As demonstrated by her 2005 historical travelogue Assassination Vacation, Sarah Vowell has a gift for approaching the dusty corners of Americana with a pop-cultural sensibility that treats her long-dead subjects with the same mix of scrutiny and admiration that most Americans lavish on modern celebrities. While that book's focus on presidential assassination and political conspiracy gave Vowell a sexy jumping-off point, the topic of her new The Wordy Shipmates is downright dour in comparison. So it speaks to Vowell's talents as a researcher and storyteller that she's able to lend her exploration of the Biblically motivated dealings of the Massachusetts Bay Puritans a similar air of intrigue.
The Wordy Shipmates attempts to suss out the foundations of this country's modern Christian preoccupations. Early in the book, Vowell traces the lineage of American exceptionalism from its origins in John Winthrop's sermon "A Model Of Christian Charity," in which Winthrop hopes that the newly formed Massachusetts Bay colony will be "a city upon a hill." That notion was famously co-opted by Ronald Reagan, and still ripples through our nation's rhetoric, no matter how far we've strayed from the original sentiment. But while the moral ancestry of modern government deserves scrutiny, Vowell frequently abandons that throughline in favor of a more episodic examination of Puritan discord. The various inter- and intra-colony squabbles that plagued the early settlements prove just as compelling, challenging the notion that the Puritans were a single-minded group of zealots.
Vowell is so adept at breaking down the highfalutin language of the various books, letters, and pamphlets in which her subjects conducted their feuds that the impertinence and eventual banishment of colony rabble-rouser Roger Williams (who went on to found Rhode Island) reads as more dramatic than the colonies' bloody war with the Pequot nation. It isn't the most thorough or linear historical record: Winthrop, Williams, and John Cotton's writings provide the majority of the source material, and secondary players like Anne Hutchinson and Henry Vane appear and disappear abruptly. But Vowell's insights into her subjects' meanings and motivations, combined with reflection and personal anecdotes—such as relating Winthrop's ideal of communal suffering and comfort to buying toothpaste for 9/11 relief workers, or an episode of The Brady Bunch coloring her early perceptions of the Puritans—humanize and contextualize the famously uptight settlers, reconsidering what it means for America to be called a "Puritan nation."