On The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

I don’t think I’ve ever had any interest in the Puritans. But Nick Hornby kept going on and on about Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates that when I saw it half-buried in a BookSale, priced PhP45 [about a dollar], I had to buy it. Curiosity, you see. Although it wasn’t until I got home and actually opened the book that I realized it wasn’t a novel. Sorry, Nick, wasn’t paying attention. So.

>> Aherm. The Wordy Shipmates. A rather lively romp with the Puritans [those who set foot in America about ten years after the Mayflower peeps did.] Vowell focuses on “those Puritans who fall between the cracks of 1620 Plymouth and 1691 Salem,” arguably the two groups of Puritans more known to the average dude. [For fun, see Wednesday Addams’ Thanksgiving speech, and then how witches and wizards cast a tickling charm to the flames in History of Magic, an unfortunately fictional book from the Harry Potter Series.] Okay then. Why am I reading about the Puritans again?

>> Vowell as author: Imagine sitting by your lonesome in a bar, and this tiny woman plonks down in front of you and gives you a rather fun lecture on people who have very little, it seems, to do with you. It’s informal, it’s funny, it’s honest — but with all lectures, there are digressions that may or may not concern you, and even on-topic shiz that you can only fidget through, not to mention the wise-cracking can occasionally get on your nerves. But it’s insightful, informative, and at times, even tender. And unabashedly sentimental. I especially love the quite-opinionated commentary.

I’m always disappointed when I see the word “Puritan” tossed around as shorthand for a bunch of generic, boring, stupid, judgmental killjoys. Because to me, they are very specific, fascinating, even brilliant, judgmental killjoys who rarely agreed on anything except that Catholics are going to hell.

>> The “Puritans’ vision of themselves as God’s chosen people, as a beacon of righteousness that all others are to admire” — a principle, Vowell posits, that haunts modern-day America. In the same paragraph, she glances upon the central ideal of these settlers of establishing that land of promise, that utopia, “a city upon a hill,” [a phrase and ideal that will be discussed at great length in the latter part of the book]; and also, how the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s official seal “pictures an Indian in a loincloth holding a bow in one hand and an arrow in the other. Words are coming out of his mouth. The Indian says, ‘Come over and help us.’ That is really what it says.

>> But whatever flaws and nobilities these early settlers possessed and embodied — whether by disposition, or as a product of their time and the social construct — Vowell leads us through it all rather animatedly — filtering diaries, journals, official records, and pamphlets to present a clearer image — and she does not hesitate to say where her sympathies lie: She may not like some of these people, but she loves them. They’re important, and they shouldn’t be falling into the cracks between two milestones — a sad truth, unfortunately, to most historical events and peoples.

>> I do have a feeling, though, that this shall all be thrown into that gaping bucket of Awesomeness that my darling friends have dubbed, Sasha’s Wellspring of Useless Information. Like that part in Vowell’s narrative where she recounts the sex lives of these Puritans. My goodness, now that was too much information. And rather enlightening too. These people are gahdamned raunchy, for cripes’ sake. And they kept writing about it! Jeesh.

* * *

Bits of extraneous reflection that isn’t really about the book itself, but, well, more of what randomly popped into my head while I was reading Vowell — under the cut:

[I guess I have to begin with a disclaimer: I realize that some of what I’ll say may just offend some of you readers, but, well, I’ll take that. I certainly don’t mean to cause any hullaballoo between all of us, but for the purpose of this blog post — these book thoughts — I have to say what I am [relevantly] prickly about — I came to Vowell’s books with these attitudes, these feelings, okay?:]

Okay then. I am rather prickly about religious fanaticism and colonization, especially with the specific mindset of “giving aid” or “civilizing.” The former can be explained with more ease — I wasn’t raised religiously [freaky in a Catholic nation?], and although I’m pretty confident that I’m respectful of other people’s faith, I’m definitely running the other direction when someone’s creepy with it, and attempts to shove said creepiness down my throat. The latter? Well.

Given that the Philippines had been colonized [tyrannized] by waylaid Portuguese and Spanish seafarers looking for spices and despotic self-righteous friars kicked out of their own country, for about 400 years — not to mention the handful of years of the Philippine-American War [and the phrase American Occupation still tends to make me scowl], wherein President William McKinley — and I quote from Vowell here — “[prayed] to God and God told him to help the Filipinos by Christianizing them” — never mind we’d been that way for the past couple of centuries, dammit — “. . . ‘and the next morning,’ he says, ‘I sent for the chief engineer of the War Department and told him to put the Philippines on the map of the United States.’” Great. And I have seen the editorial cartoons depicting Filipinos as monkeys holding crosses, dammit — centuries of being called indio or savage: Good lord, this rankles me through my wall of blissful and carefully cultivated apathy.

How’s that for self-righteous indignation?

[The rest is just random whining about things that my Safeguard Soap conscience tells me I should really shut up about.] [Hee.]

6 thoughts on “On The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

  1. I remember reading Hornby talking about Sarah Vowell too and most things he mentions I kind of set in the backburner of my mind. This does’t really sound like my cup of tea though. Puritans give me the heebie-jeebies.

  2. I enjoyed this book, though it was a bit too biased for me to love it. I like books that give the information without being all rahrahrah to one side. I love your additional reflections here, it really fits in with the book well. Crazy some of the things that have been done in the name of “religion” :P


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