Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates

I feel that I ought to get two things off my chest before I launch into this review. First, I’ve had a crush on Sarah Vowell since I heard her This American Life piece about training to be Goth.  Second, my major area of research in college was the 17th century Anglophone Atlantic world, which means I have a passing knowledge of, and abiding fascination with, Puritans. So, my objectivity in this may be less than perfect.

Having said all that, you ought to read this book. We owe – for weal and for woe – so much to the Puritans, but the only time we bother to talk about them is at Thanksgiving, and even then we’re either inaccurate or slighting. Vowell wants to correct that. She has an obvious affection for the Puritans, especially John Winthop, whose diary is quoted extensively, but realizes that lionizing them is not helpful, and that Puritan ideas of the Elect and their proper relation to the state have been absolutely toxic to us as a country. She is correct, however, that it would be a shame to forget them.

I think Vowell’s background as a Pentecostal Christian from Oklahoma helped her write this. While she goes, in fairly substantial detail, into the substantial differences between the Calvinism of the Puritans and modern evangelical/fundamentalist/pentecostal Christianity,  I think that understanding the kind of worldview where literally everything is touched by God, is vitally important, not just to understanding history, but to understanding why so many of our fellow citizens make the choices that they do.  There are several portions of the book where Vowell talks about the importance of history, and specifically about the continuing relevance of history in our own lives. They are the most moving. Aside from my personal feelings about understanding the deep connections between our time and the 17th century and between the Us and the broader Atlantic world, Vowell’s moving plea to meet history with no axe in our hand deserves reading.

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