The Wordy Shipmates

Article excerpt

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 "destructive tantrum."

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," Vowell writes.

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 America.

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. …

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