John Demos

Samuel Knight Professor of American History

John DemosJohn Demos, educated at Harvard—twice—Oxford, and the University of California at Berkeley, and Peace Corps teacher in Africa, you have been a faculty member at Yale since 1986. Born and raised in Cambridge Mass, son of the distinguished Harvard philosopher Raphael Demos, you spent your early academic career at Brandeis. In those first years you were a non-narrative historian, deeply trained in social science methods and your first book on family history, the highly regarded A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony, was largely informed by your training and by your work in social science disciplines. Your next pathbreaking work Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England, published in 1982, received the Bancroft Prize in American History. Amidst its composition, you came to the gradual realization that affective history should better emphasize the stories of human life and the patterns they uplift—and with a new interest in psychology and biography, you reset your sights to narrative history.

The world is lucky that you did. As a social historian of early America, focusing on the family unit and making people and their stories come alive, you galvanized many into recognizing the connections between past and present and gaining a clearer understanding of the early American experience. In book after book you draw the reader with you into narrative dramas they remember. Among your many publications are The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America, which received the Francis Parkman and Ray Allen Billington prizes in American history, was a finalist for the National Book Award in general nonfiction and is listed in the top 10 books assigned in college US history courses.
And you are an inspiring teacher to boot, especially to graduate students, who include some of the most able young scholars in your field. Many of them have been part of the Yale Writing History, a flourishing group where students and faculty share their work in narrative history, and of which you have been a founder, sponsor, and enthusiastic supporter. In an interview you once mentioned that reading novels has been very important to your work. In scholarship, you have said, one must reference things. But novels offer an imaginative freedom scholarship does not, but which scholarship can benefit from, since at the deepest level scholars should have “a feel for their work that goes beyond references.” Many would say that it is this “feel” for your subject that deeply informs your work, that gives it its texture and depth and that makes you one of the finest historians of your time. As you retire to continue to write the wonderful books that make history come alive, Yale thanks you warmly for the honor you have brought to us by your many contributions.

Tribute Editor: Penelope Laurans