Monday, March 9, 2009

The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

As an undergrad majoring in history, I took a class called American Ideas. In the class we explored the ideas upon which the United States was established. As you can imagine, much of the class focused on Puritan ideology. But the end of the quarter we had made our way to some of the writings of the Founding Fathers. But even they were heavily influenced by the early colonists. The Puritans were a bizarre and interesting bunch, but no one can doubt the effect that they had on what would ultimately become the United States.

As Vowell points out, most Americans have a passing knowledge of the Puritans because of grade school Thanksgiving Day pageants, The Scarlett Letter, and the witch hunts that took place in Salem. Of course, Vowell rightly argues that this limited exposure paints an inaccurate picture of Puritan society. The Wordy Shipmates is about a specific group of Puritans. As Vowell says, it is about "those Puritans who fall between the cracks of 1620 Plymouth and 1692 Salem." She is referring to the the Puritans of the Massachusetts bay Colony and later those of Rhode Island.

I have always liked Sarah Vowell. The first time I heard of her was years ago on Conan. She was a guest (a last minute fill in, no doubt) and all they talked about was how cool Abraham Lincoln was. At the end of the interview Conan asked her if she had anything to plug, and she replied that she really didn't. So Conan mentioned that she was a regular contributor to NPR's The American Life and was the author several books. I read Take the Canoli a few weeks later. Last year I read Assassination Vacation. I am drawn to the quirky darkness in Vowell's writing. She is also a history nerd, which is cool.

While The Wordy Shipmates has the same slightly-skewed take on American history as Vowell's other works, it lacked any real structure. The book was loosely organized around the aforementioned group of Puritans, focusing heavily on John Winthrop. But this allows for a wide variety of topics: Puritan ideas of justice and punishment, Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, etc. Vowells jumps from one topic to the next, making much of the book feel disjointed. This could probably be blamed on the lack of chapters and the headings that usually come with them. I'm not sure what made Vowell choose to structure here book in this way, but I found it a little disorienting. However, this did not stop me from enjoying the book and actually learning quite a few things that I either didn't know who had forgotten about. Overall, The Wordy Shipmates was worth the read.

1 comment:

Nathan said...

Take the Cannoli was great. My family settled in Roxbury, Massachusetts in 1630. Crazy.