Sarah Vowell, a popular contributor to public radio's "This
American Life," is an American-history buff with a self-proclaimed
predilection for Puritan New England, the Civil War, and bloodbaths.
Hers is emphatically not the history taught in high school - often a
target of her sarcastic wit.
Her last book, "Assassination Vacation," chronicled a quirky road
trip stalking the murder sites - now tourist pit stops - of
Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley.
Vowell is a master of the unexpected angle or pop-culture
connection used to confer fresh relevance on often dowdy subjects.
In her new book, The Wordy Shipmates, one of her more outrageous
parallels compares the Pequot war, in which 700 Indians were
murdered in Mystic Fort, with a frustrated skateboarder's
Vowell's eponymous shipmates are the Puritans who settled the
Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 - 10 years after the Mayflower
Pilgrims settled Plymouth.
Why should we be interested in Protestants who fled Charles I
during the Great Migration? Because "the country I live in is
haunted by the Puritans' vision of themselves as God's chosen
people, as a beacon of righteousness that all others are to admire,"
What Vowell finds worrisome is that we have lost the Puritans'
humility and fear of God, which kept their egotism and delusions of
grandeur in check. Even more troubling, we have also lost their
respect for learning. Vowell asserts that the United States has
veered away from the original bookishness of the Bay Colony in favor
of the anti-intellectual, more emotional religion now practiced in
She writes, "The United States is often called a Puritan nation.
Well, here is one way in which it emphatically is not: Puritan lives
were overwhelmingly, fantastically literary. Their singleminded
obsession with one book, the Bible, made words the center of their
lives - not land, not money, not power, not fun. I swear on Peter
Stuyvesant's peg leg that the country that became the U.S. bears a
closer family resemblance to the devil-may-care merchants of New
Amsterdam than it does to Boston's communitarian English majors."
How did this happen? Relying on the voluminous paper trail left
by the "quill-crazy New Englanders," "The Wordy Shipmates" traces
the "microscopic theological differences" among the Massachusetts
Bay Colonists that led to "a dangerous disregard for expertise" in
American society today. …