janelurie, August 29, 2010 (view all comments by janelurie)
I enjoyed it a lot and learned a lot about American history. The book takes a certain amount of Puritan perseverance if one is not familiar with the period or cast of unusual extreme characters . Well worth it even if it means reading the first thirty pages or so over twice and paying lots of attention. I expanded my knowledge and laughed out loud a lot.
Melissa Hansen, April 22, 2009 (view all comments by Melissa Hansen)
I was very disappointed in this book. I was excited to read it after loving her work on MPR and her previous books "Take the Cannoli" and "Assasination Vacation." This time I just could not maintain interest in the content despite Vowell's efforts to entertain AND educate me. I felt the story telling was hard to follow and that the book could have been rearrange to make it more engaging and easy to follow. I am not implying that she rewrite history, I just mean that there is a lot of time covered here an the key players come and go. It could have used a different format to keep the reader engaged. I think I would have enjoyed a chapter by chapter focus on each main player she chose and then their conflicts described after that set up.
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Jena, December 16, 2008 (view all comments by Jena)
I thought some of Vowell's snarky political comments cheapened the work, but otherwise appreciated her sarcasm. Felt like it dragged because there are no chapters. Recommend keeping notes of all the players--I kept getting some of the confused.
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hh, November 6, 2008 (view all comments by hh)
A very accessible and affectionate account of the politics and personalities of the non-separatists at Boston. Good companion to Philbrick's Mayflower, which focused on the Plymouth settlement. If you know a little about the history of the CofE and Calvinism it helps with some of the nuance in theology (since religion was often a key driver of the events), but even without, this book is totally accessible because of Vowell's style.
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lesismore9o9, October 6, 2008 (view all comments by lesismore9o9)
Sarah Vowell is the sort of person you desperately wish taught your high school American history class: smarter than anyone else in the room, a quirky sense of humor, full of random trivia and a genuine enthusiasm for her topic. Her 2005 effort “Assassination Vacation” may be one of the best books of this decade, looking at the macabre side of our executive branch with the voice of a skeptical fangirl.
Now, with her latest title “The Wordy Shipmates,” Vowell has graduated from being the ideal high school teacher to the ideal college professor. It’s a more professional work than her earlier titles, more akin to an academic essay than a road trip diary, but that doesn’t keep it from being one of the best recent books on pre-Founding Fathers America.
The “wordy shipmates” in question are the Puritans, most particularly a section which set sail from England in 1630 to settle in what would eventually become Boston. Vowell looks beyond the stereotype, viewing them as an optimistic, highly literate people who gave America more than a reputation for sexual repression. Their desire to write and express thought would give precedent for the First Amendment, and their leader John Winthrop would advocate “a city upon a hill” and lay the groundwork for America’s centuries of self-importance.
Winthrop, the political head of the settlement, is one of the main characters Vowell plays along with: he is a compassionate authoritarian who ordered a man’s ears cut off, but postponed his exile until the harsh winter ended. He tried to keep his colony independent without agitating the English monarchy, but found himself up against personalities equally as forceful. On one hand was Roger Williams, a rabble-rouser who advocated separation of church and state to protect the church and whom Vowell sees as a perfect talk-show host in modern times. On the other was Anne Hutchinson, who challenged religious order and would have won all debates if she could only shut up for the closing statement.
Vowell’s books have been moving from essay collections to more cohesive history texts, and “The Wordy Shipmates” reflects this shift in style. There are no chapters or major separations between sections, and it focuses chiefly on analyzing documents such as Winthrop’s journals and Williams’ letters. It has the feel of a masters’ thesis, which is not a condemnation – Kurt Vonnegut earned a master’s in anthropology for “Cat’s Cradle” after all – but after the ambling pace of “Assassination Vacation” it’s certainly a shift to see Vowell spend most of her time in the library.
The literary fascination of the Puritans may have rubbed off a little too heavily on Vowell, but a more formal structure isn’t enough to silence her droll tone: she can recall enacting the fires of hell at Bible camp with puppets and flashlights and say how genuinely excited she was about a sitcom depicting the harsh winters Pilgrims had to endure. Fans of “Assassination Vacation” will be pleased to see she continues touring with her sister and niece, dragging them to Pilgrim reenactment villages and a museum neighboring an Indian casino.
