Book Review: The Wordy Shipmates


Sarah Vowell is an acquired taste and it’s taken me some to appreciate her, especially her nasal voice and deadpan delivery.  Which makes it all the more odd why I chose to listen to The Wordy Shipmates (2008) as an audiobook read by the author, but I did.  And it was great!

Vowell and I share in common a fascination with colonial history, especially that which took place between the big events like Plymouth Rock and the Salem Witch Trials.  As Vowell details early on in this book the typical American’s understanding of the Puritans is informed by television sitcoms (and before that popular culture such as the poems of Longfellow).  The referencing of popular culture and topical events by way of analogy is a rhetorical device Vowell uses throughout the book which can be irritating but is often illuminating.  Make no mistake, while The Wordy Shipmates is often humorous is also thoroughly researched of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th century and a serious effort of seperating Puritan myth from fact.

For one thing, people like to describe contemporary America as a Puritan nation, primarily due to our squeamishness when it comes to sexuality or the popularity of fundamentalist religion.  Vowell points out that there are commonalities with our Puritan forebearers in the idea of American exceptionalism or the nation’s many misguided attempts to spread the American way around the world in the spirit of the Massachusetts Bay Seal with the Indian pleading “Come over and help us!”  On the other hand Vowell contends that contemporary Americans do not see the need for the intellectual rigor to write diaries, speeches, sermons, pamphlets and books – the wordiness of the title – the way the ordinary Puritan did in the 17th century or their New England descendants continued to practice into the 1900’s.  I do believe I’ve read that there are more bloggers in New England than any other region, so  perhaps I’m part of keeping this wordy tradition alive.

One fascinating essay examines Massachusetts Bay Colony’s leader and early governor John Winthrop’s A Modell of Christian Charity which includes the oft-quoted phrase a “citty upon a hill.” Vowell explicates the sermon and discusses how it’s been misunderstood and misappropriated ever since.  Ronald Reagan frequently cited it, always as a “shining city on the hill” in speeches such as his farewell address, while Mario Cuomo countered with a 1984 DNC keynote speech “A Tale of Two Cities.” From Vowell’s reading of Winthrop’s sermon she explains how Reagan, Cuomo, and many others all get it wrong by missing the central message of community that were it proposed today would be seen by some as socialism.

Much of the book focuses on Winthrop, the upstart Roger Williams, and the positively rebellious Anne Hutchinson.  Through them and other stories the reader learns of the differences between Seperatist and Puritan, theological pamphlet wars, and more bloody wars with the Pequot.  I’m going to say that this book is not for everyone as I’d expect both the experienced historian and the novice will be put off by Vowell’s approach, but to those of us in-between I think this is a worthwhile read for understanding the complexity of the Puritans and their legacy.

A couple of other reviews:

Title The Wordy Shipmates
Author Sarah Vowell
Publication Riverhead Hardcover (2008), Hardcover, 272 pages
Publication date 2008
ISBN 1594489998 / 9781594489990

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