Category Archives: non-fiction

Review: Carol Karlsen’s “The Devil in the Shape of a Woman.”

Carol Karlsen’s The Devil in the Shape of a Woman, was first published in 1987 and reissued as a paperback by W.W Norton from New York, NY in 1998 with a new afterword.  The Devil in the Shape of a Women focuses its attention on Massachusetts and Connecticut during an eighty-year period of history from 1630 to the early eighteenth century. Karlsen pays special attention to the outbreaks of witch hysteria that brought fear to New Englanders from the mid to late seventeenth century. Using the tools of the social historian and the anthropologist, Karlsen painstakingly reconstructs the demography of witchcraft in colonial New England to answer the question of why women were seen as witches in New England Puritan society, a question that Karlsen accuses previous scholars of the period such as John Boyer, Stephen Nissinbaum and John Demos of leaving unasked.[1]

Karlsen’s thesis argues that independent, older women who were the sole heirs of an estate, had acquired their estates through non-traditional means, or who were in a precarious social and/or economic situation were most likely to be accused of witchcraft because of the challenges to the economic, social and gender hierarchy these woman presented; challenges that threatened the precarious order of Puritan society.

Karlsen breaks the work into three main sections.  The first examines religious beliefs of the Puritans and early New Englanders arguing that belief in witchcraft was not an anomaly but an integral part of the ever-changing doxa and praxis of Puritan religion.  The second section delves into the demography of witchcraft, analyzing what seems to be the entire extant records of the period to discover the common social and economic characteristics of accuses witches.  The final third of Karlsen’s work uses the same set of primary sources and demographic data to explore the gender relationships that were predominant during the time-period and why the accused represented a challenge to the established order.

Karlsen’s work is thoroughly researched using what seems to be the entire body of extant records from the period to draw her conclusions.  These conclusions themselves are well-supported by the evidence presented to the reader.  The numerous tables and lists showing ages, economic status, inheritance patterns and other social and economic data conclusively support her claims as to the ages, social position and familial relationships of the accused witches. However, the latter third of the book relies more on anthropological analysis and inference than previous sections, making this part of the text most likely to be challenged by future historians.

The Devil in the Shape of a Women is an essential read for any who wish to understand witchcraft its relationship to the prevailing social and gender patterns of early colonial society and provides a wealth of information for the scholar of early American history and could be used as a starting point for understanding the ever-changing gender roles in US history.  Karlsen’s book could also serve as the starting point for an analysis of the few male witches brought to trial during the seventeenth century, to see if any of the same concerns apply to this overlooked demographic

[1] Karlsen, Carol F. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England. W. W. Norton & Company, 1998. 212f.

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Posted by on April 6, 2013 in History, non-fiction


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Review: Alan Taylor’s “American Colonies: The Settling of North America.”

Alan Taylor’s American Colonies: The Settling of North America, published by Penguin Books in 2002, presents to the reader an important interpretation of the early history of the United States that expands upon the traditional Anglocentric narrative.  Taylor’s work of historical synthesis takes in a broad sweep of history, looking back to the earliest peopling of the North American continent by Asiatic hunter/gather groups circa 13,000 BCE to the early national period c.1820 CE.  Taylor argues that the many different waves of colonization originating in diverse regions of the globe have had a lasting and profound impact on the history of the nation helping shape a unique American identity.[1]  In presenting this argument, Taylor moves the narrative away from the Anglocentric point-of-view that dominates the historiography of the period replacing it with a more dynamic, diverse, and holistic account.

By including the histories of the many different peoples who have inhabited the North American continent form the earliest Asiatic peoples who would become the forebears of today’s native peoples to the Spanish, French, Dutch, Russians, and English who freely choose to settle the “New World”, to the forced migrations of African peoples from a wide variety of nations, Taylor successfully forces the reader into thinking about American history differently through the use of a compelling narrative and a thematic approach to history.  By breaking history into small geographic and temporal segments, Taylor provides a framework that allows the narrative to explore individual groups and time-periods, while keeping the intercultural narrative of the text at the forefront of the reader’s attention.

Taylor’s work is an important text that should be at the top of any history buffs to-read list.  Those interested in colonial America, Native American history, the histories of non-Anglo colonial powers will find this large but eminently readable tome of great value while giving them a much more nuanced vision of the colonial period.

[1] Alan Taylor, American Colonies: The Settling of North America (The Penguin History of the United States, Volume 1) (Penguin (Non-Classics), 2002). xii.

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Posted by on April 6, 2013 in History, non-fiction


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Review: Richard Godbeer’s “Sexual Revolution in Early America.”

Published by the Johns Hopkins Press, Richard Godbeer’s 2002 monograph Sexual Revolution in Early America provides an in-depth look into sex and sexuality in the colonial and early national periods of American history.  Using the tools and methodologies of social and cultural history, Godbeer seeks to shine a light on an overlooked theme in American history, early American sexuality.

