by Meg White
In the strangely nasal, conversational voice many fans have grown to love on National Public Radio’s This American Life, Sarah Vowell dissects all that is and was America. In her fifth book, you can almost hear that voice, as Vowell shows no signs of toning down her irreverent take on American history. In The Wordy Shipmates, she takes on one of the most revered and mythologized groups in American history: pilgrims and their first governor, John Winthrop.
Vowell is, for lack of a better term, a “punk rock historian.” Not in that she chronicles counter-culture music in the recent decades (though she does call John Winthrop’s 1630 speech ‘A Model of Christian Charity’ being performed at the same event as John Cotton’s ‘God’s Promise to His Plantation’ “the Puritan double bill equivalent of this one time in Dublin I saw the Breeders open for Nirvana”). No, Vowell is a historian of the punk rock ethos, in that she questions authority with humorous self-deprecation and a deep knowledge of roots, both hers and her country’s.
Vowell narrows the scope of the book to concentrate on the triumphs, follies, and foibles of an early leader of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop. Winthrop is probably best known for his exhortation that what will eventually become Boston be “as a city on a hill.” Vowell thoughtfully pieces together how Winthrop’s call to self-sacrifice and communal living evolved into today’s United States.
There’s a lot of history between Winthrop’s and Ronald Reagan’s cities on the hill, and Vowell explains it all with a humor and style that is all her own. She draws lines through our history, connecting a 1637 Massachusetts Bay court order to the 1903 Anarchist Exclusion Act to the 2001 Patriot Act, noting each “exposes a people’s deepest fears.”
Despite her passionately opinionated nature, Vowell clearly sees shades of gray in dissecting our nation’s past. She judiciously sees the good and bad of historical figures, some of whom have been so thoroughly analyzed and described by other historians, that not siding with conventional wisdom about them is a feat in and of itself.
Vowell achieved this by making her own inquiries, a journey on which she allows readers to tag along. Diving into first-hand research with Vowell is at times a heart-wrenching experience, as she brings her own passionate reactions to centuries-old texts as well as modern memorials. She takes readers through the emotions of going to the Massachusetts Historical Society to read John Winthrop’s actual journal as well as East Coast tourist traps that recreate seventeenth century Plymouth.
Aside from the passion and research, Vowell is uproariously funny. Her humor is at its best when pointing out the pitfalls of melodrama. Talking about Roger Williams, the wacky theologian kicked out of the Massachusetts Bay colony for his differing views on Christianity, Vowell laments “that he lived in an age before air quotes; maybe he would have calmed down about the use of ‘Christendom’ if he could make sarcastic hand gestures every time he heard or said it.”
Vowell was born in Oklahoma and has both Cherokee and Seminole roots. Both Native American and modern Midwesterner, Vowell is an admirable patriot. While she struggles with the same question the pilgrims did when they left their homeland of England, it’s clear Vowell is not a believer in the “love it or leave it” tradition of American citizenship, all jokes about the next train to Montreal aside.
“…even though my head tells me that the idea that America was chosen by God as His righteous city on a hill is ridiculous, my heart still buys into it,” Vowell writes. She continues:
“From New England’s Puritans we inherited the idea that America is blessed and ordained by God above all nations, but lost the fear of wrath and retribution.
The eyes of all people are upon us. And all they see is a mash-up of naked prisoners and an American girl in fatigues standing there giving a thumbs-up. As I write this, the United States of America is still a city on a hill, and it’s still shining — because we never turn off the lights in our torture prisons. That’s how we carry out the sleep deprivation.”
Vowell reminds us of the importance of knowing our country’s roots, noting the fight for religious freedom led to political democratization. Yet she also reminds us what democracy can lead to:
“So the impulse that leads to democracy can also be the downside of democracy — namely, a suspicion of people who know what they are talking about. It’s why in U.S. presidential elections the American people will elect a wisecracking good ol’ boy who’s fun in a malt shop instead of a serious thinker who actually knows some of the pompous, brainy stuff that might actually get fewer people killed.”
At first, the book seems perfect for a disillusioned history major who’s just switched to something like philosophy with an interpretive dance minor. However, it’s also more than imaginable that even the crotchetiest historian would be touched by Vowell’s passionate respect for the past and for records of all kinds. History buffs aside, this book will be enjoyed by feminists, skateboarders, atheists, Canadians, adventurers, poets, progressives, and countless others.
Vowell is inclusive, making The Wordy Shipmates accessible to those of us whose knowledge of our Puritanical roots extend no further than The Crucible and Thanksgiving specials on our favorite sit com. She herself describes her third grade reaction to the Happy Days’ Thanksgiving show with a sudden realization of “Oh. Maybe the people who founded this country were kind of crazy.” She then describes her evolution to historian thusly: “the amateur historian’s next stop after Boy, people used to be so stupid is People: still stupid.”
Perhaps the greatest service Vowell performs in the book is one of urban translator. For example, the church’s edict allowing a member to “ask a question publicly, after a sermon, for information; yet this ought to be very wisely and sparingly done,” is disambiguated by Vowell as “no heckling the ministers allowed.” She also does her fair share of explaining long-lost cultural norms, such as “severed body parts being the seventeenth-century equivalent of a gift basket of mini-muffins.”
More than mere translation, however, Vowell connects what is the much-obscured history of the foundation of this country to modern American ideals. And she tells us where conventional wisdom and pop culture get it wrong, revealing the seemingly chaste and illiterate Pilgrims to be passionate lovers of both literature and sex.
In this funny and pithy text, Sarah Vowell tells the story all Americans should — but rarely do — know about our own history and what it means for our present and future as a nation.
Sarah Vowell wrote Assassination Vacation, The Partly Cloudy Patriot, Take the Cannoli, and Radio On, and is a contributing editor on National Public Radio’s This American Life.