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The Wordy Shipmatesby Sarah Vowell
Synopses & Reviews
From the New York Times-bestselling author of Assassination Vacation and The Partly Cloudy Patriot, 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 The Wordy Shipmates, Sarah Vowell travels once again through America's past, this time to seventeenth-century New England. From the British Library to the Mohegan Sun casino, from the nation's first synagogue to a Mayflower waterslide, Vowell studies the Puritan effect and finds their beliefs about church and state more interesting than their buckles-and-corn reputation would suggest.
Was Massachusetts Bay Colony governor John Winthrop a communitarian, Christlike Christian, or conformity's tyrannical enforcer? Yes! Was Rhode Island's architect Roger Williams America's founding freak or the father of the First Amendment? Same difference. How come Henry Vane the Younger, who argued against beheading the English king, was himself beheaded for helping behead said king? Good question. 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. What is the lesson of the Pequot War? Why, don't fire one of your military's embarrassingly few Arabic translators just because he's gay, of course.
As in all Vowell's bestselling books, this exploration of America's past is both poignant and entertaining. The Wordy Shipmates is rich with historical fact, humorous insight, and social commentary by one of America's celebrated voices.
"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.)
Many young people today are allergic to history, even of the U.S. variety, and if you're foolish enough to steer them toward the colonial period, they start not just to sneeze but to retch. Sarah Vowell, a regular contributor to Chicago Public Radio's "This American Life," wants to make history go down easy. So she writes about the past with the irreverence of late-night television. ... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) Not long into "The Wordy Shipmates," her new book on colonial New England and its aftereffects, we encounter not only such Puritan stalwarts as John Cotton and John Winthrop but also "The Brady Bunch," "Happy Days" and "The Simpsons." This approach yields a book that is as easy to read as The Fonz is to watch — a book sprinkled with the sort of phrases and punctuation (exclamation points for example!) commonly found in text messages. But this breeziness also produces some simplistic arguments. Why do Americans see themselves as exceptional and ride that exceptionalism into war in Iraq? "Answer: Because Henry VIII had a crush on a woman who was not his wife." Still, Vowell gets a lot right. She is right to see the United States as a "Puritan nation"; the Puritans' influence over us did not die with the birth of the nation in the 1770s or even the birth of the counterculture in the 1960s. And she is right to understand the Puritans as perhaps the quintessential people of the book. The core premise of "The Wordy Shipmates" is that their "single-minded obsession with one book, the Bible, made words the center of their lives." What historian Perry Miller called the Puritans' "errand into the wilderness" was not primarily an economic or a political errand, Vowell argues. It was an errand in reading and writing and interpreting texts. The core text of this venture — and of Vowell's book — is John Winthrop's 1630 sermon "A Model of Christian Charity." Here Winthrop describes Massachusetts as "a city upon a hill" and sets in motion the sordid history of American exceptionalism — a history that, according to Vowell, has vouchsafed to us (among other things) wars in the Philippines, Vietnam and Iraq. On first blush Vowell seems like an angry atheist set down at the historian's table. But under this anger is a good measure of empathy. Hers is not the narrative of an angry adolescent who never wants to return to her Pentecostal parents' home. It is the narrative of an adult who wants to see her American home for what it is — and for what it has done to her, and to us. Central to Winthrop's "Christian Charity" was a "communitarian ethos" that Vowell admires. Breaking for one telling moment out of her oh-so-21st-century pose of Manhattanish irony, she refers to Winthrop's injunction to "delight in each other, make other's conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together" as "one of the most beautiful sentences in the English language." And at the end of the book she admits to falling in love with one side of Winthrop: "the Winthrop (whom) Cotton Mather celebrates for sharing his firewood with the needy, the Winthrop who scolds Thomas Dudley for overcharging the poor, the Winthrop of 'Christian Charity,' who called for 'enlargement toward others' and 'brotherly affection.'" Vowell, who was raised in Oklahoma and now lives in New York City, is part of what Republican candidates refer to as the East Coast elite, so it should not be surprising that the politics here is standard-fare liberal: President Reagan bad, Dr. King good. Bad of the Puritans to banish Anne Hutchinson — "the Puritan Oprah" — and to kill so many Indians in the Pequot War. To all of which, the Homer Simpson in me says, "D'oh!" Nonetheless, there are important historical points to make, and Vowell makes many of them well. At some moment between the time Winthrop delivered his famous sermon and Reagan was inaugurated, the covenant between Americans and God lost its "if" — if you do mercy and seek justice, then God will bless you; but if you do otherwise, God will deliver punishment. We may be a Puritan nation, but what we have retained is only Puritanism's easy half. We are convinced that God blesses our endeavors, but we seldom consider that some of those endeavors are not worth blessing. And it never occurs to us that they might bring down upon us God's righteous anger. Vowell also makes something intriguing of the oft-discussed distinction between Winthrop and colonial New England's champion of religious liberty, Roger Williams. These two men, she observes, do not just embody the divide between "orthodox Massachusetts" and "madcap Rhode Island." They also illustrate what she calls "the fundamental conflict of American life" — "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," Vowell writes in one of her book's best passages, "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." Vowell, whose other books include a quirky travelogue of sites related to the assassinations of Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley, obviously is partial to people who make their own noise. But to her credit, she also recognizes the dangers individualism poses to community. In the end, however, what makes "The Wordy Shipmates" float is not so much its arguments as its voice. Most writing on the Puritans is as dour as the Puritans themselves. Vowell has fun with them, and in the process, she helps us take seriously both their lives and their legacy. Stephen Prothero is professor of religion at Boston University and the author of "Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn't." Reviewed by Stephen Prothero, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Vowell argues passionately that Puritans were as enamored of wisdom and knowledge as religious virtue....A book dense with detail, insight, and humor." Booklist (Starred Review)
"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." Kirkus Reviews
"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+)" The Onion A.V. Club
"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." The Cleveland Plain Dealer
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.
About the Author
Sarah Vowell is the author of the bestselling Assassination Vacation, The Partly Cloudy Patriot, Take the Cannoli, and Radio On. She is a contributing editor for public radio's This American Life. She is also a McSweeney's person and the voice of teenage superhero Violet Parr in Pixar Animation Studios' The Incredibles.
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