Friday, April 17, 2009

The Wordy Shipmates

Author, voiceover-movie actress, and National Public Radio personality Sarah Vowell is beloved here at CSD headquarters. Unfortunately, her 2008 non-fiction bestseller The Wordy Shipmates - a close reading of texts written by the leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and its progeny as founding documents of American political culture, a parsing of the obscure doctrinal differences between rival sects of Puritanism, a brief history of the Pequot War, the founding of Rhode Island and Ann Hutchison's Portsmouth settlement - isn't particularly well-suited to her storytelling style. Vowell salts her thoughtful discussions of colonial history and Puritan theology with obscure tangents, clever asides, and travelogue-style personal anecdotes, and the result is a loose, baggy pastiche that never entirely satisfies.

Vowell is at her best when she explains how the writings of John Winthrop, Roger Williams, John Cotton, Cotton Mather, and Ann Hutchison shaped the American political consciousness fourteen decades before the Founding Fathers refined it into the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. Some readers would be surprised to know the extent to which these themes infiltrate modern political rhetoric; both Ronald Reagan and Governor Mario Cuomo referenced John Winthrop in their parties conventions in 1984, and, in the candidates in the 2004 Presidential campaign offered competing views of what it meant to be American that their lineal ancestors - John Winthrop in the case of John Kerry; Ann Hutchison in the case of George W. Bush - would have recognized.

Vowell's attempts to lighten the tone often just sound corny, and her oddly post-modern metaphors obscure her meaning more than they clarify it. After a lengthy discussion of the causes of the Pequot War, Vowell writes:

"The buildup to the Pequot War reminds me of what skateboarders call the frustration tha tmakes them occasionally break their own skateboards in half - "focusing your board." The Pequot War is just that - a destructive tantrum brought on by an accumulation of aggravation."

Or, consider the even more clanking:

"By March, good old Miantonomi (a chief from the Narragansett tribe) sends Boston a tribute of "forth fathom of wampum and a Pequot's hand," severed body parts being the seventeenth-century equivalent of a gift basket of mini-muffins."

Post-modern metaphors of this sort are all too common in The Wordy Shipmates, particularly since many of them simply restate a point that Vowell has already made. Its unfortunate, because otherwise Vowell is a fine - even an accomplished - stylist. But one-liners of this sort tend to work better on This American Life than they do in print.

In one of the travelogue sections of the book - which tend to pop up, without warning, in the middle of a sober discussion of historical events - Vowell and her sister watch a documentary about the Mystic massacre, when Puritan soldiers torched an Indian village in the middle of the night, then shot and stabbed the Indians who attempted to escape through the village's two main exits, killing 700 in the process. Vowell writes about returning to her hotel room at the Mohegan Sun Casino, which "looks like it was designed by Ralph Lauren, Bugsy Siegel, and Willy Wonka after a night of peyote. Which is to say that I kind of like it." That joke would fit better in a Tony Horowitz-style book about the Puritan's legacy and the ways in which modern society remembers and memorializes them than it does in the earnest 'Puritan political philosophy as American Literature' discussion Vowell apparently intends The Wordy Shipmates to be. With a solid day of cutting and pasting, The Wordy Shipmates would have made for five or six excellent essays. Unfortunately, as a book, its a mess.

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