With her latest book, The Wordy Shipmates, author, NPR mainstay, and history buff Sarah Vowell attempts to make 17th-century Puritans amusing. And she succeeds. Vowell analyzes the prolific writers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (hence the "wordy" in the book's title) with a 21st-century hindsight that includes the historical context for Ronald Reagan's cooptation of John Winthrop's phrase "city on a hill," and what the Brady Bunch taught American children about the first Thanksgiving. Vowell chatted with City Pages about Puritans and why they're still relevant.
City Pages: This book is drenched in research. How long did it take you to pick through old documents to piece the book together? What was the strangest or most unexpected thing you discovered?
Sarah Vowell: All books to me are 90 percent dillydallying and 10 percent really hard at the end. While reading John Winthrop's journal, I came across this incident where King Charles and his henchman, the Archbishop of Canterbury, ordered the Massachusetts Bay Colony to send back their charter. They threatened to send over a new governor, establishing more direct royal authority in Massachusetts Bay and, basically, usurp the magistrate. Winthrop talked about being at a meeting with the other magistrates and ministers to discuss what they would do if the king's new governor showed up to take over. He said, "We ought not to accept him." They started building a fort in Boston Harbor and training a militia. Basically, they were ready to start the Revolutionary War about 140 years early—suicide. Luckily, the governor's ship literally broke, just when this little ragtag group of religious fanatics decided to take on the most powerful naval power in the world. It really made me wonder how these Englishmen got the nerve to take on the king of England.
CP: Your book cites many modern references to Puritan phrases such as "city on a hill," "Puritan work ethic," and TV shows poking fun at the Puritans. Why do you think our society is still captivated by them?
SV: I don't think we particularly are. I only meet people who seem to be reading this book under duress. Maybe it's just my readers, but no one seems inherently excited about the topic itself, but they're willing to trust me and pick it up anyway. One reason to be aware of the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony is that, in many ways, we're them. Their idea of themselves as God's new chosen people—that's a crucial strand of the American DNA. They believed themselves to be helpful whether anybody wanted their help or not, and that seems like part of our inheritance, too, as Americans: the idea that we're what all other nations should aspire to. I think that's the sort of, let's call it self-confidence, that's part of who we are as a nation. It gets us into various pickles at times in history, including, oh, now.
CP: As you said, most people you encounter aren't too interested in the subject of the book. Did that make it a riskier endeavor for you since people are not as fascinated with Puritans as they are with presidential assassinations, the subject of your last book?
SV: They're not really that fascinated by the death of President Garfield, either. It's a matter of packaging, I guess. It's a book about history, not one of Americans' favorite topics. Obviously, my books don't sell themselves or I wouldn't be talking with you. But it's doing really well, I think it's doing better than my previous books. I'm really quite shocked, frankly. All I care about is if I'm interested. I feel like if I'm interested in something, I can somehow hoodwink other people into being interested in it.
Tue., Oct. 21, 7:30 p.m., 2008
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