Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Wordy Shipmates, by Sarah Vowell

In The Wordy Shipmates (Riverhead, 2008) NPR commentator and humorist Sarah Vowell discusses the early history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritans. At first in the book she comes off like a stand-up comic. Her style is chatty, self-referential, replete with ironic quips, allusions to contemporary issues, and so on. This is not the prose one expects in a book about Puritans. It irritated me for the first chapter or so. But it grew on me. After a while Vowell's intelligent mind, along with the considerable research and reading and her deep understanding of and appreciation for her subject, won me over. She confesses to fascination with the Puritans and their era. At its best, in The Wordy Shipmates, her enthusiasm is infectious and highly informative.

The main actors in her story are John Winthrop, Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, and others. These are familiar names, but Vowell manages to uncover the human stories beneath the legends. Whatever one may say about the rebellious integrity of Hutchinson and Williams, in their resistance to the rigid Puritan faith, they were equally extreme and rigid. Winthrop himself was capable of duplicity as well as self-deception. Although he participated willingly in the hearings that led to William's expulsion from the Colony, they remained correspondents long after Williams' departure. Winthrop relied on Williams for information about the local Indians.

In her discussion of Winthrop's "city on the hill" sermon, Vowell examines Ronald Reagan's appropriation of the term. She believes that by the time of the Reagan administration the nation had lost the meaning of the phrase and that Reagan himself had no idea of its significance—in fact, she believes his administration epitomized the opposite of what it means.

Vowell's main criticism of the Puritans, aside from their fanatical rigidity about certain issues and principles, concerns their treatment of the Indians. She gives a disturbing account of the annihilation of the Pequot tribe. The Puritans may have loved one another and God, but when it came to the Indians they didn't hesitate to abuse, mistreat, and murder—the annihilation of many of the Pequot tribe, 300 in all, including children, in an event where they were all herded into a tent that was set afire (anyone who tried to escape was shot) is Vowell's main case in point. The Puritans never wavered in their determination to wipe out or at least subjugate the Indians. They believed they were God's chosen people, on a sacred mission to create a new settlement, Winthrop's fabled "city on a hill." Vowell suggests that their belief in their own special and unique calling infiltrated American culture and that it continues to influence American foreign policy and our treatment of other nations and peoples, especially ones who do not share our lifestyles and values. This notion is hardly new—Vowell is only the most recent among a long line of historians and commentators who have made the argument.

From an intellectual as well as entertainment perspective, The Wordy Shipmates is a satisfying book and as good a way as any for the average reader to learn about the early Puritans.

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