His résumé brims with satirical speculative fiction -- such as Towing Jehovah, in which God's two-mile-long corpse is found afloat in the Atlantic -- and he's often compared to Kurt Vonnegut. But State College-based writer James Morrow's ninth novel is a riff on the past, exploring the struggle between reason and superstition. Set at the dawn of the Enlightenment, The Last Witchfinder (published by William Morrow) follows Jennet Stearne, the resourceful and skeptical daughter of a British witch-hunter, who grows up vowing to overturn England's Parliamentary Witchcraft Act. The rollicking, comic picaresque takes her to the New World, where -- for starters -- she witnesses the Salem witch trials, is abducted by Indians, and becomes Ben Franklin's older mistress, all on the way to putting herself on trial for witchcraft. In a delightful postmodern twist, the book's narrator is another book -- that bedrock of physics, Newton's Principia Mathematica.
You've described The Last Witchfinder as inspired by the spirits of both Ben Franklin and Cotton Mather.
I grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, where one finds out about Benjamin Franklin very quickly. In fact my grandfather, a lithographer by trade, had produced a Franklin portrait; Ben's smile suffused the house. I attended the University of Pennsylvania, founded by Benjamin Franklin. My first career, which was in public education, took me to the Boston area; I would often find myself in Salem for one reason or another. So here you have the dark and the bright sides of that era, coming together in my brain: Franklin, the symbol of the Enlightenment, the quintessential reasonable man, and someone like Cotton Mather, sponsoring witch trials.
They were contemporaries.
It's not quite the full-blown Enlightenment, but certainly you have an experimental science in place at the same time you have witch persecutions happening on both continents. And that absolutely fascinated me, because we think of belief in demons, and the notion that someone can sign a pact with the devil, as a pretty low order of credulity -- something that belongs to the Middle Ages. It actually overlaps with modernity.
Even your heroine undertakes scientific investigations based on superstitious premises.
It's too simple to say, "Well, then rationality came along and got rid of superstition." What makes the universe of witch persecution so terrifying is not that it's crazed people in thrall to superstition. It's very rational people working out the implications of demonology from the Bible.
Newton himself reasoned from the mystical.
What's fascinating about Newton is that he wanted to be known as much for his work in Biblical prophecy and exegesis of the Bible [as for his scientific discoveries]. He practiced alchemy. Even Newton did not make the distinction that we make intuitively now between a secular material world that seems to operate according to its own laws and the realm of the divine.
What about the witch-hunt as metaphor?
While I have nothing good to say about Joseph McCarthy, I don't love the metaphor of a witch-hunt when it's applied to a mass exercise in prejudice. I think it trivializes what was happening during the literal witch-hunts, when the supernatural understanding of the universe -- the Renaissance understanding of the universe -- was taken as fact.
I'd much rather we worried about the issue of politics and religion, what happens when they get mixed up. I wrote much of the novel before September 11th, but that makes you acutely aware of the problems of theocracy, when leaders sort of presume to understand the workings of the divine. I think we see that in Mr. Bush. I think that's why his commitment to Iraq clearly has this extra, apocalyptic level to it -- which I find terrifying, because you can't answer it. There's absolutely no argument you can make if the public discussion is going to occur at the level of what God wants.
Did you follow the "intelligent design" court case in Dover, Pa., a couple hours south of you?
I went around with a big smile on my face when Judge [John E.] Jones offered his verdict. It was a pure Enlightenment verdict. It was like something Benjamin Franklin might have written. It was amusing. It was as articulate as our Founding Fathers were. It was not rancorous; the judge was not an irreligious man at all, he's a church-going man. But he just made this wonderful, rational point, which is "What is going on when Christians tell lies?" I just thought it was extraordinary that someone would say that in a public forum, because we don't normally allow discussion like that. Religion receives such extreme deference in our culture right now.
Beyond entertainment, what can fiction achieve in the real world?
I think novels, while they're not as popular as they once were, and to some degree have been superseded by movies, they're still the best way to conduct a certain kind of conversation. They still give us a vocabulary for talking about our problems. Let's say Catch-22 -- that concept could only have come out of a novel. And while one could read Catch-22 expecting just a funny dark comedy, or a kind of satire on World War II, it's a much more philosophically profound book than that. [Joseph Heller is] writing it in the '50s, and he's really writing about the '50s. It's so much a critique of the emerging capitalist consumer culture.
So I like to say [that] in my modest way I've written a book that could get people talking about the Enlightenment, about the dangers of theocracy.