Fall 2021 - ENGL 437W D100

Seminar in American Literatures (4)

The Salem Witch Hunt

Class Number: 6440

Delivery Method: In Person


  • Course Times + Location:

    Tu 2:30 PM – 4:20 PM
    WMC 3253, Burnaby

    Th 2:30 PM – 4:20 PM
    RCB 5125, Burnaby

  • Prerequisites:

    45 units or two 300 division English courses.



Advanced seminar in American literature. May be organized by author, genre, period, or critical approach. This course may be repeated for credit if a different topic is taught. Writing.



Why in June 1692 did people living in Salem, Massachusetts start hanging their neighbors, thinking them witches? There are oodles of answers. Nearly all are speculative. One is not: Like the vast majority of people in early modern North America and Europe, people living in Salem believed in witchcraft. They were hanging witches, or so most of them thought.

We have largely forgotten that fact. Nineteenth-century Anglo-Americans, however, had not.  Struggling with their own supernatural preoccupations, they wrote constantly about Salem and its beliefs. In this class, we’ll explore the Salem Witch Hunt through their eyes, and we’ll explore their writing from a postsecular perspective, that is, from a perspective that takes faith—and the history of faith—in the supernatural seriously. We’ll also ask what Salem literature tells us about the nineteenth century itself. After all, it was clear to everyone reading Nathaniel Hawthorne that this angry great-great-grandson of a Salem judge wasn’t just writing about the past; he was writing about his own time. As historian Bernard Rosenthal argues, “Salem, in the distant past, almost in a never-never land of magic, offers an imaginative landscape where we may more safely encounter the monsters we conjure,” from white supremacy to sexual violence.

We’ll read Hawthorne, of course, but we’ll spend most of our time working with a handful of the many popular novels, poems, stories, essays, and plays—by Ella Taylor Disosway, Elizabeth Gaskell, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Harriet Prescott Spofford, Elizabeth Stoddard, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Mary E. Wilkins [Freeman]—that tried to comprehend witch hunting and particularly Salem as fact and metaphor. Nearly all of this work is in the public domain and so will be freely available as PDFs on Canvas. The only novel you’ll need to purchase is Stoddard’s 1862 masterpiece The Morgesons, which is kind of like Jane Eyre if (a) Jane were a descendent of witches and (b) she boasted a sister who might still be one. Of course, this being a 400-level seminar, we’ll also read significantly in criticism and theory, especially postsecular theory and to a lesser extent trauma theory. What is Salem, after all, if not a story of trauma?

Two Notes

  1. This class will include readings about and frank discussions of sexual, gender, and racial violence and trauma. If you want to take the course but are worried about those readings and/or discussions, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me. I can give you a better sense of how they will come up in the course and how they will be handled.

  2. Speaking of frank discussions of trauma, Robert Eggers’ 2015 film The Witch is a historically informed, unnerving visualization of the lived experience of seventeenth-century New England witchcraft and the Puritan “wonderworld,” i.e., the supernaturally infused reality in which Puritans lived day to day via their faith. It’s set before Salem but is a pitch-perfect depiction of the fear that gripped all British North American colonies. Please watch the film prior to our first class. We’ll be discussing it early on as I help you understand the religious physics of the world we’ll be inhabiting. For a primer on the film, read Anthony Lane’s excellent New Yorker review at www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/02/29/the-witch-review. Heads up: The Witch is pretty creepy and is rated R, with modest nudity at the end.


Our learning goals:

  • develop an advanced understanding of features of figurative language;
  • develop an advanced understanding of relationships between literary and non-literary texts and their historical, philosophical, religious, and cultural contexts;
  • develop an expertise in aspects of the history of nineteenth-century American literature;
  • develop a facility with postsecular theory;
  • learn advanced research skills; and
  • fine-tune the ability to design and execute cogent written and oral arguments advancing informed claims about textual language.


  • Seminar Preparation & Participation 10%
  • Informal Writng (course blog; about 250-300 words/week) 5%
  • Short Presentation (with 1-2 classmates) 5%
  • Formal Writing Exercises (3 of 300 words each) 30%
  • Research Exercise 5%
  • Seminar Paper (3000 words) 40%
  • Creative/Theoretical Project 5%



With the exception of two texts, all reading will be freely available via SFU Library or our Canvas shell.

The other two texts I have not ordered from the SFU bookstore; you'll need to get them independently. They are:

  • Gerald Graff & Cathy Birkenstein, They Say / I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing (Norton) (any edition is fine; the 4th ed., 2018, is the cheapest; ISBN 0393631672)

  • Elizabeth Stoddard, The Morgesons (Penguin, 1997, ISBN 9780140436518)
I hope you'll consider ordering these texts through a local bookstore, perhaps Iron Dog Books or Massy Books . I use the former because it's in my neighborhood, but both bookstores are happy to order books and get them in just days.

Department Undergraduate Notes:

IMPORTANT NOTE Re 300 and 400 level courses: 75% of spaces in 300 level English courses, and 100% of spaces in 400 level English courses, are reserved for declared English Major, Minor, Extended Minor, Joint Major, and Honours students only, until open enrollment begins.

For all On-Campus Courses, please note the following:
- To receive credit for the course, students must complete all requirements.
- Tutorials/Seminars WILL be held the first week of classes.
- When choosing your schedule, remember to check "Show lab/tutorial sections" to see all Lecture/Seminar/Tutorial times required.

Registrar Notes:


SFU’s Academic Integrity web site http://www.sfu.ca/students/academicintegrity.html is filled with information on what is meant by academic dishonesty, where you can find resources to help with your studies and the consequences of cheating.  Check out the site for more information and videos that help explain the issues in plain English.

Each student is responsible for his or her conduct as it affects the University community.  Academic dishonesty, in whatever form, is ultimately destructive of the values of the University. Furthermore, it is unfair and discouraging to the majority of students who pursue their studies honestly. Scholarly integrity is required of all members of the University. http://www.sfu.ca/policies/gazette/student/s10-01.html


Teaching at SFU in fall 2021 will involve primarily in-person instruction, with approximately 70 to 80 per cent of classes in person/on campus, with safety plans in place.  Whether your course will be in-person or through remote methods will be clearly identified in the schedule of classes.  You will also know at enrollment whether remote course components will be “live” (synchronous) or at your own pace (asynchronous).

Enrolling in a course acknowledges that you are able to attend in whatever format is required.  You should not enroll in a course that is in-person if you are not able to return to campus, and should be aware that remote study may entail different modes of learning, interaction with your instructor, and ways of getting feedback on your work than may be the case for in-person classes.

Students with hidden or visible disabilities who may need class or exam accommodations, including in the context of remote learning, are advised to register with the SFU Centre for Accessible Learning (caladmin@sfu.ca or 778-782-3112) as early as possible in order to prepare for the fall 2021 term.