Saturday, March 3, 2012
The Wordy Shipmates
Riverhead Books, 2008
Non-fiction; American history
I had no idea what this book was about when I picked it up other than that it came from the mind behind Assassination Vacation, a tour of spots related to presidential assassinations, ie a great book for presidential nerds like me! Imagine my pleasure to discover that this book was about the Puritans! I've become more interested in recent years, spurred by my interest in American history and religiosity.
If you're American (and even if you're not), you've probably heard about the country's Puritan roots as well as the phrase "city upon a hill." Vowell attempts to explore these and other ideas about Puritanism and the foundation of the United States of America.
For starters, I was very impressed with how committed these people were to learning and literacy; there is apparently a plethora of primary sources (admittedly from white men at the top of the social pyramid). They wanted a documented trail. And far from considering education some elitist goal in a pejorative sense, they valued education and built Harvard specifically to educate their sons so that they could be well-versed in Biblical literacy. I do sometimes feel like some sectors of the American population look down on book-learning and it makes me feel a little better to see that our historical ancestors didn't.
Of course they are human and this book is filled with their conflicts, from what it means to be pure, different interpretations of the Bible, and just plain personality conflicts. Of special note is John Winthrop (Massachusetts Bay Colony governor), Roger Williams (Rhode Island founder), and Anne Hutchinson (a woman daring to preach) who all receive significant page time.
But as the book progressed, I found myself reading mostly a history text and wishing there was more of Vowell's analysis and asides. I really love her voice and find her humorous. If there's a topic that needs leavening, Puritanism would be one of them! But there wasn't nearly enough to satisfy me in this text and it dragged my rating of the book down.