Published October 7, 2008
Reviewed October 5, 2008
Sarah Vowell is the sort of person you desperately wish taught your high school American history class: smarter than anyone else in the room, a quirky sense of humor, full of random trivia and a genuine enthusiasm for her topic. Her 2005 effort “Assassination Vacation” may be one of the best books of this decade, looking at the macabre side of our executive branch with the voice of a skeptical fangirl.
Now, with her latest title “The Wordy Shipmates,” Vowell has graduated from being the ideal high school teacher to the ideal college professor. It’s a more professional work than her earlier titles, more akin to an academic essay than a road trip diary, but that doesn’t keep it from being one of the best recent books on pre-Founding Fathers America.
The “wordy shipmates” in question are the Puritans, most particularly a section which set sail from England in 1630 to settle in what would eventually become Boston. Vowell looks beyond the stereotype, viewing them as an optimistic, highly literate people who gave America more than a reputation for sexual repression. Their desire to write and express thought would give precedent for the First Amendment, and their leader John Winthrop would advocate “a city upon a hill” and lay the groundwork for America’s centuries of self-importance.
Winthrop, the political head of the settlement, is one of the main characters Vowell plays along with: he is a compassionate authoritarian who ordered a man’s ears cut off, but postponed his exile until the harsh winter ended. He tried to keep his colony independent without agitating the English monarchy, but found himself up against personalities equally as forceful. On one hand was Roger Williams, a rabble-rouser who advocated separation of church and state to protect the church and whom Vowell sees as a perfect talk-show host in modern times. On the other was Anne Hutchinson, who challenged religious order and would have won all debates if she could only shut up for the closing statement.
Vowell’s books have been moving from essay collections to more cohesive history texts, and “The Wordy Shipmates” reflects this shift in style. There are no chapters or major separations between sections, and it focuses chiefly on analyzing documents such as Winthrop’s journals and Williams’ letters. It has the feel of a masters’ thesis, which is not a condemnation – Kurt Vonnegut earned a master’s in anthropology for “Cat’s Cradle” after all – but after the ambling pace of “Assassination Vacation” it’s certainly a shift to see Vowell spend most of her time in the library.
The literary fascination of the Puritans may have rubbed off a little too heavily on Vowell, but a more formal structure isn’t enough to silence her droll tone: she can recall enacting the fires of hell at Bible camp with puppets and flashlights and say how genuinely excited she was about a sitcom depicting the harsh winters Pilgrims had to endure. Fans of “Assassination Vacation” will be pleased to see she continues touring with her sister and niece, dragging them to Pilgrim reenactment villages and a museum neighboring an Indian casino.
And these examples get to the core of what makes Vowell’s writing such a treat: they’re accessible in a way no other history writer is. She weaves mass media into these historical actions, comparing the founding of Massachusetts to a Bugs Bunny cartoon and Winthrop’s feud with his deputy governor to a Nancy Drew mystery. Her analogies aren’t there to distract a reader but draw them in further, doing exactly what a teacher should do: make you understand the argument.
One passage in particular showcases her style, able to make a thesis statement in one sentence and convert it to pop culture in the next: “They personify what would become the fundamental conflict of American life – between public and private, between the body politic and the individual, between we the people and each person’s pursuit of happiness. At his city-on-a-hill best, Winthrop is Pete Seeger, gathering a generation around the campfire to sing their shared folk songs. Williams is Bob Dylan plugging in at Newport, making his own noise.”
It’s passages like that one that reaffirm Vowell’s position as the maven of American history, and that keep “The Wordy Shipmates” an accessible and amusing read. The more formal structure and occasionally thick text may offset fans of “Assassination Vacation,” but Vowell keeps it flowing with her trademark wit and a cast interesting enough to change anyone’s definition of “puritan.”