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Circles and Lines: The Shape of Life in Early America
John Demos
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.
$19.95 / £12.95, 98 pages, ISBN 0-674-01324-7 (hardback).

Robert Sayre
Université de Marne-la-Vallée

This slim volume is the printed version of a group of talks (in the prestigious “William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization” series) given at Harvard in 2002. Its author is one of the foremost social historians of “early America,” a somewhat flexible term usually meant to cover the period from the first European settlements to the early nineteenth century. Demos has published over the course of his career a number of noteworthy and valuable works in the area, concentrating especially on the family: A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony (1970); Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England (1982; winner of the Bancroft Prize); and the extremely popular The Unredeemed Captive (1994). In Circles and Lines he draws on many aspects of his past research to provide a broad summing-up of socio-cultural patterns over the whole historical period of “early America.” Elegantly and engagingly written, the work is also cogently argued and (within the limits of its format) well documented.

Demos’s main thesis in the study is that over the course of early American history the “shape of life” changed definitively from “circles” to “lines;” that is, there was a shift in modes and perceptions of living from ones dominated by cyclical patterning to ones characterized by linear movement. In the preface, Demos acknowledges that these general tendencies have been chronicled before, but for the most part by intellectual historians in terms of elite cultural productions. His intention is to explore the same evolution in the “ground-level experience of Ordinary Folk” [x]. Each of the three talks at Harvard becomes a chapter, corresponding to a phase in the process: “I: The Traditional World and the Logic of Circularity;” “II: The Transitional World and the Power of Novelty;” “III: The Modern World and the Rise of the Linear.” The transition from the world of circles to the world of lines was of course not a neat, clearly defined one, but without a doubt the crucial moment came, according to Demos, in the American Revolution. Earlier in the eighteenth century a social transformation had already been in the making, but it was largely on the level of people’s unconscious behavior. In the revolutionary period, Demos claims, “their mentality at last caught up with their experience” [51].

Circular or cyclical patterns were everywhere in evidence in the predominantly premodern configuration of seventeenth-century British America. Resembling traditional societies elsewhere, the latter was largely rural and agricultural. Living in it meant being close to the rhythms of natural cycles: seasonal, solar and lunar, gestational, etc. The life of the individual was conceived of in cyclical terms: ashes to ashes, dust to dust. In it governments were seen to periodically renew themselves so as to conserve the bases of good rulership, and the economy was geared to repeated, “zero-sum” activity. All of this contrasts strikingly with the world of the early nineteenth century, in which progress, development, change, and “future orientation” came to characterize the life of both the collectivity and the individual. To illustrate the difference, Demos looks at diaries in particular, which in the premodern period were factual or spiritual, but devoid of individual personality, whereas from the end of the eighteenth century onwards they became the scene of intense “self-fashioning.” In this context Demos discusses the change in meaning of the word “career,” and the advent of modern “autobiography.”

In developing these contrasting patterns, Demos is sensitive to the issue of gender, and points out that in both the circular and the linear worlds women were in some ways shortchanged. In the traditional life cycle menopause constituted a kind of “trap door” for them, while they were for the most part excluded from the linear trajectories of the later period. Another interesting aspect of Demos’s analysis concerns the transition, or rather the transitions; he sees an analogy between that undergone by the first settlers and the major one taking place around the Revolution. In both cases Demos notices a tendency at first to deny the presence of novelty, with full awareness of the newness of the situation coming only progressively and belatedly.

Although some of it covers relatively familiar ground, Demos’s generalizing overview of psycho-social transformation makes a significant contribution to our understanding of “early America.” It does seem a pity, however, that he does not connect his discussion with economic history, or with the historiographical debates in recent years around the question of the “transition to capitalism.”* The changes on which he elaborates fit quite well, in fact, with the picture that has emerged from many of those economic studies and discussions, for they also tend to locate the crucial moment of mutation—from a traditional to a market-based or capitalistic socio-economic system—in the Revolution, following a long preparation earlier in the eighteenth century. Demos hardly mentions this fundamental development, though, which would have provided relevant grounding for his analyses—convincing as far as they go—focused on the dimension of popular culture and psychology.


*. See “The Transition to Capitalism in America: A Panel Discussion,” The History Teacher, May, 1994; and Michael Merrill, “Putting ‘Capitalism’ in Its Place: A Review of Recent Literature,” William and Mary Quarterly, April, 1995.





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