The Way We Were

The Ends of Life
Roads to Fulfillment in Early Modern England
Keith Thomas
Oxford University Press, $24.95, 416 pp.

Keith Thomas is an important British historian whose work should be more widely known in America. He writes about how early modern people—from the aristocrat to the laborer—conceived of life’s purposes. Terry Eagleton has written that “as far as society is concerned, I as an individual am utterly dispensable.” Why don’t I “join a circus or take an overdose”? Eagleton uses the idea of “centering”—ideology that makes one feel significant—to overcome such dread and despair. In The Ends of Life, Keith Thomas takes the long historical view and shows how people in England between the Reformation and the American Revolution transcended their fears and fashioned various means of fulfillment. In wonderfully lucid and entertaining prose, he discusses some of the staples of the good life they aspired to. He deals with military prowess, work, possessions, honor, friendship, fame, and the afterlife. And he manages to serve up this serious fare with grace and dry wit.

Thomas is a phenomenal researcher. He reports on what a little boy of five thought honor was, why Quakers disapproved of tombstones, how London rowdies proved their significance by rioting, and when the English first came to prize eccentricity. A work of this kind could be a bit of a chore for the nonhistorian; this one isn’t. Thomas is famous at Oxford for collecting quotations and storing them in envelopes, and here he provides lively voices and colorful incidents on every page. The result is a...

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About the Author

The late David Castronovo wrote many books of literary and cultural criticism, including Blokes: The Bad Boys of English Literature.