WE hear a lot about the crisis in the family these days, but such concerns are hardly unique to our era, says John Demos, a Yale historian who lives in this largely blue-collar suburb of Boston. Warnings about a weakening family structure have been in the air ``for about 150 years,'' he estimates. The second half of the 19th century ``produced statements that would sound very familiar today,'' notes the historian. Sharp warnings about divorce and about parents' loss of control over their children, for instance.
These observations and dozens of others, culled from what Dr. Demos admits to be the ``amorphous'' field of family history, are digested in his recent book, ``Past, Present, and Personal: the Family and the Life Course in American History'' (Oxford University Press, $17.95).
A century ago, alarm about family life coincided with the shifts in family structure caused by the industrial revolution in the United States.
The guiding role of the father, dominant in largely agrarian colonial America, was sharply eclipsed by the demands of factory work, which drew men away from the home for extended periods. Mothers became even more central, a trend that culminated, says Demos, in the Victorian ideal of the ``True Woman,'' who heroically safeguarded the purity of home and hearth against the polluting influences of the outside world.
Simultaneously, urbanization was reshuffling communities, loosening webs of friendship and family ties.
In the opening decades of the 19th century and before, says Demos, the rearing of children had been a shared responsibility among neighbors and friends.
When tight-knit communities unraveled because of changing work patterns, ``the family came to be vested with enormous responsibility for right-thinking and acting children,'' he says.
That responsiblity has at times been shunted back and forth between family and school, something Demos sees continuing today. But the bulk of opinion, he affirms, remains squarely on the side of the family unit as the primary shaper of character and, by extension, of society.
``In our culture, our country, we've looked to the family as a source of strengths and weaknesses of society at large,'' he says.
Settling into an armchair in his high-ceilinged, wood-paneled living room, Demos comments that despite strains on the family today, ``I'd be very surprised if some of the extreme predictions of the demise of the nuclear family would come true.''
Countering notions that ``extended'' families, with many generations under one roof, were the rule in colonial America, the historian underscores the persistence, over many centuries, of the traditional household of mother, father, and children. In the West, ``the basic shape of the family has remained relatively the same from the 17th century and probably back farther,'' he says.
In his book he asks, ``Is the family likely to transform itself into something radically new and different, or even to disappear entirely? No, not likely - given its impressive record of durability through many prior centuries. Might gender-roles so alter that parental and household responsibilities are no longer predominantly assumed by women? Quite possibly - given the variable patterns, in this matter, of the past.''
Demos devotes a chapter, ``The Changing Faces of Fatherhood,'' to these ``variable patterns.''
In simplified terms, first came the 17th and 18th century image of ``father as companion,'' the head of the agricultural family whose tasks were shared by his offspring. Next, the ``Victorian patriarch'' of the 19th century, stern provider who spurned emotion and exuded authority.
Today, Demos notes, fatherhood is again being redefined, a process spurred by increasing numbers of working mothers and the frequency of divorce.
Child abuse is another subject he puts under the historian's lens. Demos finds little evidence to support the assumption that abuse has always been with us but has only recently been publicized.
``Most childhoods in pre-modern society knew their own forms of severity. But they seem not to have known the particular sufferings which the term `child abuse' now calls so vividly and painfully to mind,'' he writes.
He suggests a range of possible reasons for this, including today's comparatively high incidence of unemployment, the pace of change in modern society, and the codes of individualism and material success that now hold sway.
Demos's specialty, family history, has a rather short history itself, he explains. It has been a recognized discipline for only some 20 years, he says. When Demos first took a strong interest in the subject, colleagues warned him he'd never find ``adequate documentation'' to bolster his work.
But the archives of local historical societies, ``people's attics,'' and a number of other grassroots resources have proven fertile for him and others in the field.
``It turns out there's a lot there,'' he says.