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A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony (1970)
by John Demos
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0195128907, Paperback)The customary modern image of the New England Puritans is a dark one: the Puritans, religious dissenters who valued propriety and order, are seen as a witch-hunting, suspicious tribe, and their very name carries connotations of grimness and primness.
Thirty years ago, at the outset of his career as a historian, John Demos decided to reexamine that view in light of the evidence. Among the findings that he reports in A Little Commonwealth is the surprising discovery that the Puritans were not so, well, puritanical. They were not, Demos argues, especially consumed by ideology, and in their daily lives, "religion seems to figure in a somewhat haphazard and occasional way." The Puritans, he continues, had no unusual objections to sexuality or fun-seeking, except where such activities endangered social harmony--and the Puritans were indeed fiercely protective of group stability. Demos examines such documents as the transcripts of divorce proceedings to suggest that Puritan women enjoyed, if not equal rights, then better consideration than most women in other English colonies in the New World. He looks closely into the material culture of the Puritans, which shows some odd discrepancies: for instance, although few households possessed more than a single chair (usually reserved for the elderly), many contained elaborate wardrobes--for, Demos writes, "clothing was not only a good investment for a man of some means; it was also a way of demonstrating his standing in the larger community and of confirming his own self-image."
In questioning the view of the Puritans as a plain-dressing, plain-living, haunted, and repressed sect, Demos provides a close and intriguing look at the New England past. Reissued on the 30th anniversary of its first publication, A Little Commonwealth deserves a wide audience today. --Gregory McNamee
(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:19:16 -0400)
The year 2000 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of A Little Commonwealth by Bancroft Prize-winning scholar John Demos. This groundbreaking study examines the family in the context of the colony founded by the Pilgrims who came over on the Mayflower. Basing his work on physical artifacts, wills, estate inventories, and a variety of legal and official enactments, Demos portrays the family as a structure of roles and relationships, emphasizing those of husband and wife, parent and child, and master and servant. The book's most startling insights come from a reconsideration of commonly-held views of American Puritans and of the ways in which they dealt with one another. Demos concludes that Puritan "repression" was not as strongly directed against sexuality as against the expression of hostile and aggressive impulses, and he shows how this pattern reflected prevalent modes of family life and child-rearing. The result is an in-depth study of the ordinary life of a colonial community, located in the broader environment of seventeenth-century America. Demos has provided a new foreword and a list of further reading for this second edition, which will offer a new generation of readers access to this classic study.
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