Vowel, Sarah. The Wordy Shipmates

Vowel, Sarah. The Wordy Shipmates. New York: Riverhead Books, 2008.

“The only thing more dangerous than an idea is a belief. And by dangerous I don’t mean thought-provoking.  I mean: might get people killed” (1).  So begins Sarah Vowel’s rendition of the American “Puritans who fall between the cracks of 1620 Plymouth and  1692 Salem, the ones who settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony and then Rhode Island during what came to be called the Great Migration” (23). Admittedly, she’s no Perry Miller although she has read his works.  Rather, Vowel is funny, often irreverent, and always fact-oriented.  She’s done her homework and then some—travelling to many historic sights for an often disappointing but usually enlightening view of how we have memorialized (or failed to) these historic figures and events.

For the most part, Vowel navigates a hate-love interpretation of the Puritans. Specifically, Roger Williams, Anne Hatchcock, and John Winthrop inspire and disappoint her.  More generally, she admires the pluckiness and literariness of the Pilgrims but detests their treatment of Native Americans, who are burned in their homes, deliberately infected, cheated, deceived, and scorned.  Step aside the mythology of Thanksgiving that merely reveals our nostalgic need to rewrite our inhospitality to our hosts and later, guests.

Unfortunately, the Puritans didn’t always treat their neighbors much better.  They exiled them in the middle of brutally cold winters, severed their ears, withheld spiritual comfort, and publically scorned them.  So don’t look for halos or pedestals from Vowel.

Vowel is particularly drawn to Winthop’s sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity” and in particular, to his famous line: “We shall be as a city upon a hill” (11).  How many others—politicians, clergy, educators, and writers—have quoted and appropriated that metaphor of “a city upon a hill”?  Many, many.  Why is it such an attractive metaphor, lending itself to manipulation and the illusion of freshness?  A city upon a hill is an image that we see upon approach—with our dreams and expectations.  It’s on a hill to protect its inhabitants, to stand apart from those below, to establish a focal point, and to afford long-reaching vision.  All that’s obvious, I know.  Being upon a hill, the city is raised—as an apparition and an inspiration.  Think Mont—St.-Michel.  You’re on a crowded bus, driving in the middle of flat country, after you’ve taken the long train ride from Paris.  Bam. There it appears.  Not just eking out of the ground but suddenly looming over the landscape.  It doesn’t appear gradually.  One minute, there’s nothing interesting ahead.  The next, there’s the entire city upon the hill.  It grabs you unexpectedly.  The city upon the hill overpowers and excites.  Moreover, it welcomes you.  It promises hospitality.

That was the idea behind the early Pilgrim settlements—welcoming like-minded religious folks into a stable governance.  The founders see themselves as “God’s chosen people, as a beacon of righteousness that all others are to admire” (24).  Ergo, the origins of “Manifest Destiny” that licensed the Trail of Tears, the genesis of Westward Expansion, Guantanamo Bay, and one invasion after the next in the name of Christianity and democracy—whether ethical or not so much.

What if the origins of the US trajectory to all things “American” had maintained its hospitality?  No Calvinism that G/god did not create all men equal.  What if Winthrop—not a minister but a governor—had maintained his conviction that “Man is commanded to love his neighbor as himself”?  What if Winthrop’s leadership had sustained his conviction, per Romans 12:20, that if “thine enemy hunger, feed them”? (46) What if, instead of banishing dissenters, he had held to his own conviction:  “We must delight in each other, make other’s conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body”? (51).

Would there have been no Pequot War?  No Mystic Fort Massacre? No Salem Village witch trials? No Bear River Massacre of the Shoshone?  No Sand Creek Massacre? No Wounded Knee Massacre? No slavery?  No Civil War?  No Japanese internment camps? No President Regan’s apologizing “for his underlings’ secret and illegal weapons sales to Iran in exchange for hostages and to purchase weapons for anticommunist Nicaraguan death squads” (64)?  No Abu Ghraib?

Vowel’s book is as much an inspection of where the US went wrong as it is and examination of the Puritans.  What Vowel speculates is that the basic conflict of life in the US is “between public and private, between the body politic and the individual, between we the people and each person’s pursuit of happiness” (128).  This is Aristotle’s struggle of eudaemonia—the tug for self-interest against the tug for something more than self-interest.  Such a conflict fuels self-actualization, which—unlike coming of age—requires us to know ourselves without defining ourselves by master narratives and requires us to act for others without jeopardizing our self-fashioning.  Thus, we self-actualize amidst, against, and for about others.  This is the essence of hospitality.

Not only did Winthrop and other otherwise good Puritan folk fail to negotiate how to flourish in private and public, politically and personally, but they failed to preserve their original sense of hospitality.  And without hospitality between host and guest, between friend and enemy, and between stranger and acquaintance, we cannot self-actualize. Winthrop and his followers succumbed to fear and intolerance because they failed to allow others to reject their master narrative just as they had rejected England’s.  The Puritan who came closest to such egalitarian tolerance was Roger Williams, who embraced religious freedom.  But that just got him banished.

Sarah Vowell believes that President Kennedy afforded the US a “new beginning and he is not alone” (248).  Those are her final thoughts.  I can’t understand that ending, for so much has gone wrong in JFK’s wake (and during his presidency, for that matter).

Is it too late for the US to become hospitable?  Can the US learn to tolerate those who authentically refute its religious, economic, and political master narratives?  Can the US learn to accept those who don’t accept Christianity, capitalism, and “democracy”?  Is it too late for the US to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, . . .promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity. . .?”  Is it too late to interpret “We the People of the United States” as those of us with and without citizenship, those of us who are poor and rich, those of us who are educated and uneducated, and those of us we admire and don’t?

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One thought on “Vowel, Sarah. The Wordy Shipmates

  1. Anonymous says:

    What a thoughtful review!! I love Sarah Vowel and have listen to her books on tape while travelling across the country ( i even had the delight to listen to “Unfamiliar FIshes” while in Hawaii). With the intertwining of history and her story, this book was a thousand times better than any history class in recent memory.

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