Monday, December 6, 2010

The Wordy Shipmates: In Defense of Puritan Roots*

Sarah Vowell is about as good a feature writer as anyone in journalism today. I have always enjoyed her essays for PBS’s This American Life, because she has a real knack for tying together history and modern culture. So when I was wandering through Pattee Library’s lovely new leisure reading room at the beginning of November and saw her latest book, The Wordy Shipmates, with its cute little Puritan (definitely not Pilgrim, but more on that later) dolls on the cover, I grabbed it off the easel on impulse for a light Thanksgiving read. Impulse books are always a bit of a risk, but this time I feel like I got pretty lucky.

At the heart of The Wordy Shipmates is John Winthrop’s sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” which was delivered just before his little band of true-believing Puritans lost patience with the slow pace of reforms in the Church of England, and decided they’d rather carve out an existence on a wild, snowy bog – a.k.a. Boston – than endure any more of Archbishop Laud’s “popery.” (Never mind that the Pope hadn’t done much more than ritually excommunicate Englishmen in more than a hundred years – these Calvinists knew “popery” when they saw it – or smelled it, if the incense was burning.) Vowell uses this sermon as a launching pad for discussions on a wide range of topics, including Pilgrim kitsch, separation of Church and State, the Reagan Revolution and women’s healing gardens.

Vowell’s TAL essays generally run the listener through a gamut of emotions, moving almost effortlessly from sadness to amusement to anxiety, and the book’s extended format allows her to develop her ideas at a slower pace than on radio. I found the results here mixed – some of the sidepieces didn’t hold together as well as others. In one of the truly moving portions of the book, Vowell explains how “A Model of Christian Charity” became the focus of her book:
I would never answer with the honest truth. Namely, that in the weeks after two planes crashed into two skyscrapers here on the worst day of our lives, I found comfort in the words of Winthrop. When we were mourning together, when we were suffering together, I often thought of what he said and finally understood what he meant. (page 52)
The juxtaposition of the long past and the recent past is striking, and Vowell does a great job of tracing and clarifying the country’s Puritan roots. She is also quick to point out how far the country has come from those roots, especially in terms of dissent, which in Puritan Massachusetts took the forms of Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson. Frankly, I will never be able to drive on the Hutchinson Parkway again without sticking my figurative tongue out at that big bully Winthrop!

This is a book with a focus on minutia – as Vowell herself points out, 17th century religion was based on tiny differences of interpretation. If you’re yearning to know why a Pilgrim isn’t a Puritan, this is your book. What was missing, to my mind, was the comic relief – and chapters. The comic relief would have thrown the historical and modern portions of the book into sharper contrast, I think. And chapters – well, they might have provided a bit more structure to the essay.

If you need some kind of linearity in your books, this one definitely isn’t for you! However, I’d absolutely recommend this book to history lovers and fans of This American Life. Also, to popular culture observers. It’s enjoyable, and factual without being heavy.

*Yes, this was supposed to be my Thanksgiving post. Didn't happen. Still a good book.

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