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Review: Vowell's 'Wordy Shipmates' proves an entertaining meditation

Think fast: Can you name a memorable quotation from one of the Pilgrims? No? Well, how about the Puritans? If these questions give you pause, then you are exactly the audience Sarah Vowell seeks for The Wordy Shipmates, her charming rumination on our nation's early settlers.

You may have heard of (and heard) Vowell: She's the droll, reedy-voiced commentator on the radio show This American Life, channeling the morbid irony of Wednesday Addams and the brainy geekiness of Marcie from Peanuts.

Vowell has a thing for history — her previous book, Assassination Vacation, documented her visits to historical sites associated with presidential murders. But she dunks her history lessons in a sugary coating of Generation X pop culture references, making them go down easy. In The Wordy Shipmates, for example, she dissects an episode of The Brady Bunch in which Greg makes a movie about the Pilgrims.

This is not to disparage the book's nutritious content. For one thing, you will never again confuse the nuances of Pilgrims and Puritans. The Pilgrims were religious separatists who arrived at Plymouth Rock in 1620, making a clean break from the Church of England, which they saw as rife with pageantry and idolatry. The Puritans that Vowell writes about settled in Massachusetts, and they were reformers, not separatists. They wanted to improve on mother country and church, taking away the unneeded trappings.

"Maybe it's because I live in a world crawling with separatists that I find religious zealots with a tiny bit of wishy-washy, pussy-footing compromise in them deeply attractive," Vowell writes.

She looks closely at the Puritan governor, John Winthrop, author of the famous sermon "A Model of Christian Charity," better known as "The City on the Hill," in which Winthrop articulated the Puritans' vision of themselves "as God's chosen people, as a beacon of righteousness that all others are to admire," according to Vowell.

That sentiment was displayed on the official seal of Winthrop's Massachusetts Bay Colony, which showed an Indian in a loincloth with a word balloon coming out of his mouth, saying "Come over and help us." ("That is really what it says," Vowell informs us.) Vowell sees that attitude traveling though history to the Vietnam War, Ronald Reagan's Cold War, and — you knew it was coming — George W. Bush's war in Iraq.

The problem, in Vowell's view, is that we moderns have lost the Puritans' humility. Their self-loathing and fear of eternal damnation functioned as a powerful check on Puritan arrogance. Their religious beliefs led them to create a colony cemented by bonds of love and community.

Vowell recognizes that poignancy, but she doesn't idealize it. A descendant of Cherokee Indians herself, Vowell provides a particularly blunt assessment of Puritan and Indian interaction in the Pequot War, saying there's no one to root for in the whole mess. "Well," she amends, "one could root for Pequot babies not to be burned alive, but I wouldn't get my hopes up."

One of the keenest pleasures of The Wordy Shipmates is Vowell's ability to hold in her head at once contradictory ideas about America's history and present. On the recent atrocity at Abu Ghraib, where American soldiers tortured Iraqi prisoners of war by denigrating Islam, Vowell points to a speech by Al Gore, who cited the abuses as particularly offensive to the Puritan ideals of American exceptionalism and religious freedom.

"I can't really fault Gore for saying that what happened at Abu Ghraib is sickening," Vowell writes. "Not only because it's just plain sickening, but because America is supposed to be better than that. No: best. I hate to admit it, but I still believe that, too. Because 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. And I don't even believe in God!"

Of all the contemporary political figures Vowell writes about, one name is strikingly absent: Barack Obama. It's understandable, given that her book was published right before the election. But it's tempting to peg Vowell's book as part of a resurgent liberal patriotism. Her version is cranky and ironic on the surface, but earnest and idealistic at the core, with a devotion to constitutional rights.

Vowell would probably reject a theory that reflects too much uplift: "The amateur historian's next stop after Boy, people used to be so stupid is People: still stupid. I could look at that realization as a woeful lack of human progress. But I choose to find it reassuring."

Angie Drobnic Holan can be reached at

The Wordy Shipmates

By Sarah


Riverhead, 272 pages, $25.95

Review: Vowell's 'Wordy Shipmates' proves an entertaining meditation 12/13/08 [Last modified: Thursday, November 4, 2010 11:50am]
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