Hostages to Fortune

The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America

by John Demos
Knopf, 315 pp., $25.00

Paul Revere’s Ride

by David Hackett Fischer
Oxford University Press, 445 pp., $27.50

The men and women who occupied the east coast of North America between 1607 and 1800 have been more closely scrutinized than any other collection of people in American history. Their deeds filled the pages of the classic nineteenth-century historians George Bancroft and Francis Parkman (there were not then many other Americans to write about); and they have captured a major share of attention from the most gifted historians of this century, including Perry Miller and Samuel Eliot Morison. New Englanders in particular have been placed under the microscope, their ideas dissected, their psyches probed, and more recently their social relations subjected to sophisticated statistical analyses that tell us more about them than they could have known themselves: their life expectancies, average age at marriage, family size, distribution of wealth, and so on.

It is only fair to say that the early New Englanders brought all this attention on themselves. They were forever writing down what they did and thought, and they took pains to preserve what they wrote, sending a not wholly unintentional invitation to future historians to take them as seriously as they took themselves. Historians of different generations have accepted the invitation according to the differing usages of their times. In the past thirty or forty years few have followed the older mode of narrative history. Instead, they have treated early New England as a kind of social laboratory in which to trace patterns of behavior or the operation and evolution of ideas, institutions, and forces of one sort or another.

Now perhaps the time has come for a return to narrative. There have been voices summoning historians in that direction, and the two books under review seem to be replying to them. John Demos, once a pioneer in the statistical mode, announces at the outset: “Most of all, I wanted to write a story.” David Fischer, whose last book was a study of the influence of different English local cultures on social patterns in America, states his purpose to present a “series of events as a sequence of choices by Paul Revere, General Gage and many other leaders,” and avers that “to reconstruct that sequence of happenings, the best and only instrument is narrative.”

Narratives, stories, throughout their exile from academe, have never lost favor in the wider world. The nineteenth-century historians were in touch with that world and enjoyed a popularity (and sales) that their academic successors have never approached or even tried for. The analytical historical studies have thrived, because academics, whose capacity for taking themselves seriously outdoes that of the early New Englanders, reward one another for writing books that only academics can read or admire. The general public has never lost interest in history; but the history they want to hear about or experience vicariously in theme parks like Colonial Williamsburg or Sturbridge Village or Historic Deerfield is a history replete with stories, stories lodged in the collective memory and celebrated in anniversaries, reenactments of battles, pageants, plays, and historical novels. It …

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