Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Wordy Shipmates, by Sarah Vowell

(hb; 2008: non-fiction)

From the inside flap:

"To this day America views itself as a Puritan nation, but Vowell investigates what that means -- and what it should mean. What was this great political enterprise all about? Who were these people who are considered the philosophical, spiritual, and moral ancestors of our nation? What Vowell discovers is something far different from what their uptight shoe-buckles-and-corn reputation might suggest. The people she finds are highly literate, deeply principled, and surprisingly feisty. Their story is filled with pamphlet feuds, witty courtroom dramas, and bloody vengeance. Along the way she asks:

"Was Massachussetts Bay Colony governor John Winthrop a communitarian, a Christ-like Christian, or conformity's tyrannical enforcer? Answer: Yes!

"Was Rhode Island's architect, Roger Williams, America's founding freak or the father of the First Amendment? Same difference.

"What does it take to get that jezebel Anne Hutchinson to shut up? A hatchet.

"What was the Puritans' pet name for the Pope? The Great Whore of Babylon.

"Sarah Vowell's special brand of armchair history makes the bizarre and esoteric fascinatingly relevant and fun. She takes us from the modern-day reenactment of an Indian massacre to the Mohegan Sun casino, from the old-timey Puritan poetry, where 'righteousness' is rhymed with 'wilderness,' to a Mayflower-themed waterslide... Thou shalt enjoy it."


In The Wordy Shipmates, Vowell focuses her observations on "those Puritans who fall between the cracks of 1620 Plymouth and 1692 Salem, the ones who settled the Massachussetts Bay Colony and then Rhode Island during what came to be called the Great Migration. (Between 1629, when King Charles I dissolves the Puritan-friendly English Parliament, and 1640, when the English Civil War begins and the Puritans under Oliver Cromwell eventually behead Charles and run the country, more than 20,000 English men, women and children settled in New England.)"

When I use the word "focus" I really mean focus. Vowell trims back her trademark snarkiness a bit, to show readers the intensity of the bickering, the bloody wars, the secret reconciliations, and social manueverings of key, influential individuals (Winthrop, Williams, Hutchinson, etc.) whose strong personalities and actions shaped the United States into what it is today.

Vowell's writing, thick with events, personalities and their long-term consequences, educates, amuses, alarms and astounds.

Excellent read, this: it's heavier, stylistically and subject-wise, than The Partly Cloudy Patriot and Assassination Vacation.

Check it out.

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