Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell has been on my TBR list for a while. I cannot remember where I heard about it first, but as a regular listener of This American Life, I am somewhat familiar with her work. Wordy Shipmates is about the Puritans who founded Boston. No, not the Pilgrims of the cliché Thanksgiving parades, but the dour Calvinists of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Vowell traces American Exceptionalism and even much of our democracy itself back to these people. Jumping off from the sermons of John Cotton, Vowell regales us with the tale of colonial Boston. She writes about the heated religious disputes between Cotton and his two nemeses, Roger Williams and Anne Hutchison, both of whom would be banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Vowell also discusses the colonists relationship with the Native Americans, culminating in the brutal Peqoud War.

Vowell's writing is breezy and conversational. It is sprinkled with ironic humor, some of which made me laugh and then read aloud to my wife. Although some might not take kindly to her critique of both American Exceptionalism and a strain of anti-intellectualism that she feels springs in part from these colonists, I certainly enjoyed her book. Of particular interest to me was her discussion of the bookishness of these colonists in particular. For example, when a friend of John Winthrop's was trying to dissuade him from going to America, the friend wrote:

How hard will it be for one brought up among books and learned men, to live in a barbarous place, where is no learning and less civility?

Or perhaps when John Cotton escapes a certain prison sentence by coming to America because in prison there would be no opportunity for books or pens.


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