The Death of Satan

A young man has just returned from a Mayan excavation site in Guatemala and visits an American surgeon. The man suffers what appears to be an abscess on his arm. The surgeon prepares to drain it when to his astonishment and horror, a head with pincers opening and closing emerges from the hole. The doctor attempts to remove the creature with a surgical clamp but the “Mayan devil” takes refuge in the abscess. Eventually the doctor is able to capture the worm which to him represents an encounter with “the evil of the whole world.” Is this a scene from a science fiction novel? No, it is a true story from Delbanco’s thought-provoking book on how evil has been depicted and interpreted in American society over the past three hundred years.

In this fascinating profile of the American concept of evil, Delbanco examines the way evil has been perceived in American literary, social, and religious history. Beginning with the Puritan period, he explores the belief in Satan as the embodiment of evil and the effects this belief had on Puritan society. He then investigates the changing perception of evil through colonial times, the Civil War, the Victorian period, the Progressive era, and up to contemporary postmodern society.

Delbanco’s exploration of the evolution of evil in American thought reveals that the national consciousness has undergone a profound and disturbing transformation. As science and technology gradually changed the spiritual and psychological landscape of American culture, individuals ceased to perceive evil in the guise of demons and devils. When Americans became socially and intellectually enlightened, evil became less concrete. Eventually evil became so abstract that Americans lost the moral constructs necessary to recognize and deal with cruelty, pain, and suffering. Delbanco warns that because evil may now be beyond “the reach of our imagination,” contemporary American society is in danger of being enslaved by it.

Delbanco’s wake-up call to American society is at once timely and urgent. One cannot read this book without recognizing that we are experiencing a moral crisis that threatens our national soul. We would do well to heed his warning.