Sarah Vowell Discovers the Real Legacy of the Puritans in The Wordy Shipmates 

The Wordy Shipmates (Riverhead Books, 272 pp., $25.95), Sarah Vowell's latest wisecracking stroll through American history, has been released just in time for Thanksgiving. It's all about Puritans—but not those Puritans, the ones who landed at Plymouth Rock and feasted with Squanto. Vowell is interested in the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, best remembered for two banished heretics: Roger Williams, founder of Providence, R.I.; and Anne Hutchinson, the earliest proponent of the "Jesus is my personal savior" brand of American Protestantism. Without the theological squabbles of the Massachusetts Bay Puritans, modern-day America would have neither Pat Robertson nor Buddy Cianci.

Vowell doesn't note those particular links in The Wordy Shipmates, but such hopscotching across the centuries, limning the ironic connections between yesterday and today, is her specialty. Known for her work on public radio's This American Life and for books including Assassination Vacation, Vowell employs deadpan wit and the shameless enthusiasm of a history geek to haul our past out for gleeful, if sometimes discomfiting, examination.

In Shipmates, Vowell gives ample space to Williams and Hutchinson, painting the former as a stiff-necked but courageous blowhard: "The tragedy of Williams is that he was born about 350 years too early to pursue his true calling—television punditry." Hutchinson, "a woman who has the entire Holy Trinity on speed dial," comes off as a tragic character, a brilliant woman whose intellectual gifts had no place in Puritan society.

The figure that really grabs Vowell, however, is the colony's governor, John Winthrop. It was Winthrop who first used the phrase "a city upon a hill" to describe the nascent (white) American nation. For Vowell, the avuncular yet sometimes ruthless Winthrop personifies the contradictory American character, in which generosity and idealism are always at odds with a brutality born of arrogance. His words, and the model of his leadership, are among the key sources for our notion of American exceptionalism, the idea that ours is the greatest country on Earth, divinely endowed with both the right and the obligation to lead the world.

While always keeping her focus on those cantankerous Puritans, Vowell occasionally takes time out to make the connection between the colonists' grandiose conception of themselves and our more recent hell-bound good intentions, which have led to the napalming of Vietnam and the tortures of Abu Ghraib. Ronald Reagan, who made the slightly glossier "shining city on a hill" his tag line, gets a particularly thorough pummeling from Vowell for the self-righteous heartlessness of his presidency: "Being ready and able to bomb the hell out of the evil empire was the nation's top priority and if that meant thousands of poor kids had to skip lunch or sleep in cars in poisoned neighborhoods, so be it."

There's a bitter echo of America's entire past in that line, and such observations make Vowell something more than a mere comic writer. She's not David McCullough—though she could be; she's got the chops—and The Wordy Shipmates is no scholarly tome, but it's such a smart, passionate, well-researched romp, you come away knowing you've enjoyed a bit of real history in between the laughs.

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