Michael Patrick Brady


The Wordy Shipmates | Sarah Vowell

October 24, 2008

The Wordy Shipmates, Sarah Vowell

My review of The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell ran today at PopMatters.

This book was a lot lighter than some of the more recent reading I’ve been doing, an approachable, winsome look at perhaps my favorite subject, colonial Boston. Vowell uses her wry perspective to shed light on the true nature of the city’s Puritan settlers, dispel the myths that surround them, and demonstrate that their true contribution to modern America is in the sense of exceptionalism that our country carries with it (or suffers from).

The Wordy Shipmates is a great introduction to the life and times of these early settlers, and Vowell smartly provides plenty of modern context.

In traveling to the contemporary sites of the Puritan’s homes, battles, and other major events, she locates the narrative not only in time but in tangible geography that reinforces the truth and reality of the story.

One of the threads that Vowell traces is the use of Massachusetts Bay governor John Winthrop’s much emulated “city on a hill” image, and how it has been employed throughout the years by a diverse array of politicians looking to set lofty, noble goals for the United States. Often, such goals go unfulfilled or are spoiled (as Winthrop’s were); the glorification of American ideals and our inability to live up to them has been a theme since before the United States even existed.

The idea was fresh in my mind when, last week, Governor Sarah Palin referenced the “city on a hill,” though more as an echo of Reagan than Winthrop. Vowell’s discussion of Winthrop’s words in the book seemed apt: though we may view ourselves as God’s chosen, and trust fully in our abilities to rise to the occasion and lead good lives, we are only human. Good intentions, coupled with an unwavering faith in one’s own rightness and an unwillingness to be self-critical, can lead only to disaster and disappointment.

[tags]Sarah Vowell, The Wordy Shipmates, Book Review, Puritans, American History, American Exceptionalism, PopMatters[/tags]

Rating: | Michael Patrick Brady

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