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The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell October 31, 2008

Posted by a Wristfister in Books, History, Nonfiction, Political, Religion.

Published by Riverhead Books [2008], Kindle edition, Print length: 272 p. Reviewed by Bowie.

Synopsis: An exploration of the Puritans and their journey to America to become the people of John Winthrop’s “city upon a hill”-a shining example, a “city that cannot be hid.”

To this day, America views itself as a Puritan nation, but Vowell investigates what that means-and what it should mean. What was this great political enterprise all about? Who were these people who are considered the philosophical, spiritual, and moral ancestors of our nation? What Vowell discovers is something far different from what their uptight shoe-buckles-and-corn reputation might suggest. The people she finds are highly literate, deeply principled, and surprisingly feisty. Their story is filled with pamphlet feuds, witty courtroom dramas, and bloody vengeance. Along the way she asks:

  • Was Massachusetts Bay Colony governor John Winthrop a communitarian, a Christlike Christian, or conformity’s tyrannical enforcer? Answer: Yes!
  • Was Rhode Island’s architect, Roger Williams, America’s founding freak or the father of the First Amendment? Same difference.
  • What does it take to get that jezebel Anne Hutchinson to shut up? A hatchet.
  • What was the Puritans’ pet name for the Pope? The Great Whore of Babylon.

Review: First, let me start off by saying it’s good to contribute to this blog again. I know it’s been a while, and hopefully, we’ll get this thing back on a more regular schedule. Now, on to Sarah Vowell’s latest book. I liked it. But it has to be her weakest book to date. She set the bar so high with “Partly Cloudy Patriot” and “Assassination Vacation” that this book seems like a bit of a let-down. That’s not to say that Vowell’s signature voice and wit is not on display here. She presents history that is easy to digest while still making it funny and interesting. I just got a feeling that a weaker and more muddled theme was presented. I wonder if I would have enjoyed it more if it was longer. The ending seems a bit abrupt and rushed and I didn’t quite get a clear sense of an overriding arch of narrative. It’s still a great story, but sudden tangents that jumped to the present day diluted the intensely engaging history of the early Puritan settlers of New England. If nothing else, Vowell succeeds in bringing the early seventeenth century to life and proves that our modern caricature of what Puritans were like couldn’t be more distant from the reality that they were complex and intelligent men (AND women) caught up in the turmoil of their times.

Below is an excerpt:

Roger Williams might the the most ambitious of all the New England Puritans, but his ambitions are strictly spiritual. He fears no man, only God. He desires heavenly riches, not earthly influence. He seeks absolute communion with his Creator and he does not in 1631, nor will he ever, care about anything more. His fellow New Englanders find his zeal kind of inspirational but awfully off-putting…Williams believes that adhering to the first four commandments is a religious matter and not the business of civil magistrates. Williams makes a distinction between a sin and a crime. Getting wind of this, the civil magistrates must have screamed a collective “Goddamnit!” Or would have but for Commandment Three [not taking the Lord’s name in vain].



1. Jason - November 1, 2008

Did you read this on your kindle?

2. Trammy, Laura, Mrs. Ciaburri... - November 6, 2008

I can’t remember my username/password on this either! First the google groups now this. I shall return once I upgrade on some brain cells.

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