Friday, January 18, 2008

A Little Commonwealth

The current-day Plimouth Plantation, open for visitors.

Title: A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1970)

Author: John Demos, of Yale U's history dept (and teacher of my undergrad colonial history course - I will always remember the lecture in which he described the literal darkness of colonial life and its effect on personal habits and worldview). Other books include Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England (1982); Past, Present, and Personal: The Family and the Life Course (1986); and The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America (1994).

Brief review: Demos' book recovers the "everyday" experiences of colonists at Plymouth, using legal records, material culture, and the life-cycle theories of Erik Erikson to describe how the cultural expectations of the colonists shaped life on the individual, family, and colony-wide level.

Demos sees the conditional structural needs of the colony as underlying factors in the personality formation of the colonists. Thus, his understanding of the major motivation of the Puritan system of child-rearing (see Calvert), which put emphasis on control and containment: Puritans, Demos says, were obsessed by the need to put the lid on human tendencies toward aggression, which would be incredibly dangerous in a small and tight-knit community. Adolescence, on the other hand, was not particularly a time of sturm und drang, because Puritan teenagers were not trying to figure out what to do with their lives - there was a relatively small set of things that one could be "called" to do, and there was a fluid "range of gradations" that the culture used to assess adulthood, depending on the conditions of the family, the inheritance question, and the issue of marriage (147). These sections show the influence of Phillipe Aries' Centuries of Childhood, once again.

Demos describes how the life of the family, at this time, was seen as a "building block" of society, rather than a "bulwark" against it (183). The family, he points out, acted as school, business, jail, church, and vocational institute, all of which were functions later given over to the state. In this time, Puritan families were integrated into the intentions of the state, serving as, get it?, "a little commonwealth" in each home.

A historical "interpreter" at Plimouth Plantation. At one point in this book's history, it was intended to end up as a pamphlet for the plantation's visitors.

Robert Middlekauff, in the Journal of American History, wrote that Demos' mixed bag of methods resulted in a "superb" book (this was a funny review, which seemed like it was going to denigrate the book by calling Demos' scholarship "self-conscious", then did an about-face toward approval). Middlekauff's only serious contention was that Demos should have expanded his study to other colonies besides Plymouth, a move which would have occasioned more inclusion of matters religious. A review very convenient for my purposes was Helena Wall's overview of family history's twists and turns since the publication of Demos' book, which was published in the William and Mary Quarterly in 2000. Turns out A Little Commonwealth had, at that point, been in print steadily ever since 1970, and had started out as a grad school seminar paper. Wall sees Demos' synthetic approach and ability to relate family structure to the general mores and structures of society as key to the work's success, and identifies this book as the beginning of an "explosion" of gender and family histories. Work still to be done in the area of colonial family/gender history: incorporation of analyses of race; family histories of the lower/dependent classes; histories of professors of other, non-Puritan religions.

Words: "intestate" ("of a person, not having made a will")

No comments: