In Print : History, present tense
The Wordy Shipmates, by Sarah Vowell, Riverhead Press, 2008, 254 pgs. $25.95.
"The only thing more dangerous than an idea is a belief. And by dangerous I don't mean thought-provoking. I mean: might get people killed." So begins Sarah Vowell's irreverent, sometimes comic, sometimes pedantic, popular look at a slice of very important American history, the early years of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The book also touches on Plymouth and the earliest years of what was to become Rhode Island.
While not a groundbreaking study, "The Wordy Shipmates" dives deeply into the wordiness of our forefathers - few of the women wrote much - to present an overview of events that are at the core of our Puritan heritage. Some of the early American settlers wrote volumes, mostly in the form of letters, sermons, and journals, which Ms. Vowell mines to paint a picture of cold political decision-making with a few soft touches.
Ms. Vowell is a Minnesotan, small part Cherokee, large part ex-Pentecostal, who has made a name for herself as a contributing editor and sometime social commentator for National Public Radio's "This American Life." A humorist, she is the author of five books, including "Assassination Vacation" and "The Partly Cloudy Patriot." She is the voice of Violet in the animated film "The Incredibles."
Her approach to historical writing occasionally incorporates zooming forward in time to visit (often with her sister and nephew) the locations of the history she writes about. It is a technique used by a number of modern historical popularizers, such as the Vineyard's own Tony Horwitz. She uses her ready wit and mastery of things modern and kitsch to riff on the effects of the early colonists' decisions and actions. After seeing a design inspired by an old piece of Shantok cookware at the Mohegan Sun Casino, Ms. Vowell wonders whether "four hundred years from now my nonstick frying pan will be made into a colossal sculpture for gamblers to admire."
Ms. Vowell is often humorous and sometimes downright funny as she passes judgment on our historical forefathers through her modern, feminist, liberal eyes. She is absolutely free of that sometimes-annoying attempt to moderate one's own biases. You know where she stands, yet it doesn't seem to cloud her ability to reach the core of the issues she writes about. Ms. Vowell says about herself: "She is an American whose only religion is the freedom of religion." She believes that, "One of the main points of Calvinism is to be absolutely uncomfortable and itchy and sickened in one's skin."
She uses the voluminous writings of John Winthrop and Roger Williams as her principle sources. Other historic figures who play major roles in her narrative are John Cotton, John Underhill, and Anne Hutchinson, "One of the brainiest English women of the seventeenth century..." whose "thoughts and deeds have been passed down to us solely through the writings of white men who pretty much hate her guts."
The politics of religious freedom in the context of religious pedantry and intolerance is a recurring theme. Williams and Hutchinson are both banished to the hinterlands of the Narragansett Bay for practicing their own forms of religious intolerance. Others are returned to England, pilloried or worse.
She fills the pages with a seemingly endless list of interesting facts about the founding and early growth of Boston ("the city on the hill"), Plymouth, and Rhode Island. Her descriptions of the politics behind the interactions with the native populations reveal the variety of the sometimes friendly and respectful but more often destructive and ultimately genocidal nature of their contact.
Ms. Vowell's writing is smooth and well-paced, although there were times when I was not sure if I was hearing the historian Vowell or the pundit Vowell. Difficult to put down, "The Wordy Shipmates," is a perfect read for a cold winter weekend.