The Wordy Shipmates

By Sarah Vowell. Published in 2008.

I wasn’t sure how long I’d have to stand in line to vote, so the day before, I picked up a copy of The Wordy Shipmates for the queue. As it turns out, my wait was only about thirty minutes, but Sarah Vowell’s short history of the Puritans who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony was still a worthwhile purchase—not to mention oddly appropriate for a post-election cool-down.

Vowell is the best kind of history buff, pulling off the difficult balancing act of placing people within their historical context while holding on to her own values and judgment. In other words, she is fair but not a moral relativist. She neither whitewashes the past nor condemns everyone who wouldn’t fit in at a contemporary urban liberal cocktail party, and she has a real appreciation for the quirks and foibles that transform people from generic historical figures into distinct individuals. Now that I think about it, Vowell is a talented popular historian for the same reason she’s a talented storyteller: she recognizes and celebrates the complexity of human beings.

The Wordy Shipmates follows a fairly straight narrative, beginning with the 1629 immigration to the New World of a few key Massachusetts colonists, notably John Winthrop, and covering nearly two decades, including the banishment of Roger Williams, the trial of Anne Hutchinson, and the horrific Pequot War. Vowell being Vowell, she digresses frequently, slipping into modern parallels and anecdotes with grace and wit.

Vowell’s affection for the Massachusetts Puritans is obvious, and one of the most interesting aspects of the book is the way she rebuts the stereotype of Puritans as ignorant, sexually repressed zealots. Clearly the Puritans were fervently religious—religion was their primary motivation in establishing a colony—but regulating and degrading sexuality wasn’t paramount to their worldview, and they placed great emphasis on scholarly education, founding Harvard just a few short years after establishing their colony. (The contrasts Vowell draws are not flattering to today’s fundamentalists.) Furthermore, the Puritans gave us Roger Williams, an extremely religious man who pioneered the idea of the separation of church and state, in large part because he believed that coercing people to lead actively moral lives is an affront to God.

Vowell’s take on Williams is deeply nuancedat one point, she describes him as difficult to like but easy to loveand similarly, her portrait of Anne Hutchinson is sympathetic but considerably wartier than the rah-rah bio I remember from my childhood book on groundbreaking women in American history. (They Led the Way—I bought it myself at the school book fair in fourth grade, and I loved it.) In one of her book’s most unsettling passages, Vowell explores how Hutchinson’s attempts to further democratize religious authority, to take it away from the “elites,” to emphasize feeling over education, led inevitably to the reflexive rejection of informed opinion in all arenas. Her comparison of Hutchinson with George W. Bush actually make me wince—my inner fourth-grade self screamed protestations—but I understand the point Vowell is making and, much as it pains me, it’s worth considering.

Vowell has the remarkable ability to look at a single idea and to see not just the good and bad in it—most of us can visualize that pastiche—but rather to see how that single idea is in itself both good and bad, simultaneously, as a whole. The best example is her passionately felt meditation on the concept of American exceptionalism, exemplified by Winthrop’s famous “city on a hill” line. The idea has justified unjust wars and horrific atrocities—we can do virtually any terrible thing if we can convince ourselves that we know best—and yet the idea still holds such power for those of us who want the United States to live up to its best instincts, to be better.

Hell, just days ago, in thinking about this election, I wrote that I wanted to see this country “leading by example on the international stage as a model of human rights and a beacon of opportunity,” and what is that if not a reflection of American exceptionalism, a longing to live in a shining city on a hill? Despite the passing of centuries, the reprehensible appropriation by Reagan, and the countless collective sins in the history of the United States, Winthrop’s Biblically inspired vision still holds tremendous power. For good and ill, our Puritan heritage still lingers in the American psyche. Vowell understands that. The Wordy Shipmates isn’t just a history book; it’s a portrait of who we are now.