The Devil's Messages: Language and Contested Space In Twentieth-Century America

Rosemary Woodhouse sat on the floor of her apartment in 1966, frantically trying to make scrabble tile anagrams from the title of the book All Of Them Witches. She then attempted the same thing with “Steven Marcato.” She finally found the name of her neighbor in the arrangements, cluing her in to the grand diabolical experiment of her pregnancy.

A century prior, Maria Monk stood on hard convent ground in 1834, receiving orders from her Mother Superior to fetch coal from the cellar. Upon her journey through the cavernous basement, she came across a deep hole, perhaps fifteen feet in diameter. There was lime strewn all around it, cluing her in to the grand diabolical practice of murdering the offspring of priest-nun rape. Both characters—Monk and Rosemary—stood as representatives of the American Protestant desire to protect themselves against perceived threats.

Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery of Montreal, the revised edition published in 1836, sold over 300,000 copies by 1860, only outsold by Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, published in 1967, was also a bestseller—seventh on the fiction list for that year—and became a film that was a box office success. Though published 131 years apart, the books carried many similarities that contributed to their popularity. They both featured a heroine who entered a dark, mysterious, labyrinthine house (Monk the nunnery, Rosemary the Bramford apartment building), both heroines were subject to the horror of the “evil” taking place in each building (Monk the rape and torture of herself and the other nuns, as well as the murder of any baby born of those rapes; Rosemary the rape by the devil, brought about by the trickery of the building’s residents trying to bring about the spawn of Satan). There were also notable differences. Rosemary was generally unaware of the evil goings-on around her, while Monk was all too aware. Rosemary grew, in the end, to begrudgingly accept her fate (at least, if nothing else, her role as mother), while Monk escaped the convent all together. Monk’s tale was presented as fact, Rosemary’s as fiction.

The most significant difference, however, is that the early nineteenth-century secret evildoers were Catholics, while the late twentieth-century secret evildoers were Satanists. Were the two antagonists switched, neither book probably could have been published, much less purchased by hundreds of thousands. Though the formulas were similar, the enemies were very different. Or, perhaps, the definition of “enemy” was different—the definition of what constituted a threat.

The evolution of American cultural history pivots on those moments, large and small, where definitions break down, where meaning is contested, and a new kind of understanding is created in the bargain. We would be hard-pressed to call that evolution progress, as new situational realities are defined by their newness and the situations that create them, but they breed difference, nonetheless, and create a new synthesis from the rubble. Those situational realities are created by shifts in meaning, by the cross-currents of language, which ultimately drive the system—not forward, perhaps, but into a new state of being, for better or worse, depending on one’s own needs or beliefs.

The Devil’s Messages is a collection of essays—some previously unpublished, most previously appearing in various historical journals—which examine instances of definitional difference, of contested meaning. The essays move chronologically, but they are by no means comprehensive. The evolution of American history tracks along myriad similar disputes. Instead, each is exemplary of historical points where disagreements over language create contested space. Some of those spaces are large—Civil Rights, Christianity, the Cold War. Others are smaller, more limited examples of similar problems.
Besides, that is how we discover the state of being of any society. By parsing out the definitive elements, the prime movers of a culture—both its broad movements (its relationship with ideas or religion) and its individual exemplary moments (its songs, its books)—we plot the points that constitute its topography.