The bulk of Godbeer’s analysis focuses upon New England and the Puritans, with the occasional foray into Philadelphia, Virginia and the Carolinas.  The work takes in a period of two hundred years, from the years immediately prior to the British settlement of North America in the early seventeenth century, to the period immediately after the Revolutionary War in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  Throughout the text, Godbeer argues that during the eighteenth century a new sexual ethos regarding sex and sexual culture emerged in British North America as the result of a culture war that pitted differing conceptions of proper sexual etiquette against one another.  This shift represented a move away from traditional conceptions of sex and society brought to the New World by English colonists toward a more individualistic worldview informed by, and predicated upon, the revolutionary ideology of the late 18th century.[1]  By showing the evolution in American sexual culture, Godbeer challenges conventional wisdom used by contemporary culture warriors that looks to the early years of American society as the exemplar of traditional sexual mores and shows this point-of-view to be little more than a wishful fiction.

Sexual Revolution in Early America begins with an examination of popular attitudes toward pre-marital sex, the sexual proclivities of exotic natives of the uncivilized New World, and inter-racial sexual relations as portrayed through English high and literary culture in the years immediately before permanent British colonization of North America.  Godbeer’s use of theses accounts works to show that these concerns were emerging but does little to show that these pre-conceptions were normative or even widespread in English society of the period.  Despite this shortfall, this small introductory section provides a foundation that highlights the contested nature of sexuality in early seventeenth century English society, and the existence of a multi-faceted discourse regarding sexual mores.[2]

Godbeer moves the focus of the discussion in the first part of the book to New England and its most famous inhabitants: the Puritans.  Here Godbeer challenges the traditional notion of the Puritans that dominates the modern mind, by showing them to be highly sexual beings exhibiting many of the same sexual foibles as modern Americans.  Furthermore, even the small group of Puritans who evangelized regarding sexuality were concerned not with controlling all sexual activity but with delineating licit and illicit behaviors and relations; relations then enforced through a punitive legal system and societal pressure.  This pressure by Puritan moral evangelists to enforce a rigorous moral code in a heterogeneous society is the first of the sexual revolutions in Godbeer’s account.

The second of the books three parts moves the narrative to the southern colonies, focusing heavily on the Carolinas and the special circumstances that many early settlers found themselves.  Many of those who lived on the border between civilization and the untamed wilderness found themselves having to create a new type of moral code suited to their new environment.  This pragmatic and unorthodox approach to sexual morality was in many cases in direct opposition to the prevailing religious and civil notions of correct behavior.  Religious and civil powers regulated licit sexual behaviors in an attempt to provide order in chaos.  Worries of miscegenation and its affects on English civility and civilization provided much of the impetus for a new set of mores—especially after the move from a society with slaves to a slave society—while the serial monogamy and seeming licentiousness of these frontiersmen and women spoke of a breakdown of civil society itself.  It is in this region that Godbeer first sees the identification of womanhood with virtuousness that would become a popular trope as the colonies moved toward independence and the new ideology of republicanism took shape.

In the third and final section of the text, Godbeer argues that with the declension of Puritan ecclesiastic power and the increasing complexity of civil society, the power of the state/church to enforce its own brand of sexual morality waned as other matters took legal precedence.  A moral code that had once been the purview of the legal system now relied more on the sanction of society to enforce sexual ethics.  A consequence of this move was that as society changed so to did the ideas about proper sexual etiquette.  As revolutionary ideas swept the colonies and the rhetoric of individual freedom seized the imaginations of the citizenry, especially those who lived in the urban north.  This philosophy of individual liberty clashed with the emerging concept of virtuous womanhood that came to the fore during and after the Revolutionary War.

The evidence mustered by Godbeer supports his thesis well.  The historian uses a wide variety of primary source material; court transcripts, plays and other fictional works, almanacs, newspapers, diaries, and sermons.   By highlighting a recurring theme of tension and conflict in American sexual history, Godbeer successfully shows that sexuality has always been a contentious issue in American society while undermining long-held but erroneous conceptions of the early American people’s and their attitudes toward sex.  Sexual Revolution in America successfully casts aside the stereotype of the Puritan, replacing the dull, staid, highly religious citizenry for a more nuanced vision that was intimately concerned with “proper” sexual relations.

One weakness is Godbeer’s almost exclusive focus on the British colonies of North America fails to account for the fact that during the colonial period people’s from all over Europe settled in what would become the United States.  As Alan Taylor argues so well in his 2002 monograph, American Colonies, these immigrants brought with them a wide variety of cultural and religious forms, which must surely have included culturally specific attitudes toward sex and sexuality.  By focusing so heavily on the English—and specifically the Puritans—these other cultures influence on the evolution of American society are seemingly discounted by Godbeer.

This book should benefit those with an interest in early colonial North America or human sexuality in history.  For the student of history, Sexual Revolution in Early America could be used as a starting point for a more comprehensive account of American sexuality by examining the whether the sexual attitudes of the German, Dutch, French and other non-Anglo colonists influenced American attitudes toward sex and sexuality.

[1] Richard Godbeer, Sexual Revolution in Early America (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002). 9-10.

[2] Godbeer, 1-4.

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Posted by on April 6, 2013 in History, non-fiction, US History


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“In Praise of Slowness” by Carl Honoré.

