NYT on The Wordy Shipmates

One of the all-time most-common search terms referring people to this blog is (some variation on) {sarah vowell annoying}. I’ve been speculating on this privately for a while, as I did find many aspects of The Wordy Shipmates annoying, but hadn’t realized it was such a…thing. But I noticed today that over the weekend that book was reviewed in the Times by Virginia Heffernan, who is also really, really annoyed by Vowell. But maybe annoyed in a good way?

Vowell, who constantly emphasizes how nerdy (meaning impressive) she finds her own interest in the Puritans, introduces figures like John Winthrop and Roger Williams as if no one’s ever heard of them. She delivers a farrago of free-floating pedantry — “the kind of smart-alecky diatribe for which I’ve gotten paid for 20 years” — having evidently made it her job to enlighten slacker Gen-Xers with a remedial history of our own ­nation.

It’s not right. Vowell’s whole alt-­everything vibe is just dated enough to be cringey. And then there’s her Great Plains accent: can something so wholesome-soundin’ be real? And her politics. Perfectly early-millennium coastal (green, be good, Obama, etc.). Can she really take pleasure in plumping for an autofill ideology that’s so widely shared?

Just as you’re thinking, O.K., the history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony is worth retelling, but could you turn down the hipster stuff, Vowell manages to align herself squarely with the great American dissident and feminist Anne Hutchinson. Rats! Once again, Vowell gets to be the abrasive wild card. She’s annoying and uppity, and the book has made the case for being annoying and uppity. She’s won.

I’m not quite sure about that, mostly because I’m not quite sure about the effectiveness of the book’s turn toward Hutchinson at the end, other than as some kind of less than fully formed idol worship. But everything else I very much agree with (“autofill ideology that’s so widely shared” indeed!).

The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell loves the Puritans, as she loves the rest of American history. She gets that historical feeling and wants to research and commune with figures from the past and then tell the rest of the country about them in a nicely palatable way, so everyone can love American history as much as she does. This is laudable, and her unassuming, casual style generally does the trick. It’s hard to imagine a 21st-century American adult sitting down to read a book about the Pilgrims, but perfectly easy to imagine many of them enjoying The Wordy Shipmates.

Unfortunately, Vowell does a few things to hinder her own readability, in some cases severely. First, she makes several off-the-cuff references to the Iraq War, which may be fine now but may make the book seem very dated in just a few years. This is a book of history with the potential shelf-life taint of a book of current affairs. Second, she makes things political. This is not a surprise; it is, however, unfortunate. Digs at George W. Bush and references to the Bush/Kerry debates of 2004 only seem petty in the context of the seriousness and difficulty of founding one of the most important colonies that would later make up the United States. Fellow members of the blue team will be safe, but the overall effect was a bit inappropriate.

Vowell’s most annoying quality, however, is her love/hate relationship with so much of Puritan thought. She is utterly in love, for example, with John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity.” She particularly likes the following passage:

We must delight in each other, make other’s conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, having always before our eyes our commission and the community in the work, our community as members of the same body.

She gets the same touchy-feely goodness from this as she did living in New York after September 11, when so many were eager to help each other. She loves communitarianism, thinks it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. She realizes that when a community is “members of the same body,” that’s not so hot for freedom. But she never makes the connection that the kind of strong communitarianism she wants brings, inevitably, totalitarianism and oppression. If you want a group of individuals to all act the same way, you’ve got to make them, because chances are their individual preferences won’t all magically align. Vowell is too much of an idealist about this; even her own example of New Yorkers helping out after a tragedy led directly to enormous assaults on civil liberties in contemporary America.

Vowell also uses “A Model of Christian Charity” to go after President Reagan in a long, long digression about how very wrong he was to use the language of the “shining city on a hill”—Iran-Contra was against the Puritan spirit. What with the Indian wars, that’s not entirely clear (plus Vowell blames everything from the Indian wars in the West to our invasion of the Philippines on the Pilgrims anyway), but more importantly the entire passage seems out of place, a personal polemic against a Republican president when the reader is hoping to get to the juicy parts about Anne Hutchinson.

I also felt uncomfortable with much of Vowell’s treatment of religion throughout. She is a self-proclaimed secularist (or something), but is more than willing to explain why the personal relationship with Jesus afforded by her natal Pentecostalism is better than cold, uncomforting Calvinism (which I don’t think she understands deeply enough). She claims that “immediate personal revelation” is now a “core value” of “most American Protestant sects”—I’d like to see some statistics on that, please, because none of the mainline Protestants I know seem to experience such. And she’s willing to call Protestantism “the root of self-government in the English-speaking world” without much to back it up. It’s a heavy claim. The English did have a parliament in the 13th century after all.

But the greatest blow to readability is the nonchronological way the story is told. It is one thing to intersperse details of her trips to Foxwoods and the Mohegan Sun Casino, to mention statues and gravesites when talking about eminent colonial founders, but within the historical narrative there is constant backtracking. The book covers only a few years, really, in the life of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, but it covers those years several times, first focusing on John Winthrop, then on Roger Williams, then on Indian relations, then on Anne Hutchinson. This makes it extremely difficult to suss out what events are contemporaneous with others, and, therefore, to get the fullest possible picture of the colony and its intellectual milieu at any given moment.

And there is sloppiness—I can hardly verify most of the historical details, but I can tell you that when Vowell claims the Hutchinson River Parkway as the main road between New York and Boston, she is dead wrong. The claim itself serves only the purpose of a pat and cute story, but at the end of the book, with my personal knowledge, it jars. While this is a quick read, and probably a nice introduction to the Puritans for many people (though the red team might not enjoy it as much as the blue), in the end Vowell too romanticizes the colonists. Should we look on “A Model of Christian Charity” as a founding document at all when Massachusetts Bay was founded not on religious toleration but on simple my-turn-now religious persecution? The founding fathers in Boston were Unitarians by the time of the American Revolution, a far cry from the harsh Calvinism of their forebears. They are a valuable part of our history, and I am the first one to want to understand the influence of the Puritans on New England life, but Winthrop’s thesis composed on the Arbella should not be what we strive for today with modern conceptions of individual rights.