Circles and Lines: The Shape of Life in Early America / Edition 1

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In this intimate, engaging book, John Demos offers an illuminating portrait of how colonial Americans, from the first settlers to the postrevolutionary generation, viewed their life experiences. He also offers an invaluable inside look into the craft of a master social historian as he unearths--in sometimes unexpected places--fragments of evidence that help us probe the interior lives of people from the faraway past.

The earliest settlers lived in a traditional world of natural cycles that shaped their behavior: day and night; seasonal rhythms; the lunar cycle; the life cycle itself. Indeed, so basic were these elements that "almost no one felt a need to comment on them." Yet he finds cyclical patterns--in the seasonal foods they ate, in the spike in marriages following the autumn harvest. Witchcraft cases reveal the different emotional reactions to day versus night, as accidental mishaps in the light become fearful nighttime mysteries. During the transitional world of the American Revolution, people began to see their society in newer terms but seemed unable or unwilling to come to terms with that novelty. Americans became new, Demos points out, before they fully understood what it meant. Their cyclical frame of reference was coming unmoored, giving way to a linear world view in early nineteenth-century America that is neatly captured by Kentucky doctor Daniel Drake's description of the chronography of his life.

In his meditation on these three worlds, Demos brilliantly demonstrates how large historical forces are reflected in individual lives. With the imaginative insights and personable touch that we have come to expect from this fine chronicler of the human condition, Circles and Lines is vintage John Demos.

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Editorial Reviews

Wall Street Journal

Seventeenth-century America was governed by natural cycles, explains the aptly surnamed social historian John Demos in Circles and Lines...Over time, the circularity of early American life straightened out—or did it flatten? Concluding this brief but satisfying meditation, erstwhile city-dweller Demos mentions his own recent rustication and urges us to remember the circles, cycles and seasons of the old America.
— Bill Kauffman

Jane Kamensky
With his customary grace and inventiveness, John Demos excavates the bedrock assumptions of early Americans: their notions of the good life, of progress, of human destiny. Ranging from the intimate circles of family life to the broadest lines of our national history, Circles and Lines offers a new way of apprehending the colonial past and raises new questions about the ways we imagine our own futures as well.
Laurel Ulrich
This book is vintage Demos--intimate, imaginative, and committed to probing the interior lives of people long dead. Even better, it exemplifies the generosity of spirit that animates Demos's teaching as well as his writing. Who knows better how to pry open aspects of early life so basic that no one thought to comment on them?
Jill Lepore
From what was dark about the Prince of Darkness to what was new about the New World, Demos's Circles and Lines takes readers on a fascinating tour of the daily wonders of the world of early Americans. Elegant, as always.
Wall Street Journal - Bill Kauffman
Seventeenth-century America was governed by natural cycles, explains the aptly surnamed social historian John Demos in Circles and Lines...Over time, the circularity of early American life straightened out--or did it flatten? Concluding this brief but satisfying meditation, erstwhile city-dweller Demos mentions his own recent rustication and urges us to remember the circles, cycles and seasons of the old America.
Library Journal
In this brief book, the eminent Yale social historian of Colonial America provides ruminations based on his readings and reflections. Demos suggests that three divergent world views were extant in early America. The first, the traditional world of circularity and seasonality, saw predictability as a natural good and the dissimilar as an uncomfortable, even evil force. Daytime and nighttime as seasonal experiences were vastly discontinuous. The second, a transitional phase prevalent during much of the 18th century, especially during the American Revolution, mirrored a gradual acceptance of the new and a recognition that, with Colonial settlement, the different had already begun. During the third period, in the early 19th century, letter and diary fragments disclose greater personal, emotional, and psychological acceptance of a linear unfolding of history. There was more self-reliance, greater emphasis on improvement through choices, and more self-respect in a modern world of opportunity, albeit one circumscribed by the culturally imposed restrictions of gender, race, and class. Demos's nuanced study shows the transition from an earlier restricted circular point of reference to a more linear view. Recommended for all libraries where readers are interested in a scholarly meditation on the past.-Frederick J. Augustyn Jr., Library of Congress Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

Meet the Author

John Demos is Samuel Knight Professor of History at Yale University.
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Table of Contents


1. The Traditional World and the Logic of Circularity

2. The Transitional World and the Power of Novelty

3. The Modern World and the Rise of the Linear



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  • Posted April 1, 2012

    Interesting about our past

    As a non academic, I read this with that in mind. I got what I wanted and loved learning the movement of thought and culture in our America. I was a sociology student back in the day, so I could relate. I am trying to understand my ancestors who came early on in our history. It was very interesting.

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