Inspired by author Carl Honoré’s brief flirtation with the idea of One-Minute Fairy Tales while waiting for a plane in Rome (and the subsequent questioning of his sanity for entertaining the idea), “In Praise of Slowness” is a look at the world-wide Slow Movement; it is a book that looks at how various people have attempted to reclaim time for themselves in a world gone mad with speed.

In today’s often-hectic world, time is at a premium.  The pressures of work and family life often having many people rushing to find enough time to do everything that they need to do, the results of which often manifest themselves as physical and/or psychological aliments; maladies of the modern Western world that Honoré has collectively dubbed “time-sickness.”  “In Praise of Slowness” shows just how pervasive time-sickness has become throughout the developed world, and argues that the Slow Movement is a response and possible remedy to this malady.

Honoré travels the globe in search of the different strands of Slow and writes about his experiences in engaging and often witty prose.  Much of what is written is not only entertaining (Honoré’s prose is a delight to read) but is (most importantly) thought provoking and eye-opening; the author does an excellent job in bringing to one’s attention the results of too much haste and the often not-so-subtle changes in people’s lives brought about by embracing an aspect of the Slow philosophy. 

From Slow Food to tantric sex, Slow Cities to alternative medicines, and Slow music to education, the Slow philosophy asks us to look at what we do, how we do it, and asks “is there a better way?”  Although Mr. Honoré writes of a Slow Movement, it soon becomes evident that Slow is not a singular movement but a variety of individual philosophies that aim to do one thing: to make us more mindful of our actions in an attempt to make our actions and choices as meaningful and fulfilling as possible.  Whether it be lingering over a home-cooked meal with family and friends, taking a few minutes to quietly meditate, or taking the time to really read a book, Slow is about making the most of what we have and choosing to reflect on what we are doing instead of mindlessly rushing about.

While some of the movements that Honoré writes seem to take the idea of Slow far too literally and as such seem to be a parody of the Slow way of thinking, for example John Cage’s composition ASLSP (As Slow as Possible), a piece of music which is being performed in Halberstadt, Germany that will take 639 years to complete, or faddish like the exercise routine dubbed SuperSlow, most of the movements espouse a philosophy that even those of us on the most modest of incomes can come to embrace.

 “In Praise of Slowness” is not a manifesto decrying modernity nor is it a call for people to drop out of the rat-race; rather it is a call for balance.  The author is not an idealist who dreams of a utopian society where Slow is the way of life, where every aspect of Slow is embraced, but a realist who realizes the exigencies of 21st Century life and who argues that by embracing some (or even one) of the ideals of Slow, today’s frantic life can be lived more fully.

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Posted by on March 30, 2010 in non-fiction


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“The Age of American Unreason” by Susan Jacoby.

Susan Jacoby’s 2008 “The Age of American Unreason” is a book in two parts. The first part is a highly readable history of the development of contemporary anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism; the second is largely a polemic against what could very well be seen as Jacoby’s personal pet peeves.

In the first part of the text Jacoby outlines the causes of American unreason arguing that the modern condition is a result of a multitude of factors that include the rise of Christian Fundamentalism, the ubiquity of television, the move away from a classical liberal education at universities, the right-wing attack on the intellectual as a “fellow-traveler” and the reaction of the New Left to the role that intellectuals played in the crises of the Sixties, the rise of infotainment, and the subsequent dumbing-down of mass culture. Jacoby does a decent job creating a coherent argument from these strands but there is nothing really original or ground-breaking about her analysis. In addition, the author makes questionable assertions, such as the claim that the USA is the only developed nation where Pentecostalism and Charismatic Christianity is on the rise (she has conveniently overlooked South Korea where the growth of these Christian movements is accelerating, and Australia where churches that preach a charismatic form of Christianity, i.e. Hillsong Church, are rapidly gaining members) and tracing the origin of fundamentalism and biblical literalism to the Second Great Awakening.

The second part, an exposition of the symptoms of American unreason, is disappointing. Jacoby’s analysis of the culture of distraction reads as an anti-modernist screed that highlights many of the problems with a world filled with gadgets but like much of the rest of the book, is largely unoriginal. Jacoby fails to tackle the serious issues in junk thought; those issues that should be addressed, and instead takes aim at soft targets. Is a tirade against the Baby Einstein series of children’s videos really the best way to highlight America’s dissent into anti-intellectualism and belief in pseudo-science?

If Jacoby’s aim was to produce a scholarly “high-brow” treatise on the demise of thinking in contemporary America then she has missed the mark, and has instead written a text that takes the path of least resistance and lands squarely in lower middle-brow territory. Jacoby argues that much scholarship in the age of Google is a mere re-mixing of ideas, yet this is exactly what the author has done with this text; originality is not this book’s strength.

While Jacoby’s prose is mostly engaging and well-written, at times Jacob revels in self-aggrandizement making it seem that she is looking down her long, cultured nose at the hoi-polloi.  Although Jacoby calls herself a “cultural conservationist” one is left with an impression that “cultural conservative” would be a more apt moniker. To her credit, the author does take both right and left to task for their role in the creation of the modern age of unreason but this is not enough to make up for the many shortcomings of “The Age of American Unreason.”

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Posted by on March 17, 2010 in History, non-fiction


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