June 10, 2011

Book Review: The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

One of my co-workers described Sarah Vowell as "The history teacher you wish you had." He was right; she's witty and sarcastic and somehow manages to make the 1600's incredibly relevant to the current political climate. The Wordy Shipmates tells of the founding of Boston by the Puritans led by John Winthrop. Other important historical figures make an appearance, including Roger Williams, Oliver Cromwell, and Anne Hutchinson. Vowell follows Winthrop closely, quoting his letters and journals as he attempts to bring to fruition his biblical vision of the 'city upon a hill'.

Winthrop, as Vowell presents him, is alternately idealistic and tyrannical. On the voyage to the New World he spouts out a much-quoted sermon, 'A Model of Christian Charity', which outlines his dream that his people will
[...]rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body" [51].
Based on that quote alone, he seems like a hopeful, upstanding guy, right? Vowell's writing about Winthrop is excellent; she describes her admiration for his ideals and his courage (he sailed across the ocean to a largely inhospitable place, all the while preaching to his shipmates about metaphorical shipwrecks of the soul, a literal occurence that must have terrified him). Vowell also details Winthrop's downsides, such as the fact that the citizens of Boston thought he was soft on crime, which in 17th century New England meant that when he cut off a miscreant's ears and banished him from the colony, he showed too much mercy in letting the newly-earless man hang around until winter was over. Winthrop justified this by saying that the man was sentenced to banishment, not death, and that being forced out into the blizzardy wilderness would have been akin to execution.

Winthrop did crack down on crime as Boston flourished, and nowhere is this more clear than in the case of Anne Hutchinson. Was she a forward-thinking woman who, in between birthing enough children for a baseball team, gave rise to a new religious movement? Or was she a mouthy witch who consorted with the devil and buried monstrous children in the dead of night? Vowell describes the whole Hutchinson debacle with both wit and fury, pointing out how much smarter Hutchinson was than her male judges (Winthrop included) and the fact that Harvard was founded partially to give young men a place to study that would not be influenced by the opinions of jezebels like Anne. Near the end of The Wordy Shipmates, Vowell describes the way Winthrop might see present-day Boston. She speculates that he would be furious that the only two statues of 17th-century Bostonians depict women: Mary Dyer and Anne Hutchinson. (I'm also pretty sure that he would comdemn the vast majority of contemporary New Englanders for worshipping false idols - namely, the Red Sox. But then, as a Yankee fan I would be inclined to agree.)

Though Vowell's pacing was quick and her style often conversational, what really made this history book a page-turner was her humor. After quoting one of Winthrop's more idealistic sermons, she writes:
[...] it reads more like an America that might have been, an America fervently devoted to the quaint goals of working together and getting along. Of course, this America does exist. It's called Canada [38].
At one point Vowell calls Hutchinson "the Puritan Oprah" [208]. If you don't consider yourself a history buff but want to judge for yourself whether America really is a 'Puritan nation', go ahead and read The Wordy Shipmates. You won't regret it.

The Wordy Shipmates © Sarah Vowell and Riverhead Books, 2008.

PS. By a happy coincidence, I will be heading up to Boston this weekend to visit friends, and will attempt to visit some of the places mentioned in The Wordy Shipmates. I'm excited!


  1. I love Sarah Vowell. And wrote like two nerdy posts on her back around the time Unfamiliar Fishes came out. I liked Wordy Shipmates more than that one, but my absolute favorite is Assassination Vacation.

    Also — DUDE, I saw this post originally when I was at work and couldn't comment, but I saw the book you're currently reading, checked if it was at my library (it is not) and immediately ordered it on Amazon. So you totes affected my day today, and I'm way excited about that book.

  2. I've heard such good things about Assassination Vacation! I also want to read Take the Cannoli.

    I just finished My Boyfriend Wrote A Book About Me and it was pretty entertaining. Glad my Currently Reading sidebar changed your life!


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