Historian Examines Brilliant Killjoys -- the Puritans

By Lavoie, Denise | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, January 4, 2009 | Go to article overview

Historian Examines Brilliant Killjoys -- the Puritans


Lavoie, Denise, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


Sarah Vowell has some unconventional thoughts about the Puritans - - not the Pilgrims who sailed from England on the Mayflower and ended up in Plymouth, but the other Puritans, the ones who settled Massachusetts a decade later.

"My Puritans," as Vowell calls them, were not the "generic, boring, stupid, judgmental killjoys" history makes them out to be.

"Because to me, they are very specific, fascinating, sometimes brilliant, judgmental killjoys who rarely agreed on anything except that Catholics are going to hell," Vowell writes in her new book, "The Wordy Shipmates," which was released earlier this month and already climbing best-seller lists.

Vowell, an author, humorist and commentator, has carved out a career telling stories from American history with a mix of humor, sarcasm and painstaking research.

She doesn't consider herself a historian, but has recently become more comfortable thinking of herself as a writer who can teach history in her own way.

"I'm offended that people think history is boring," she said in a recent interview in Boston.

"I find the same part of me that loves movies and TV shows and novels is the same part of me that is obsessed with history because it has all the drama, it has all the characters and strange dialogue ... and all the killers that the films of Martin Scorcese have."

Vowell, 38, started out on public radio's "This American Life," where since 1996 she has been a regular contributor and talked about everything from the romance of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, to her own goth makeover. She turned her interest in radio into her first book, "Radio On: A Listener's Diary," published in 1997. Since then, she has written four books, including "The Partly Cloudy Patriot," a collection of essays about American history; and "Assassination Vacation," about Vowell's road trip to tourist sites devoted to the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln, McKinley and Garfield.

She was also the voice of Violet Parr, the gloomy teenage superhero in the 2004 animated film, "The Incredibles."

Readers know her for her one-liners and her frequent references to pop culture and politics.

Consider Vowell's portrayal of the Puritans -- led by John Winthrop -- as well-educated, literary people.

"Winthrop and his shipmates and their children and their children's children just wrote their own books and pretty much kept their noses in them up until the day God created the Red Sox," she writes in "The Wordy Shipmates. …

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