Sarah Vowell seems everpresent these days: insightful reports on "This American Life," evening conversations with David Letterman and Jon Stewart, the voice of Violet Parr in "The Incredibles." And now, following on her gruesome but exciting investigation into presidential homicides, "Assassination Vacation," comes her intriguing account of the first 10 years of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, "The Wordy Shipmates."
Question: What sounds more arcane and uninteresting than the court struggles of 17th-century England?
Answer: Puritan theology.
Yet Vowell invigorates both subjects by imaginatively feeling her way into the conflicts and concerns of the main players in these distant dramas. She reads history with attitude, humor and sensitivity to the texts, and in "Shipmates," her attention turns to the 20-year-long journal of John Winthrop, the colony's first governor, and the writings of his heretical friend and gadfly, Roger Williams, founder of the Rhode Island colony.
Early on, Vowell tells us that her interest in Winthrop and his shipmates derives from the sense that "the country I live in is haunted by the Puritans' vision of themselves as God's chosen people, as a beacon of righteousness that all others are to admire." In the annals of the Puritans lie the roots of American exceptionalism, of faith-based political agendas and of "the city on the hill" (Ronald Reagan's utopian image). But, says Vowell, we are far distant from "our medieval people," whom she sees as closer to Chaucer's pilgrims than to current Americans.
In her reading of 350-year-old texts, Vowell envisions a group of intensely bookish settlers (hence the title) living in the wilderness, teaching their children Latin and Greek, placing their faith in education. To counter the proto-feminism of Anne Hutchinson, they establish Harvard University. Meanwhile, the colonists are beset by illness and Indian wars and friends moving back to England. Threats come from the nearby French and Dutch colonies as well as the Church of England back home. In the midst of so much adversity, the settlers band together like interdependent shipmates, a group, Vowell speculates, not unlike New Yorkers after Sept. 11. She empathizes with Winthrop, a much troubled theocrat, who enforced orthodoxy by cutting off ears and banishing heretics, but tempered justice with mercy.
Despite this sympathy, Vowell (descended on one side from Cherokees) is particularly sensitive to the position of the Algonquin tribes, whose fate it was to be decimated by disease shortly before the Boston colonists arrived and later recruited by European settlers to wage war upon one another.
Much of the pleasure of reading Vowell comes from her ability to connect the remote to the familiar. The difference between the orthodox Winthrop and the more tolerant, individualistic Williams, for instance, is the difference between "Pete Seeger, gathering a generation around the campfire to sing their shared folk songs" and "Bob Dylan plugging in at Newport, making his own noise." We see the terms of Puritan culture playing out in more recent texts: Longfellow verses, Springsteen songs, the Brady Bunch. Vowell allows us to recognize the past embedded in the present--her connections are often very funny and always plausible.
Thomas Zelman is a professor of English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.