Princeton University at the dawn of the twentieth century is a place marked by chauvinism, racism, anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism (that “old and much feared enemy,”) as presented in Joyce Carol Oates’ latest novel, The Accursed . Yet its greatest sin is that of presumption. When Princeton patriarch and Presbyterian minister Winslow Slade proclaims, “I am a Slade, and ordained by God; and guilty of no crime; for all that falls from my hand must be God’s own desire, and cannot be deemed sin,” he announces the pride of presumption that went before the fall of the “Crosswicks Curse.”
In this work of semi-historical fiction (Grover Cleveland, Jack London, Teddy Roosevelt and Mark Twain all make appearances) Oates imagines the incarnation, manifestation, and eventual exorcism of a demonic Curse falling upon the quiet university town.
Set on an Ivy League stage ripe with enough ambition, self-righteousness, and hubris to fill a 669-page novel, the story of the “Crosswicks Curse” is an exploration of the nature of evil as an unfailing byproduct of human action and inaction. For contemporary readers who may think humanity has ascended beyond good and evil (unless Jerry Sandusky or the Tsarnaev brothers are in the neighborhood), The Accursed is a novel that begs to differ.
Oates brings Woodrow Wilson’s tenure as university president to life through the voice of a self-made historian, M. W. van Dyck II. Responding to what many have dubbed the “unspeakable” events of 1905-06, van Dyck intends to see past “the shoddy histories” and “ironically idyllic settings” so as to uncover “a single Evil” upon which Princeton’s fall rests.
Through van Dyck’s exploration, the book reveals a world of crippling insularity and naïve optimism. From the blind ambition of Wilson to the revolutionary zeal of the starry-eyed Upton Sinclair (who at one point muses, “by removing Capitalism we therefore remove evil”), the characters are so self-assured that they are psychologically, morally, and spiritually unprepared for the demonic storm that is brewing within their midst.
When the devilishly seductive Axson Mayte abducts and enslaves Winslow Slade’s nineteen-year old granddaughter Annabel on her wedding day, the purging of Princeton begins. Mayte, a demon in disguise, who had been offering legal counsel to President Wilson regarding one of his dust-ups with university trustees, ushers in a cosmic battle.
After Annabel’s abduction, murderous violence ensues, chaos sets in, and an insatiable malaise falls upon Princeton’s great families. Explanations for the mysterious events are many, but under the presumed status of being God’s elect, the Slades, Wilsons, van Dycks, Clevelands, Burrs, and Fitzrandolphs are numb to evils of their own making and remain ignorant, or simply in denial, of any culpability they might have in the Curse’s manifestation. For all the Slade’s piety and philanthropy, their family fortune was heavily invested in the slave trade, but the cruel irony of Annabel’s enslavement is lost on them.
Prior to Annabel’s abduction, when rumors swirl of a terrifying ghostly encounter at the Cleveland home, Winslow Slade assured his grandchildren that, “no. There are no ‘spirits’ in Christendom.” This sentiment was echoed, when Francis Cleveland recounts the suspicious visitation to her eccentric friend, who assures the former First Lady, “I am a Christian woman, &” do “not believe in such phenomena as ‘spirits.’”
The scientifically enlightened are no more equipped to face their demons than professing believers, as seen through the perpetually bemused Sinclair, or when Josiah Slade is told that a roaming vampire may be responsible for Princeton’s recent unrest. “ Vampire! Josiah is incensed.”
Van Dyck explains: “For Josiah is purely a rationalist. Josiah’s heroes are Aristotle, David Hume, John Stuart Mill. He is not widely read in philosophy and logic but feels a repugnance for all that is murky , mystical .”
Yes, to a degree: Josiah is a Protestant Christian. But he does not subject his faith to reason; his faith is bound up with family loyalty, which is not to be questioned. “There is no ‘supernatural’ world”only just this, the ‘natural’ world. All the rest is nonsense.”
By exploring the psychological, moral and spiritual dimensions of van Dyck’s subjects, Oates illustrates that presumption, and the hubris associated with it, comes in all shapes and sizes. It blinds the rich and revolutionaries alike. Instead of seeking understanding, forgiveness, and reconciliation for their sins, they see neither sin nor evil, and they descend into darkness.
Almost reluctantly, semblances of humility do creep into the narrative as the Curse continues to paralyze the community. Adelaide Burr’s private proclamation that “what sin we have perpetrated, we do not know”we are innocent, as we are ignorant,” and Winslow Slade’s graveside testimonial of a hidden past demonstrate as much.
But hints at humility are only hints, and a few silly demons will not dissuade the elect from their divine rights. Woodrow Wilson remains pompous as ever, proclaiming he has been “chosen for a singular task” and therefore, “I must never yield to my enemies,” assured “that God would preserve me until my task on earth was completed.”Not for a minute does Wilson consider that the enemy could be within.
Though the Curse is eventually exorcised, it is through an act of wit and guile, not an act of repentance or reconciliation. And so we may wonder if Oates has put this story to rest, or if it simply lays dormant. A twenty-first century eruption of the “Crosswicks Curse” would be something to behold.
While some have cast The Accursed as a simple, though entertaining, Gothic story, such a claim does a disservice to the tangled roots of family, culture, history and theological idiosyncrasy Oates untangles. As a novel it is a remarkable study of human nature and a persuasive challenge to Duns Scotus’ postulation that evil is something “about which the most learned and ingenious . . . can know almost nothing.”
Oates is scheduled to retire from teaching at Princeton in the coming year, and she has given her university a parting literary gift, creatively woven into the fabric of that institution’s history. Thankfully, The Accursed is not for Princeton alone.
Robert L. Kehoe III studied politics at Wheaton College, Illinois, and philosophy at Boston College. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with his wife and sons.