“Her name was Amy Sprue, a family renegade turned Antinomian at age 23 and running mad over the Berkshire countryside, ahead of Crazy Sue Dunham by 200 years, stealing babies, riding cows in the twilight, sacrificing chickens up on Snodd’s Mountain”(334).
Slothrop’s ancestor Amy Sprue, a bona fide Salem Witch, is said to have predated a woman called Crazy Sue Dunham by 200 years. I’m unsure the specific inspiration for the fictional character Amy Sprue, but Pynchon’s mention of Sue Dunham is referencing a woman who once lived in the town of Savoy, Berkshire County, Massachusetts (Pynchon Wiki). The topic of these two women is broached as Slothrop stands alongside apprentice witch Geli Tripping atop the Brocken in Germany. Slothrop wonders aloud to Geli about some remnants left behind from a May Day Eve ritual, revealing his unfamiliarity with the practices of witchcraft, despite his own family ties to a condemned Salem Witch.
Using the Gravity’s Rainbow Wiki to follow up on a potential reference to the Salem witch trials, I discovered Pynchon’s detailed use of a guidebook called The Berkshire Hills by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration for Massachusetts, a program founded as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1935(Pynchon Wiki). “Crazy Sue” Dunham, as she was referred to by locals, appears in the guidebook’s documentation of an “old people’s town” called Savoy. Founded in 1771, the small community reportedly became fanatically religious upon the arrival of the “Reverend Joseph Smith”(different from the Mormon Joseph Smith). The town of just 300 had 6 religious bodies in the 19th century. The findings don’t specify exactly when Sue Dunham lived in Savoy, but she was definitely around after the religious revival of Joseph Smith. Pynchon having established Amy Sprue as preceding “Crazy Sue” by 200 years, it’s fair to say Dunham was probably in Savoy during the mid to late 19th century since the Salem witch trials concluded in 1693. In an otherwise uneventful little sleepy town, “Crazy Sue” is said to be “Savoy’s most remarkable character.” Like Amy Sprue, “Crazy Sue” did indeed roam the Berkshire countryside, steal babies, become devoutly religious, and prove to be a likeable lunatic. There is, however, no mention in The Berkshire Hills of “Crazy Sue” ever riding cows or sacrificing chickens, and Snodd’s Mountain is a fictional location. The most amusing anecdote on “Crazy Sue” in the guidebook:
“At one time when she was visiting at the home of Abel West in Savoy, Abel was awakened at midnight by the smell of fire. Alarmed, he rushed downstairs to find Sue calmly sitting before a blaze roaring so high out of the fire- place that it licked the mantelpiece.
“Sue, Sue, what are you doing?” he cried, hugging his nightshirt close around him with one hand while trying to put out the fire with the other.
“Oh, I heard that Cain had killed Abel,” she replied, “and I thought I might as well have Abel’s clothes.”
She was wearing her host’s entire wardrobe—one reason he was in his nightshirt” (Members of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration for Massachusetts, 256).
Gravity’s Rainbow is not the first instance Pynchon’s referenced “Crazy Sue” Dunham from The Berkshire Hills guidebook in his fictional writing (Pynchon Wiki). The 1964 release of his short story entitled The Secret Integration is set in a fictional town called Mingeboro, Massachusetts in the Berkshire Hills. The story involves a group of young boys determined to create chaos amongst the restrictive adults of the town. An African-American boy named Carl Barrington moves to Mingeboro, becoming friends with the rascal group of suburbanite boys, and the Barrington family is soon subjected to racism from the nasty adults opposed to integration in the schools. Through the trials of Carl and his family, the previously unaware group of boys is introduced to the harsh realities of racial division in their community. One of the minor characters in the story, Nunzi Passarella, another anarchistic teen associated with the group, is said to have founded “a Crazy Sue Dunham cult, in honor of that legendary and beautiful drifter who last century had roamed all this hilltop country exchanging babies and setting fires and who, in a way, was the patron saint of all these kids”(The Secret Integration, 5).
In terms of using “Crazy Sue” Dunham and Amy Sprue for future analysis of Gravity’s Rainbow, I think their religiously fanatic, yet subversive and insane behavior could potentially serve as a commentary on the latent psychology of Slothrop’s character. Amy Sprue, Slothrop’s seldom talked about ancestor who was suppressed, silenced, and killed in the Salem witch trials, is said to have “turned Antinomian at age 23”(Gravity’s Rainbow, 334). According to the OED, an Antinomian is “A person who believes that Christians are released by grace from the obligation of observing the moral law”(OED). Because the preeminent practitioners of Christianity condemned Sprue for witchcraft, her legacy became on of a “Family Disgrace,” and Slothrop’s understanding of her has been limited and censored (Gravity’s Rainbow, 334). Though she was a fellow Christian, her oppressors deemed her to be in violation of the prevailing moral codes of the time, so she was confined and controlled. Similarly to “Crazy Sue” in The Secret Integration, a figure such as Amy Sprue might be revered for her stubborn resistance to the imposing religious beliefs of her contemporaries. Slothrop, however, is indifferent to his ancestor because his elders have labeled her as a degenerate. If we are to view Slothrop as having inherited some of his ancestor’s unhinged psychology, perhaps an analysis of Amy Sprue and “Crazy Sue” might answers some questions about the oppressive forces assailing the subconscious mind of Slothrop.
“antinomian”. Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford University Press, n.d. Web. 18 March 2014. <http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/antinomian>.
Members of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration for Massachusetts, . The Berkshire Hills. First. New York and London: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1939. Print.
(Members of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration for Massachusetts )
Pynchon, Thomas. Gravity’s Rainbow. New York: Penguin Books, 1973. Print.
Pynchon, Thomas. “http://math.cmu.edu/~bwsulliv/Pynchon – The Secret Integration.pdf..” Carnegie Mellon University. The Saturday Evening Post, n.d. Web. 17 Mar 2014.
Thomas Pynchon Wiki, . “Pages 329-336 – Thomas Pynchon Wiki | Gravit’ys Rainbow.” Thomas Pynchon Wiki. Website Design, Web Development & SEO by HyperArts, 4 5 2010. Web. 18 Mar 2014. <http://gravitys-rainbow.pynchonwiki.com/wiki/index.php?title=Pages_329-336>.