The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008. 272 pp) Born in Muskogee, Oklahoma, Sarah Vowell is an author, journalist, and social commentator. She earned her B.A. from Montana State University and an M.A. in Art History from the School of Art Institute Chicago. Having written six nonfiction books, Vowell brings a witty voice to her historical topics. She has also been published in The Village Voice, Esquire, GQ, Spin, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and SF Weekly. She serves as the president of the board of 826NYC, a nonprofit tutoring and writing center for young students.
The Next Sedaris?
I have read in multiple places that Sarah Vowell is a female David Sedaris. Considering my borderline obsession for Mr. Sedaris, I bookmarked Vowell’s work for further consideration. Well, The Wordy Shipmates became my passageway into this highly touted author.
First off, Vowell and Sedaris are about as similar as a crocodile and a salamander; they exist within a generalized group in the animal kingdom but act in completely different ways. David Sedaris takes a memoir-based approach to humor, citing events in his life to comedic perfection. Vowell, on the other hand, utilizes sarcasm to share history.
The Wordy Shipmates reads like a humorous term paper.
A Puritan Nation
In this tome, Vowell waxes poetically on the Puritans who found political asylum in newly settled America. Reacting to the basic cliché that modern America is a Puritan nation, she explores the lives of the Puritans hoping to truly understand what such a phrase means.
Puritanism means a break with an England that previously broke with Rome:
“So an English subject of Henry VIII who already had a soft spot for the innovations of Luther rejoiced at the king’s break with Rome (while trying not to picture Henry and Anne Boleyn doing it in every room of every castle). That is, until the Protestant sympathizer went to church and noticed that the Church of England was just the same old Catholic Church with a king in pope’s clothing. Same old hierarchy of archbishop on down. Same old Latin-speaking middlemen standing between parishioners and the Bible, between parishioners and God. Same old ornamental gewgaws. Organ music! Vestments! (It is difficult to understate the Puritan abhorrence of something as seemingly trivial as a vicar’s scarf.) Same old easily achieved, come-as-you-are salvation. Here’s what one had to do to join the Church of England: be English. But we want getting into heaven to be hard! Said the Puritans. And not for everybody” (7)!
The Puritanism that Vowell uncovers looks little like the hyper-conservative Christian right. Referencing John Winthrop, a leading figure in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Vowell writes,
“Because of the ‘city upon a hill’ sound bite, ‘A Model of Christian Charity’ is one of the formative documents outlining the idea of America. But dig deep into its communitarian ethos and it reads more like an America might have been, an America fervently devoted to the quaint goals of working together and getting along. Of course, this America does exist. It’s called Canada” (38).
To Save or Kill
Sadly, the Canadian ideal espoused during the gestational period of the puritan colony fizzled. The native population – once a focus of targeted proselytizing – became an enemy.
Speaking of the conflict between the colonists and the Pequot Native Americans, Vowell states,
“Winthrop’s journal records with delight that the men ‘came all safe to Boston, which was a marvelous providence of God, that not a hair feel from the head of any of them.’ Not only that, but on their way home, they were accompanied by a Narragansett interpreter who killed a Pequot in a swamp along the way and ‘flayed off the skin of his head,’ i.e., scalped him. So: bonus” (184).
Predestination: What Foreknowledge
Despite her humorous take on history, I found The Wordy Shipmates far too one-dimensional. First, Vowell describes Calvinist theology behind the Puritan ethic in simple terms. She contends that the strict and joyless adherence to rules and regulations in Puritanism is a result of the Reformed view of predestination (the belief that God knows who is and isn’t saved before time began). For Vowell, the Puritans were strict because they didn’t know if God had saved them.
The point behind the doctrine of predestination is assurance. Reformed theology offers predestination as an explanation of a consistent God; it allows humans to know that their beliefs have saved them, not by works.
Sadly, Vowell’s mischaracterization of Calvinist theology casts a shadow over the rest of the book. Moreover, the book is dissertation-length when the subject matter feels thesis-length. Although Vowell writes strongly about the establishment of a Puritan colony, the last portion of the book reads like an unwanted endnote about other historical occurrences that have nothing to do with the rest of the novel.
On the whole, Vowell writes well and her humor gives vibrant life to some very stale topics. Nevertheless, her mischaracterization of Calvinist theology and the disorganized back half of the book makes it difficult for me to recommend The Wordy Shipmates. For those less theologically inclined, it still might be a good read, as the humor is nevertheless entertaining.