Imagination and Idealization: The Grim Parallels Between Poe and the Salem Witch Trials

By Claire Langdon

On Friday morning, Madeline, Emma and I led a tour at Pequot Library, entitled the “Poe and Witches Exhibit”. The exhibit was centered around the theme of imagination and idealization, especially in reference to the writings of Edgar Allan Poe and the Salem witch trials: perfect topics, as Halloween is just around the corner!

When the elementary school class from a local town arrived, we began an architectural tour, as it is important to appreciate the unique patterns, art, and craftsmanship that can be seen throughout the library. On the library’s exterior, there are often overlooked dates chiseled above the arched, pink granite entrances, which read 1637 and 1887. The latter represents the year of the library’s opening, and the former represents the year of the first recorded event in Southport, Connecticut: the Great Swamp Fight. The battle marked the ending of the Pequot War, and it is believed by experts at the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation that many artifacts still lie beneath homes and wetlands in the surrounding area.

As we continued to lead the group of children throughout the library, we arrived at the “stacks”. Originally donated by renowned town philanthropists, the Wakeman family, the stacks still house adult books in the extensive rows of books, which are bejeweled with Tiffany glass windows. The upstairs of the stack, which was most students’ favorite part of the tour, has a thick glass floor and retired gas lines, which, historically, would provide light for the readers on the floor below as evening fell.

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Upstairs in the Stacks, Courtesy of tappe.com

After the architectural tour, we lectured the students on the witch trials of the 1600’s. Though most of them had heard of the Salem witch trials, they were surprised to hear that Fairfield has a dark history of trying and dunking or hanging accused witches. After discussing the significance of primary sources with them, we read aloud from a book in the display case that entailed the ideas of witch trial proponents Increase and Cotton Mather. In relation to the theme of imagination and idealization, we discussed with the students how the imaginations of the people at the time, who had little proof of cause if anything went awry, might be fueled by influential writers such as the Mathers, or town leaders such as Rodger Ludlowe. Additionally, we discussed how the term “grim” is applicable to both the trials and Poe’s works, and how thematic parallels can be drawn despite the difference in time period. We finished by conversing about our current idealization of witches; how we imagine them to be evil with green skin and a pointy hat, or kind and fairy-like, as Glinda is portrayed in the Wizard of Oz.

Following out tour of the witch exhibit, we transitioned into Perkins Gallery to explore imagination and idealization in the context of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories. Specifically, the focal point of the exhibit was Poe’s dark imagination, and what he triggered in our own imaginations, as well as others’. Alongside his own works, many of the artifacts were renditions of some of his famous works, such as cartoon posters of The Raven, a miniature cat jack-in-the-box version of The Black Cat, and tiny coffin-shaped copy of The Premature Burial. Grim daguerreotypes and compositions transported our imaginations back to the grim lifestyle of the Puritans during the period of witch trials.

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The Black Cat

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A quote from Poe, expressing the grim darkness that plagued his life and trickled into his literary works, as well as a blown up picture of his daguerrotype.

By exploring both the Salem Witch Trials and the works of Edgar Allan Poe in the context of imagination and idealization, as well as how our own imaginations are impacted by literary works, the students were able to make connections between two separate points in history. By exploring a common theme in the light of two different time periods and multiple different authors, parallels can be drawn between idealization and works of art and literature.

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