The Wordy Shipmates

Sarah Vowell offers her witty take on the Puritans who settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630.

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Sarah Vowell, a popular contributor to public radio’s “This American Life,” is an American-history buff with a self-proclaimed predilection for Puritan New England, the Civil War, and bloodbaths. Hers is emphatically not the history taught in high school – often a target of her sarcastic wit.

Her last book, “Assassination Vacation,” chronicled a quirky road trip stalking the murder sites – now tourist pit stops – of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley.

Vowell is a master of the unexpected angle or pop-culture connection used to confer fresh relevance on often dowdy subjects.

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In her new book, The Wordy Shipmates, one of her more outrageous parallels compares the Pequot war, in which 700 Indians were murdered in Mystic Fort, with a frustrated skateboarder’s “destructive tantrum.”

Vowell’s eponymous shipmates are the Puritans who settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 – 10 years after the  Mayflower Pilgrims settled Plymouth.

Why should we be interested in Protestants who fled Charles I during the Great Migration? Because “the country I live in is haunted by the Puritans’ vision of themselves as God’s chosen people, as a beacon of righteousness that all others are to admire,” Vowell writes.

What Vowell finds worrisome is that we have lost the Puritans’ humility and fear of God, which kept their egotism and delusions of grandeur in check.  Even more troubling, we have also lost their respect for learning.  Vowell asserts that the United States has veered away from the original bookishness of the Bay Colony in favor of the anti-intellectual, more emotional religion now practiced in America.

She writes, “The United States is often called a Puritan nation.  Well, here is one way in which it emphatically is not: Puritan lives were overwhelmingly, fantastically literary.  Their singleminded obsession with one book, the Bible, made words the center of their lives – not land, not money, not power, not fun. I swear on Peter Stuyvesant’s peg leg that the country that became the U.S. bears a closer family resemblance to the devil-may-care merchants of New Amsterdam than it does to Boston’s communitarian English majors.”

How did this happen? Relying on the voluminous paper trail left by the “quill-crazy New Englanders,” “The Wordy Shipmates” traces the “microscopic theological differences” among the Massachusetts Bay Colonists that led to “a dangerous disregard for expertise” in American society today.

Vowell’s fundamental concern in teasing out these nitpicky squabbles, as it has been in much of her writing, is what she characterized in her 2002 essay collection “The Partly Cloudy Patriot” as “the conflict between freedom and community, between individual will and the public good.”

No slouch in the verbiage department herself, Vowell spills much ink articulating both her admiration and approbation for such early Bay colonists as John Winthrop, Roger Williams, Henry Vane, and Anne Hutchinson.

She waxes ecstatic over Winthrop’s sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” with its model of a “city on the hill” (to which Ronald Reagan added the adjective “shining”).

All glibness dropped, she confesses movingly that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, she found comfort in Winthrop’s words.

Roger Williams, whom Winthrop banished to Providence, is described as “too theologically intense” even for Massachusetts Bay. He’s “a sort of proto-Thomas Jefferson” or better, an “un-Jefferson, a man who devotes his life to keeping government out of the church – not the other way around,” a proponent of the First Amendment 156 years before it was ratified.

Vowell declares him “hard to like, but easy to love,” and adds, hilariously, “I just feel sorry for him that he lived in an age before air quotes.”

Fair warning: Lacking chapter divisions and filled with arcane, hairsplitting religious distinctions, “The Wordy Shipmates” is, despite Vowell’s lively, insightful prose, heavier navigating than her more personal essay collections.

That said, it is also a painfully relevant book, a passionate secularist’s argument for why the fine print matters.

As Vowell reminds us in her discussion of the Rev. John Cotton’s 1630 send-off sermon to the Puritans, “[T]alk like this is the match still lighting the fuse of a thousand car bombs.”

Heller McAlpin, a freelance critic in New York, is a regular contributor to the Monitor’s Book pages.

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