The Wordy Shipmates

What fun! I have seen Sarah Vowell on talk shows and on CSPAN Book-TV and I have always enjoyed her sardonic delivery and gentle humor. The Wordy Shipmates seems to have been written just for me. She’s about my age and all of her cultural references are part of my personal experience and the humor feel like private jokes just between us. On top of that I feel a deep cultural connection to the Puritans, the main characters in this history.

I haven’t done the genealogical work myself, but some of my relatives have traced my direct male ancestors back to Isaac Stearns, who came over on the ship Arbella. This is the ship that brought over the founders of Massachusetts, who are the focus of this book. So while my ancestor doesn’t show up in the text, both the criticism and the praise for these odd people feels directed at my heritage. Sarah Vowell’s heritage is partly Cherokee, which gives her a perspective for severe criticisms (well deserved).

On top of my Puritan genetic lineage, I was brought up Unitarian (in Canada in a church founded before the Universalist merger) and while it isn’t mentioned here, Unitarianism in America started with a schism in the Puritans.

Somehow I inherited from this cultural tradition the same argumentative nature (as my wife will tell you) that makes up most of the action in this story. While my actual opinions and beliefs are very different, I can understand how the debates over very small religious differences can mean so much to people.

Sarah Vowell treats the furious debates and the genocidal incidents (“— spoiler alert — what the English end up doing to the Pequot youngsters is way, way worse than kidnaping.”) as fodder for both humor and outrage. She both admires and loathes the Puritans and the example that they set for the American character. How can you love people that set the precedent for slaughtering Indians that continued through much of our history. How can you not love people that founded Harvard, the principles of religious freedom and the Protestant work ethic. This is always the problem with reading history. We want to find villains and heros in our founding stories, but all we really find are real people that never precisely fit either mold.


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