On Sarah Vowell’s “The Wordy Shipmates”

18 Jul

Sarah Vowell's The Wordy Shipmates [2008] tells a very different story of the foundation of current day American than the one we're accustomed to hearing.

Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates [2008] tells a very different story of the foundation of current day American than the one we’re accustomed to hearing.

Even having lived in New England for four years, I rarely thought about how this country was founded. The cobblestone in Providence and the patina-covered historical society plaques on every other building foundation in Boston seemed quaint at the time, but I was more interested in hunting for a decent cup of coffee through the forests of Dunkin’ Donuts than studying landmarks. And what little understanding remained of the development of these United States of America, our Puritan forefathers, and the birth of American culture was handily overturned by Sarah Vowell’s quick-witted, nonfiction history The Wordy Shipmates.

Students in U.S. public schools are used to the story of the pilgrims–some of the first English settlers to emigrate to the shores of New England. In elementary school, I understood the pilgrims to be happy-go-lucky explorers, chowing down on turkey cylindrical hunks of cranberry sauce with Squanto, and I spent six years making hand-traced turkeys on construction paper. In high school, I learned that the pilgrims were bunch of evil, racist land thieves who ruined the best parts of this land. Vowell tells a more balanced story. She rightly points out that we in U.S. live in a world created by Puritans, whether we like it or not, and explores the culture and consequences of John Winthrop’s Massachusetts Bay Colony in a way my third grade teacher and my bland high school text books never could.

Emigrating from England to America was like booking passage on a coffin to leave a cesspool of sin (as Winthrop's folks thought of it) for a wilderness of unknown horrors and certain death.

Emigrating from England to America was like booking passage on a vomitty coffin to leave the cesspool of sin that was England for a wilderness of unknown horrors and certain death. Just another day in the life.

From the beginnings of Puritan unrest in mother England to the voyage of the Arbella, from the seeds of American dissent to the horrors of the Pequot War, Vowell bounces through her research, carried along with her sardonic humor. John Winthrop leaves England for New England on his flagship Arbella, preaching on the long journey across the pond that his people are the modern Israelites, tasked with holy mission of being America’s “city on a hill.” It’s a quote from the Bible, and it’s an image that will follow the U.S. through its history as a nation.

Winthrop’s “city on a hill” was Boston, and the foundation of this colony still influences us today. Vowell’s recognition of this and inclusion of Winthrop’s far reaching touch on American society gives TWS a fun narrative: Winthrop banishes a heretic to Plymouth, and the Reagan administration sells guns in South America; Roger Williams prints some strongly worded pamphlets, and Vowell takes her nephew to a museum; Anne Hutchinson gets tossed out of Boston for leading a Bible study in her home, and JFK becomes the first Catholic elected to the U.S. presidency. Vowell’s begrudging respect for the Puritans is made plain. She identifies with them, she respects them, she finds comfort in their words despite it all:

“… in the weeks after two planes crashed into two skyscrapers here on the worst day of our lives, I found comfort in the words of Winthrop. When we were mourning together, when we were suffering together, I often thought of what he said and finally understood what he meant.”

It is, in fact, all about words: the Boston charter, Winthrop’s lengthy sermons, the Magna Carta that laid the groundwork for the impending American Revolution, and John Cotton’s pamphlet war with the notorious Roger Williams. The words of the Bible inspired the Puritans, drove them to become the people who they were with such strength that our ears are still ringing with their passionate sermons. Their words and their books founded Harvard and set the precedent for America’s higher education. Their words made peace and made war. It’s the witty words of Sarah Vowell, though, that wrap up everything–all the historical facts and sermon quotes and droll judgments–in the pretty bow of her understanding of current affairs, and it’s this contextualization and personalization that makes TWS a compelling read.

"It was not price nor money that could have purchased Rhode Island ... Rhode Island was purchased by love."

“It was not price nor money that could have purchased Rhode Island … Rhode Island was purchased by love.” -Roger Williams, after the Narragansett presented him with the whole state of Rhode Island as a gift.

Read it if … you enjoy nonfiction history, obviously. But also read it if you primarily read fiction, like me, but are looking for something new. Vowell’s snarky prose and winding storytelling keeps TWS interesting throughout, and creates a gently arcing narrative that is easily accessible for novel enthusiasts.

Don’t read it if … you have no interest in early U.S. history. Vowell’s dry humor can only carry one’s interest so far. You may want to steer clear, too, if you’re set on either pedastalizing or demonizing the Puritan settlers. Vowell gives an honest account of their lives and strives to humanize John Winthrop and his constituents. If you are some kind of fervent Calvinist, you may dislike the way Vowell criticizes the Puritan lifestyle of constant fear and self-hatred. If you still hold a multi-generational grudge against the English colonists for ruining everything, you may not like the way Vowell maintains her respect for the Puritans’ resilience, resourcefulness, and occasional compassion.

This book is like … Dean Olsher’s From Square One, a fun exploration of the art of crossword puzzles–both creating them and completing them. While the subject matter is completely different, the execution is fairly similar. And just for kicks, here’s what I wrote in the first line, which apparently still holds true, of my review of Olsher’s nonfiction book that I published in December, 2012:

“I don’t always read non-fiction. But when I do, I read about a topic I love and it’s written by a former correspondent for NPR.”

Sarah Vowell is also a long time commentator on NPR's popular radio series "This American Life." It's no wonder her writing is imbued with that cheeky cadence we're so used to hearing on public radio.

Sarah Vowell is also a long time commentator on NPR’s popular series This American Life. It’s no wonder her writing is imbued with that cheeky cadence we’re so used to hearing on public radio.

What gets you to read nonfiction? Is it your natural state of reading? Do you need inspiration or a gun to your head? Tell me in the comments below!

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