PAST, PRESENT, AND PERSONAL The Family and the Life Course in American History By John Demos Oxford University Press. 215 pp. $ 17.95

JOHN DEMOS is an historian of Colonial New England. For nearly two decades he has also been among the most accomplished practitioners of what is called "family history": the effort to recapture and explain the contours of domestic life in the past. He has been especially interested in the way earlier generations perceived human development, from birth to death. Like all good historians, he conducts his historical explorations by way of a sustained debate with the present: he illuminates what is most distinctive about our own experience by showing exactly how (and why) it differs from that of our forebears.

The present collection of essays aims to introduce family history to a non-professional audience. The essays examine different facets of domesticity and aging through a systematic comparison of Colonial New England (as reconstructed from demographic data, wills, court records, sermons and the like) with 19th-century and contemporary America.

The Colonial family, Demos shows, was a community within a community: its structure mirrored that of society at large, and it was integrated into the fundamental institutions of that society -- the church, the town and the economy. As it is today, the typical household was composed of a nuclear unit of father, mother and children (the "extended family" is largely a myth of popular sociology), but, in contrast to today, the father, not the mother, was the primary parent, with ultimate responsibility not merely for the support of the children but for their moral and intellectual development as well.

The integrated family of the Colonial era gave way to an increasingly isolated family in the 19th century. The fundamental cause of this change was the separation of work from the home brought about by industrialization. The father moved out of the household into the labor force. He became "the breadwinner," leaving the mother to become the child rearer and the classic "True Woman" of Victorian ideology. At the same time, the children (now considerably reduced in number and much less involved in the daily economy than they had been in the Colonial era) developed more sharply etched identities, with a routine and culture unto themselves.

The modern family retains the same essential structure as the 19th-century family, although it has been affected by two developments distinctive to our age: the systematic introduction of women into the work force and the prevalence of divorce. But though the family is structurally similar, its psychological purpose, according to Demos, has changed subtly. Where home and family in the 19th century served as a refuge from the heartless world of ambition, they are now looked to primarily as an arena for personal fulfillment (or at least diversion) in an increasingly meaningless mass society.

In the latter half of his book, Demos turns from the family and its function to consider the human life cycle in historical perspective. He begins with an essay on child abuse, which he defines carefully as the intentional infliction of injury on children by their parents. Most discussions of the subject, he complains, are based on the unexamined assumption that children have always been abused -- indeed, that they were even more seriously brutalized in previous eras than in our own. The evidence from the Colonial period suggests just the opposite: while physical punishment was universally approved, the battering of children seems to have been rare. This difference makes perfect sense, moreover, given the integrative pattern of Colonial family life. In a society where the borders between family and community were porous, the treatment of children was more likely to be governed by socially accepted standards. In contrast, the isolation of the modern family not only creates the conditions under which child abuse can flourish but also invites the psychic overinvestment in children that leads to violence when expectations aren't fulfilled.

LIKE CHILD abuse, the contemporary "midlife crisis," Demos shows, had virtually no counterpart in Colonial New England. In fact, the very notion of middle age as a distinctive moment in life was foreign to our ancestors. From age 30 to age 60, men and women were at the height of their power, and nothing in the historical record suggests they suffered the self-doubts that have come to define middle age in the modern world. Demos again finds the reason for this contrast in the very different social and demographic realities of the two societies. The midlife crisis is typically triggered by a sudden consciousness of mortality. Such consciousness comes to us in our 40s and 50s because only then are we likely to encounter that great harbinger of death, serious illness. By way of contrast, in Colonial New England serious illness was among the constants of life at any age. Similarly, the modern midlife crisis is generally associated with a growing conviction that one has made the wrong choices, that one should have become an opera singer or a teacher rather than a businessman. But such anxieties are almost unimaginable in a society where 90 percent of the population was destined for life on the farm. The midlife crisis, in other words, makes neither psychological nor social sense in Colonial America.

In general, Demos finds that modern civilization has brought with it a sharper differentiation of the various ages of life, with each developing its characteristic activities and concerns. The most striking instance of this process is provided by adolescence, which, he argues, simply didn't exist before the later 19th century. But he also believes that there is a significant exception to the rule of progressive differentiation, namely, old age. Apparently, Colonial Americans entertained an even more intense awareness of old age than we do in the late 20th century. Demos notes, for example, that 17th-century New Englanders generally had only an approximate notion of their chronological age. Yet after 60 one's age-consciousness grew increasingly precise. Indeed, the hypersensitivity to age that we now associate with the middle years of life appears then to have been associated with its final years. Even more surprising, Demos shows that despite their pious talk about honoring the old, Colonial New Englanders were in fact deeply contemptuous of them. He skillfully deploys demographic, legal and literary evidence to paint a grim picture of our ancestors' treatment of the "infirm," who were especially despised, he suggests, because their progressive physical disability rendered them useless in a society based on agricultural labor. His chilling (and persuasive) account of old age in Colonial New England offers an important antidote to the uncritical nostalgia implicit in much of the recent discussion of "agism."

Demos is an inventive historian but a judicious one as well. He has a great gift for extracting plausible generalizations from very sketchy evidence. One of the pleasures of his book comes from observing a mind at work fashioning coherent historical analyses from the most unpromising material. Yet his discipline and candor guarantee that our confidence is rarely shaken by a suspicion of speculative extravagance. Rather, the essays have the comfortable reasonableness that one looks for in the very best historical writing. That Demos is also a humane interpreter who commands a graceful prose style makes his book as enjoyable as it is enlightening.? Paul Robinson is professor of history at Stanford University and author of "The Modernization of Sex" and other books."