And these examples get to the core of what makes Vowell’s writing such a treat: they’re accessible in a way no other history writer is. She weaves mass media into these historical actions, comparing the founding of Massachusetts to a Bugs Bunny cartoon and Winthrop’s feud with his deputy governor to a Nancy Drew mystery. Her analogies aren’t there to distract a reader but draw them in further, doing exactly what a teacher should do: make you understand the argument.
One passage in particular showcases her style, able to make a thesis statement in one sentence and convert it to pop culture in the next: “They personify what would become the fundamental conflict of American life – between public and private, between the body politic and the individual, between we the people and each person’s pursuit of happiness. At his city-on-a-hill best, Winthrop is Pete Seeger, gathering a generation around the campfire to sing their shared folk songs. Williams is Bob Dylan plugging in at Newport, making his own noise.”
It’s passages like that one that reaffirm Vowell’s position as the maven of American history, and that keep “The Wordy Shipmates” an accessible and amusing read. The more formal structure and occasionally thick text may offset fans of “Assassination Vacation,” but Vowell keeps it flowing with her trademark wit and a cast interesting enough to change anyone’s definition of “puritan.”
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"Publishers Weekly Review"
by Publishers Weekly,
"Essayist and public radio regular Vowell (Assassination Vacation) revisits America's Puritan roots in this witty exploration of the ways in which our country's present predicaments are inextricably tied to its past. In a style less colloquial than her previous books, Vowell traces the 1630 journey of several key English colonists and members of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Foremost among these men was John Winthrop, who would become governor of Massachusetts. While the Puritans who had earlier sailed to Plymouth on the Mayflower were separatists, Winthrop's followers remained loyal to England, spurred on by Puritan Reverend John Cotton's proclamation that they were God's chosen people. Vowell underscores that the seemingly minute differences between the Plymouth Puritans and the Massachusetts Puritans were as meaningful as the current Sunni/Shia Muslim rift. Gracefully interspersing her history lesson with personal anecdotes, Vowell offers reflections that are both amusing (colonial history lesson via The Brady Bunch) and tender (watching New Yorkers patiently waiting in line to donate blood after 9/11)." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
by Booklist (Starred Review),
"Vowell argues passionately that Puritans were as enamored of wisdom and knowledge as religious virtue....A book dense with detail, insight, and humor."
by Kirkus Reviews,
"Fans will be pleased to see that Vowell's admittedly smart-alecky style is alive and well....At times dense, at times silly, at times surpassingly wise."
by The Onion A.V. Club,
"Vowell's insights into her subjects' meanings and motivations, combined with reflection and personal anecdotes...humanize and contextualize the famously uptight settlers, reconsidering what it means for America to be called a 'Puritan nation.' (Grade: B+)"
by The Cleveland Plain Dealer,
"The Wordy Shipmates is more than a punk-ish twist on our brave, verbose, tortured forebears....Subversively, Vowell teaches as she goes, and her final reflections are genuinely moving."
From the New York Times-bestselling author of Assassination Vacation and The Partly Cloudy Patriot comes an examination of the Puritans, their covenant communities, their deep-rooted idealism, their political and cultural relevance in today's world, and their myriad oddities.
In this New York Times bestseller, the author of Assassination Vacation "brings the [Puritan] era wickedly to life" (Washington Post).
To this day, America views itself as a Puritan nation, but Sarah Vowell investigates what that means-and what it should mean. What she discovers is something far different from what their uptight shoebuckles- and-corn reputation might suggest-a highly literate, deeply principled, and surprisingly feisty people, whose story is filled with pamphlet feuds, witty courtroom dramas, and bloody vengeance.
Vowell takes us from the modern-day reenactment of an Indian massacre to the Mohegan Sun casino, from old-timey Puritan poetry, where "righteousness" is rhymed with "wilderness," to a Mayflower-themed waterslide. Throughout, The Wordy Shipmates is rich in historical fact, humorous insight, and social commentary by one of America's most celebrated voices.
The Wordy Shipmates is New York Times?bestselling author Sarah Vowell?s 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.
Sarah Vowell?s special brand of armchair history makes the bizarre and esoteric fascinatingly relevant and fun. She takes us from the modern-day reenactment of an Indian massacre to the Mohegan Sun casino, from old-timey Puritan poetry, where ?righteousness? is rhymed with ?wilderness,? to a Mayflower-themed waterslide. Throughout, The Wordy Shipmates is rich in historical fact, humorous insight, and social commentary by one of America?s most celebrated voices. Thou shalt enjoy it.
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