October 2, 2008

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The Wordy Shipmates, by Sarah Vowell, 2008, Riverhead Books, 254 pages.
By Amy Diaz news@hippopress.com
Sarah Vowell, regular contributor to the radio show This American Life, is an excellent dryly humorous commentator on modern life. But I think I like her even better as a dryly humorous scholar of American history.

Her Assassination Vacation was part travelogue of obscure American historical sites and part recounting of less-well-known moments of American presidential assassinations and their fallout. In The Wordy Shipmates, she looks at something even more obscure (especially if you’re not from this part of the country, where some of this stuff is local history): the early history of the Puritans in New England. And not so much the Squanto and Thanksgiving history of the Pilgrims, the one that we know from cartoons and, as Vowell says, from The Brady Bunch and other sitcoms that went back to the 1600s for an episode. It’s the slightly later migration, the one not of Separatists but of good (sort of) citizens of the British crown who had a charter to settle the Massachusetts Bay Colony and hoped to do so while maintaining a good relationship (with minimal interference) with old England, that she focuses on.

Vowell is a sucker for primary sources, so a lot of her descriptions of these early years comes from letters, books people wrote about their experiences, diary entries and court documents. She talks about how the society — the one that was meant, way before it became a favorite saying of Ronald Reagan’s, to be the “city upon a hill” that the rest of the (Christian, Protestant, really) world would look to as a way to live righteously — formed. And how “a city upon a hill” means a variety of things — not just a place that the world looks up to (more or less how it’s used now) but also a place that the world can see (a la “the whole world is watching” protest chant in 1968 or, more recently, Vowell’s example of the American torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib) and a place that is exposed to the hardships of life. In the case of the Puritans, that hardship included the extremely high mortality rate of the early years (particularly winters) in New England, the scarcity of food, the skirmishes with the Native Americans, the internal strife and the constant threat that the king of England might just decide to pull the rug of relative freedom out from under them. The “we must all hang together, gentlemen, or we will assuredly all hang separately” sentiment of Benjamin Franklin during the revolution was nothing new in the New World. Despite what we like to think of as our rugged individualism, community has always been a necessary part of our survival. Vowell’s discussion of this via the letters of these earlier New England residents is fascinating. Community can mean helping a neighbor have enough wood for the winter and it can mean killing off the tribe of Native Americans threatening expansion into the wilds of Connecticut. It can mean shared purpose of creating a way of life not bogged down by the trappings of the monarchy back home, and it can mean that dissenters to the groupthink on how to follow the lessons of the Bible are banished (which, Vowell explains, is how we got Rhode Island).

These discussions of the formation of early American thought are fascinating and even sort of soul-stirring. These are big ideas that this little band of what some considered religious nutters were dealing with. And from their quarrels and compromises come the seeds of our ideas about the separation of church and state, Manifest Destiny and the self-evident truth that all men are created equal. Vowell seems equally soul-stirred and her nerdy attention to nerdy detail is what makes all this dusty history such a delicious page turner. A — Amy Diaz