A meditation on the Puritans, then and now
THE WORDY SHIPMATES
By Sarah Vowell
Riverhead, 254 pp., $25.95
When John Kennedy was preparing to leave Massachusetts as president-elect, he addressed the Legislature, building his speech around the words crafted by John Winthrop as he left England 331 years before to establish the new colony. Those were the "city upon a hill" words. And, Kennedy continued, "the eyes of all people are truly upon us."
"I fall for those words every time I hear them," writes Sarah Vowell, "even though they're dangerous, even though they're arrogant, even though they're rude."
And in "The Wordy Shipmates," Vowell offers a challenging view of the Puritan experience in colonial New England, always, she writes, "on the brink of arguing itself into oblivion."
On the face of it, Vowell is an unlikely writer to present a challenging view of semi-familiar history, the kind we think we know so well but at best recall only dimly. She describes herself as "chatty" and her "true calling" as that of a television pundit (she is a contributing editor for Public Radio International's "This American Life"), and her breezy tone and colloquialisms do read much like spoken commentary.
And often, to make a point clear, she drops in catchy references to popular culture , including the Brady Bunch and Bob Dylan. Even more significant, there are well-realized citations of the great scholars of Puritan New England: the legendary Perry Miller and Samuel Eliot Morison.
There's such a freshness of discovery in her account that it is useful to record why Vowell, who grew up in the West, got into the matter of the Puritan experience. "The most important reason I am concentrating on Winthrop and his shipmates in the 1630s," she writes, "is that 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."
As Vowell crafts her narrative, there were two contending forces in the creation of that vision, the communitarian view of John Winthrop and the personal view of Roger Williams. These outlooks, she writes, personified "the fundamental conflict of American life," between "the body politic and the individual, between we the people and each person's pursuit of happiness."
And while Winthrop was building that city upon a hill, a citadel of Puritan orthodoxy, Williams, after several years of contentiousness - Vowell describes him at one point as "God's own goalie" - would head off to found the "freewheeling colony" of Rhode Island.
In this seamless narrative of governance and theology, Vowell's discussion of the Pequot War of 1637 seems almost a digression - and a long one at that, some 40 pages in a text of 248 pages. Vowell, who is partly of Cherokee descent, sees in the brief conflict - "a destructive tantrum" that ends with the massacre of some 700 Pequot men, women, and children in their palisade at Mystic - a precedent that "made the mass murder of other tribes possible and therefore repeatable," from Sand Creek to Wounded Knee.
While Winthrop's descendants, of the political if not the ethnic variety, inherited his city upon a hill, Vowell notes that the survivors of the massacre regrouped and became known as the Mashantucket Pequots and are today the operators of the Foxwoods Resort Casino.
Michael Kenney is a freelance writer who lives in Cambridge.