Baldblogger (BB): As writers, it is inevitable that some of what we write along the way ends up on the cutting floor. What did you have to leave out of Satan in America? What great stories are readers missing?
Scott Poole (SP): Lots, I’m afraid, ended up being left out and I’m sure you understand how painful that can be. This is why I wanted to include “Hunting the Devil: A Bibliographic Essay” at the end of the book to point readers to other resources. The book I originally proposed to write was much larger, in fact coming in at around 600 pages instead of 300. My publisher really felt that this was too hefty and agreed with me that, even writing a book of that size could not mean I would give my subject an exhaustive treatment.
So, I did not examine American literature to the degree I wanted to. The reader will get bit on Hawthorne, Melville and Twain in the 19th century but only a brief mention of Flannery O’Connor in the 20th. I wanted to say a good bit on O’Connor who stared into the American heart of darkness perhaps more directly than any of our great writers. This was a section that could be cut because other scholars have done this really well, including Jeffrey Burton Russell in Mephistopheles.
Another area that had to be cut significantly was my discussion of the “satanic panic.” I felt ok about this, in part, because other books had dealt with the details. I do hope I managed to convey the sense that American demonologies created a kind of moral crisis in American life during that period and that these beliefs found expression in the larger moral crisis of the Reagan years.
BB: Now a question about teaching: What is Satan’s reception in your classroom? In other words, how have students responded to the subject of Satan/evil in the classroom? (In my experience, students seem endlessly fascinated with the various incarnations of “Satan” in American culture.)
SP: College students love Satan! At least they love to talk about him and consider how popular beliefs about him complicate existing narratives of American religious experience. I teach a course on the History of Religion in the United States and really try to push students, usually successfully, to consider how stories we already know are changed when we factor in the Satan variable. I think it further illuminates everything from the Great Awakening, to the rise of the Methodist movement, to emergence of sectarianism in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century.
Certainly the connections I make between pop culture and theological belief hold a lot of interest for students who are, we all know, media saturated. As a teacher, I really believe that helping them to read “The Exorcist” or “Rosemary’s Baby” as an important document in American religion rather than just a scary movie with some interesting themes can help them interact with and interpret pop culture in a sophisticated way.
I have also found that “media saturated” doesn’t always mean media savvy…scholars need to help students look at pop culture in some depth, to read it as a set of documents that help us to explain American history and culture just as much as text we might locate in the archives. I love watching students be amazed to realize it can be done legitimately. After all, the goal is to help them become fully independent, fully rational and very interesting people who can interact with all sorts of information in a sophisticated way…its not to hit them over the head with some historical master narrative while telling tell them to memorize it or they don’t get any pudding (I guess that last comment really dates me).
BB: You’ve written extensively on the nineteenth century, politics, religion, and culture and now a long, historical look at Satan. Any new projects in the works that interested readers can keep our eyes peeled for?
SP: My collaboration with dark powers continues. In fact, I’m not even done with Satan yet. Although its too soon to give any details, I’m having early conversations with an accomplished documentary filmmaker about the possibility of turning the book into a film, perhaps a documentary series.
For my next book project, I hope to use the massive amounts of material I cam across on the idea of monsters and monstrosity in American history to again consider some of these connections between religious belief, popular culture and American identity. I think we need a historian’s take on American Monsters as well as the American Satan and I hope to be able to provide that.
I enjoyed talking about this with you Phil, thanks for taking the time with me.