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Hilary Mantel once wrote that reading history and historical fiction allows us to measure up our own lifetimes. “Are these good times, bad times, interesting times? We rely on history to tell us,” she explained in a 2017 Guardian op-ed. I find myself turning to the pages of books to find context to today’s news and experiences. Historians are happy to oblige.
Take our current political divide. Adam Hochschild’s American Midnight: The Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis chronicles an America on the political brink: 1917-1921. The government infiltrated labor unions, political parties and immigrant associations. The Post Office used broad power to take down journalists. Libraries removed books seen as anti-American.
In 1920, the Battle of Matewan raged in West Virginia. White workers murdered scores of African-American workers in the East St. Louis Riots in 1917, and the Tulsa Race Massacre followed four years after. The U.S. government used the new 1918 Sedition Act to jail Eugene Debs, a prominent and vocal opponent of President Wilson. Americans were fighting a war that Wilson argued would make “the world safe for democracy,” but so much happening in the U.S. didn’t resemble a free country.
Hochschild tells the stories of courageous individuals working to end government and societal violence and injustice, including W.E.B. Du Bois, Kate Richards O’Hare and Louis Post. He provides a layered narrative of the time, providing a good understanding of what people experienced.
But the tumultuous period of World War I was not the first time Americans found themselves divided. In The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World, Malcolm Gaskill brings us back to the white colonial settlement of Springfield, Massachusetts, 50 years before the Salem Witch Trials. Hugh Parsons, a brickmaker, was bad tempered and didn’t attend church services. His wife Mary had a hard time coping with the demands of living in a frontier community and having a young family.
As the English Civil War ended, everyone was on edge, expecting large political changes. When livestock began to die, the Puritan community had one explanation: witchcraft. As public nuisances, the Parsons were prime suspects for being in league with the devil.
Gaskill shows us that Salem wasn’t a one-off — it was part of a larger story of colonial New England. Many towns experienced divided communities and witchcraft hysteria. Their stories follow a pattern. A community faces change. Fear breeds suspicion. Whole communities became caught up in persecuting their neighbors. It is a thread woven into the fabric of U.S. history from Salem to the Red Scare to fear of immigrant groups.
History is a way to explain the present or predict the future. As the old adage says, those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.
Anne Mangano is the collection services coordinator at the Iowa City Public Library. She couldn’t imagine a life without books. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 318.