Books Are Pretty

Monday, October 06, 2008

The Wordy Shipmates.

I’d never heard of Sarah Vowell until about 4 years ago, when someone wrote me and told me my writing style and hers were similar. I thought Sarah Vowell was an 18th-century actress, so I was a little confused, but recognized it as a compliment, so I thanked her, then Googled “Sarah Vowell” to make sure. It turns out I was confusing her with Sarah Siddons, the 18th century Meryl Streep of Drury Lane. After listening to Vowell read some of her essays on NPR, I was properly schooled, but had to admit two things: 1.) I want her job, and 2.) she deserves it because she’s a far better writer than I am.

Vowell’s books are history books, told in a personable, irreverent style that makes history seem like it happened yesterday, like somebody telling you something they read on Perez. Old fights turn into juicy gossip, old injustices sting and cry out for retribution. Her research takes her to a myriad places, and it seems like an endless road trip, pulling over by the side of the road to soak in every mossy historical plaque or crumbling statue.

But how much fun it must be to toodle around the country, blowing up stuff with her dad in Montana or visiting Abraham Lincoln’s tomb in Illinois or, more recently, holing up in a library in Boston, reading a Puritan’s ancient diary. Okay, maybe fun for just a few, but to me it sounds like a dream job.

The latest results of Vowell's awesome job, The Wordy Shipmates, is an in-depth look at the laugh-a-minute world of the Puritans.

“God, why?” people would groan when she was researching the book. “Why Puritans?”

At which point, depending on my mood, I would either mumble something about my fondness for sermons as literature or mention taking my nephew to the Mayflower replica waterslide in a hotel pool in Plymouth. I would never answer with the honest truth. Namely, that 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 [Massachusetts’s first governor John] Winthrop. When we were mourning together, when we were suffering together, I often thought of what he said and finally understood what he meant.

Vowell is referring to Winthrop’s essay, “A Model of Christian Charity.” In it, Winthrop delivers the line that has become a favorite of politicians nationwide, comparing New England to a “shining city on a hill.” Revived by Ronald Reagan, this metaphor has stuck with Americans. We strongly identify with being the gatekeepers of that shining city, where the rest of the world wants to live.

I don’t know whether or not the Puritans thought everybody was eager to dress in black and slap silver buckles on their shoes, but they sure thought that’s what everybody should want.

This attitude, that American’s are God’s own little rays of sunshine, was conceived by John Cotton and hammered into our national consciousness by John Winthrop. The anti-sex prude reputation the Puritans have is not actually the reputation they deserve. Instead, it’s the far more modest idea that we are God’s favorite that is the point of view that continues on to this day.

Vowell, while spinning out an amazingly detailed history of Puritan leaders such as Cotton, Winthrop, and rabble-rouser and Rhode Island founder Roger Williams, also paints an intricate painting of Puritan daily life, while constantly drawing parallels to modern times.

Referring to our view of ourselves as God’s chosen, Vowell writes, “The most ironic and entertaining example of that mindset is the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s official seal. The seal, which the Wintrhop fleet brought with them from England, pictures an Indian in a loincloth holding a bow in one hand and an arrow in the other. Words are coming out of his mouth. The Indian says, ‘Come over and help us.’ That is really what it says.”

Want to do something funny? Imagine instead of an Indian asking for help, it’s an Iraqi. Hilarious!

The Wordy Shipmates, moreso than her previous books, rambles on a little bit. Themes and chronology overlap, and it sometimes becomes difficult to tell which Puritan did what. There are theological differences between them, so nitpicky it’s unbelievable, yet, as Vowell points out, no more nitpicky than the differences between Shia and Sunni Muslims, and look at how well they’re getting along!

Once the Puritan lifestyle is closely examined – and it doesn’t get much closer than this, folks – you can see there’s not much truth in any of the Puritan stereotypes. For example, there’s a lot less witch-burning than one would think. Aside from the grisly interactions with the Indians (Roger Williams being the sole exception to this, being of the mindset to respect them rather than “help” them), the Puritans fought mainly by banishment from the community, or, if things got really exciting, a pamphlet war would break out.

If this had been a work of fiction, I may have demanded less pamphlets, more toasted witches.

As it is, I’ll just breathe a sigh of relief that there are no pamphlet wars today. That would get in the way of all that blog-feuding.

p.s. to Sarah Vowell: 1 firkin = 9 gallons


The Wordy Shipmates
by Sarah Vowell
October, 2008 by Riverhead
Hardcover, 272pp
ISBN: 978-1594489990

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