October 7th, 2008 at 1:29 am

The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

Not to be confused with Infamous Scribblers, The Wordy Shipmates is Sarah Vowell’s latest book. Like her previous work Assassination Vacation, The Wordy Shipmates is a survey of specific historical times in the past portrayed with deliberate intentions of highlighting said peculiar time and place’s ramifications on our own peculiar present.

With The Wordy Shipmates, Vowell examines the settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the eventual founders of Boston. And with her usual pluck, wit, and searing intelligence, the bizarre antics of those weird ancestors of ours who bored us in history class come alive with surprising relevance.

Vowell tells us that, “The most important reason I am concentrating on [John] Winthrop and his shipmates in the 1630s is that the country I live in is haunted by the Puritans’ vision of themselves as God’s chosen people, as a beacon of righteousness that all others are to admire.”

Sound familiar? Reagan? Bush? McCain? Palin? There’s such a fine line between inspiration and plagiarism. And clever and stupid.

Vowell further explains that, “It’s worth revisiting New England’s Puritans because they are our medieval people. The most storied way to get from the castle moat of monarchy to the polluted shoreline of this here republic is on their dank little ships.”

We got to this “polluted” shoreline on “dank little ships?” What’s she going to tell us next, that we descended from monkeys?

While Vowell takes a less prominent role as a character in The Wordy Shipmates than she played to much entertainment in Assassination Vacation, she still delivers with her usual pop culture references:

“Talking about Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity” without discussing Ronald Reagan would be like mentioning Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” and pretending Whitney Houston doesn’t exist.”

“Threatening to take away a Puritan magistrate’s right to punish is like yanking the trumpet out of Louis Armstrong’s hands.”

“As I write this, the United States of America is still a city on a hill, and it’s still shining – because we never turn off the lights in our torture prisons. That’s how we carry out the sleep deprivation.”

In addition to her dry sense of humor, pop cultural references, and impressive ability to start at the Massachusetts Bay Colony and arrive at Abu Ghraib, there is also her typical visits to museums, historical societies, state archives, cemeteries, parks, and government buildings. There is also her usual sarcasm, railing against “annoying scholars” and their “painstaking hard work” in order to obtain “truth,” and describing the Mayflower replica as a “claustrophobic floating vomitorium.”

Like a good novelist, Vowell outlines the rhetoric and behavior of the main characters in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and their early years of struggles, in fighting, Indian fighting (especially the Pequot War), and the Anne Hutchinson controversy. Vowell follows early American Protestantism to its current manifestation as our Bible Belt. Vowell traces the words and ideals of Reaganism from the Puritans, correlating the contradiction and hypocrisy we’re familiar with to these founder’s lofty, positive diction taken from the bible as precedent for our current State/state.

But there’s not enough Vowell. She takes a back seat to allow for ‘this happened’ and ‘then this happened’ and to quote from diaries and it’s all a bit boring and tiresome to read after a while. Oh my god, I thought I was back in that boring history class for a few pages! The focus is scattered and seriously lacking in Vowell’s talent in simply summarizing things and making them humorously relevant to our modern dilemmas.

Evidence of this, the absolute strongest elements of the book are those that spring from the personal: “On the other hand, Protestantism’s shedding away of authority, as evidenced by my mother’s proclamation that I needn’t go to church or listen to a preacher to achieve salvation, inspires self-reliance – along with a dangerous disregard for expertise. So the impulse that leads to democracy can also be the downside of democracy – namely, a suspicion of people who know what they are talking about. It’s why in U.S. presidential elections the American people will elect a wisecracking good ol’ boy who’s fun in a malt shop instead of a serious thinker who actually knows some of the pompous, brainy stuff that might actually get fewer people killed.”

That’s a good point. Sarah Palin sure would be fun in a malt shop! I even bet they still have malt shops in Alaska.

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  1. God, I love reading the New Yorker at a malt shop – talking loudly, to anyone who will listen, about Sarah Vowell’s latest literary efforts!

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