The Wordy Shipmates


Sarah Vowell, Riverhead Books, 2008

If you’ve ever wondered why history books are so dry and devoid of passion or plot when today’s headlines and political disasters are so full of them, a little Sarah Vowell will do you good. She starts with John Cotton’s 1630 sermon “God’s Promise to His Plantation,” delivered as he is about to depart for the New World from England on the Arbella with Governor John Winthrop.

Throughout, historical fact is presented with a writer’s voice to amuse, enlighten, or anger a reader, depending on religious and political beliefs. If you believe that the country’s founding fathers were above reproach, or that religious freedom was practiced, don’t read it. If the nostalgia of Puritan self-sufficiency, and glories of life’s simplicity in the 1600s is your fancy, don’t read it. If you’ve always wondered why the founding fathers always sounded saint-like and women were never mentioned, well, lap it up. Vowell has a strong voice and she is a wrecking ball to the seldom questioned view of this country’s early history of modest bravery and spiritually enlightened goodness.

Several times she postulates and shows evidence. First with Cotton’s speech that, like King David leading his people, promises them a new home. The promise neglects to mention the easily justified slaughter of the Indian inhabitants of Massachusetts Bay. The intrigue and wars that resulted in the unbelievably cruel slaughter of the Pequot people were not in your school board approved history books; nor can you think about it while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

Vowell is interesting when she sniffs around beliefs we have as a country and wonders why or how that belief came to be. She ties Governor Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity,” to our desire to see ourselves as a “shining city on a hill,” where all have opportunity and are protected. Then she gives her evidence of the difference between what we believe and what we do. Winthrop used the vision to pursue any destruction necessary to gain a home for his followers. Vowell points out the similarity with Reagan’s use of the phrase that overlooked his ignoring AIDS, cutting school lunch programs and funds to Department of Housing and Urban Development, while increasing military spending.

And then there’s religion and women. Oh, my. Can you name the early religious leader who wrote to Jesus, “Let Him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth,” but the most he could muster for his wife was a promise of himself as cheerful? Can you name the woman now credited with beginning the inner voice religions that eventually resulted in the current conservative right, yet she was banished with her husband and sixteen children due to her heretical beliefs?

Readers may not like how Vowell lays her argument in her bantering style, but they will have a hard time refuting the facts. Answers to pop quiz: Preacher Roger Williams, a founder of Rhode Island, wrote the love letter to Jesus that gets steamier still. The banished woman was also a founder of Rhode Island, though that was only recognized in the last century. At the time, her husband signed the charter to represent the family, but it was Anne Hutchinson who believed in the power of the inner voice, over the voice of man.

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2 Responses to The Wordy Shipmates

  1. Outlier Babe says:

    How could I not like this, with my own History post riffing snidely off it : ) ? Your more serious post does a nice job of pointing out some aspects mine didn’t even touch.

    • Well, like the old saying, we all read a different book even when it’s the same one. I’m going to look yours up! I enjoy Vowell, but I understand why not everyone does. Thanks for coming by and commenting.

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