Thursday, October 16, 2008

a review of The Wordy Shipmates

The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

What do you think of when you think of the Puritans? Bucket hats, brass buckle shoes and Thanksgiving pageants? If so, Sarah Vowell thinks you are a bit confused. Well, that certainly wouldn't be a first for me!
Her book is not about those religious separatists that landed on Plymouth Rock, but rather the loyal British citizens who founded the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1630, a very different people. A very literate, principled group that would found the first college in what would become the United States, Harvard. An intellectual people obsessed with words and language, Greek and Latin and the classics and most of all by the Bible. Hence the title of the book, The ,Wordy Shipmates.

Also, beside correcting that misapprehension, Vowell wants to explore what their heritage has meant to us as a nation, especially the idea that their leader, Governor John Winthrop, discussed in his “A Model of Christian Charity”, the idea that they were to be “a city upon a hill”. She gives examples of how that idea was used, and in her estimation, was misused, to shape Americas' idea of herself and to justify her actions throughout history.
One example was in the words of John F. Kennedy in a speech to the Massachusetts legislature 11 days before his inauguration as president.
“Then he boils down the two phrases from “A Model of Christian Charity” that means the most to him: 'We must always consider, [Winthrop] said, that we shall be a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon is.'
I fall for those words every time I hear them, even though they're dangerous, even though they're arrogant, even though they're rude.”

Well, she falls for them when Kennedy delivers them, but is not so enamored of them when delivered by President Ronald Reagan in his famous “shining city upon a hill” references. She launches into a political polemic, somehow trying, I think not very successfully, to link this idea to everything from Iran Contra to Abu Ghraib, a political tirade that I found jarring. But then jarring is common in this book. There is certainly no chronological storyline here. Vowell jumps from 1630 to the present...not surprisingly she is not fond of President Bush either...then back again, with little side trip to various pop culture references and field trips with her nephew, in a way that I found particularity confusing to the overall idea of the book.

Vowell herself seems conflicted by this very 'city on the hill' idea. On the one hand she sees it, as I quoted, as dangerous and arrogant, the idea of the Puritans that they, and by her logic we today, feel that we are a superior people, chosen by God to lead, a “beacon of righteousness that all others are to admire”. Their strict Calvinist theology led them to believe that they were predestined to be superior, certainly to the Native Americans, who they saw as waiting on the shore for the Puritan's help when they arrived.
'God Almighty in His most holy and wise providence, hath so disposed of the condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity; some mean and in subjection.'

I bet you can figure out who the Puritans thought went in which group.

But then, as Vowell acknowledges, these ideas are totally at odds with the ideas of the Founding Fathers less than 150 years later, the ideas contained in the Declaration of Independence, in the Constitution, in the Bill of the very idea of the American Dream.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

More than that, I think there is a problem with her basic premise that America thinks of itself in some way as a Puritan nation. The very ideals the country was founded on were at odds with the strict predestination theology of the Massachusetts Bay colony. Then the history of Massachusetts itself, while important in America, was certainly not the only intellectual influence, even at the beginning of our nation. And that is not to even mention the hundreds of years of huge immigrations to our country from all over the world, bringing a breath of cultural and religious and intellectual ideals that the Puritans could not even have imagined. I can assure you that my Irish Catholic ancestors would not have been welcome in their vision of that city on the hill, since the Puritan's pet name for the Pope was the Great Whore of Babylon and they were a people, as Vowell says “who rarely agreed on anything except that Catholics are going to hell”.

So, at times an amusing book, that certainly left me with an increased knowledge about the Puritans and the founding of Massachusetts but also a bit of a confusing and overblown jumble, with a premise that just didn't hold up.


  1. Thanks for the review. I think I'll skip this one.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I do have to remember to sign in to the right account before I post....aaarrrggghhhhh

    No, I can't recommend it.

    But, you know I read good things about Vowell's other books, and a fair number seem to think that this is not her best, so I can see giving her another try with a different book.
    Maybe with a subject I found a bit more interesting.

  4. I started this about 2 weeks ago and am only about 80 pages in. It's not really doing it for me either, I'm planning on finishing it, it just hasn't happened yet. I was really looking forward to reading something by her and am thinking maybe Assassination Vacation would be more enjoyable for me.

  5. As usual, I am happy to know I am not alone in my opinion, since most of the reviews I have read since I wrote this are way more positive than I was. Oh well... ;-)

    But yes, Assassination Vacation sounds promising.

  6. I think i was hoping this book would awaken some sort of passion for history... :(

  7. It's a good premise, to popularize history and throw in some humor.
    If it worked.

  8. Maybe you already have to be interested in history to really enjoy it? I think she was criticizing Reagan for harping on the "city on a hill" image when he did the complete opposite of that ideal, whereas Kennedy only used the phrase once, if I'm remembering correctly.

    Or maybe I just agree with her. I do find our country to be somewhat Puritan, at least in comparison with Europe, at present the only other place I've been. More religious and more repressed - in my opinion, anyway.

    Glad you made me think about why I liked it, though! Thanks. I like when people disagree with me.

  9. Neo-Puritan site; please visiteth us and commenteth.

    John Lofton, Editor
    Recovering Republican

  10. Well, I am interested in history...I was a history major in least for a couple of years. But I thought the point of her writing were more to grab people who are not that interested in history.

    And I think it is not so much that I don't agree with her, as that she didn't agree with herself.
    With Kennedy, she says that the whole city on the hill idea was what got us into Vietnam...and yet she let's him slide on that...I guess because she likes him.

    You are right Meghan, to each their own! ;-)


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