of a multitude of factors that include the rise of Christian Fundamentalism, the ubiquity of television, the move away from a classical liberal education at universities, the right-wing attack on the intellectual as a “fellow-traveler” and the reaction of the New Left to the role that intellectuals played in the crises of the Sixties, the rise of infotainment, and the subsequent dumbing-down of mass culture. Jacoby does a decent job creating a coherent argument from these strands but there is nothing really original or ground-breaking about her analysis. In addition, the author makes questionable assertions, such as the claim that the USA is the only developed nation where Pentecostalism and Charismatic Christianity is on the rise (she has conveniently overlooked South Korea where the growth of these Christian movements is accelerating, and Australia where churches that preach a charismatic form of Christianity, i.e. Hillsong Church, are rapidly gaining members) and tracing the origin of fundamentalism and biblical literalism to the Second Great Awakening.

The second part, an exposition of the symptoms of American unreason, is disappointing. Jacoby’s analysis of the culture of distraction reads as an anti-modernist screed that highlights many of the problems with a world filled with gadgets but like much of the rest of the book, is largely unoriginal. Jacoby fails to tackle the serious issues in junk thought; those issues that should be addressed, and instead takes aim at soft targets. Is a tirade against the Baby Einstein series of children’s videos really the best way to highlight America’s dissent into anti-intellectualism and belief in pseudo-science?

If Jacoby’s aim was to produce a scholarly “high-brow” treatise on the demise of thinking in contemporary America then she has missed the mark, and has instead written a text that takes the path of least resistance and lands squarely in lower middle-brow territory. Jacoby argues that much scholarship in the age of Google is a mere re-mixing of ideas, yet this is exactly what the author has done with this text; originality is not this book’s strength.

While Jacoby’s prose is mostly engaging and well-written, at times Jacob revels in self-aggrandizement making it seem that she is looking down her long, cultured nose at the hoi-polloi.  Although Jacoby calls herself a “cultural conservationist” one is left with an impression that “cultural conservative” would be a more apt moniker. To her credit, the author does take both right and left to task for their role in the creation of the modern age of unreason but this is not enough to make up for the many shortcomings of “The Age of American Unreason.”

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Posted by on March 17, 2010 in History, non-fiction


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