Those Wacky Puritans

Explaining the roots of American exceptionalism to the Millenial Generation.

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Reviewed by Stephen Prothero
Sunday, November 9, 2008; Page BW04


By Sarah Vowell

Riverhead. 254 pp. $25.95

Many young people today are allergic to history, even of the U.S. variety, and if you're foolish enough to steer them toward the colonial period, they start not just to sneeze but to retch. Sarah Vowell, a regular contributor to Chicago Public Radio's "This American Life," wants to make history go down easy. So she writes about the past with the irreverence of late-night television.

Not long into The Wordy Shipmates, her new book on colonial New England and its aftereffects, we encounter not only such Puritan stalwarts as John Cotton and John Winthrop but also "The Brady Bunch," "Happy Days" and "The Simpsons." This approach yields a book that is as easy to read as The Fonz is to watch -- a book sprinkled with the sort of phrases and punctuation (exclamation points for example!) commonly found in text messages. But this breeziness also produces some simplistic arguments. Why do Americans see themselves as exceptional and ride that exceptionalism into war in Iraq? "Answer: Because Henry VIII had a crush on a woman who was not his wife."

Still, Vowell gets a lot right. She is right to see the United States as a "Puritan nation"; the Puritans' influence over us did not die with the birth of the nation in the 1770s or even the birth of the counterculture in the 1960s. And she is right to understand the Puritans as perhaps the quintessential people of the book. The core premise of The Wordy Shipmates is that their "single-minded obsession with one book, the Bible, made words the center of their lives." What historian Perry Miller called the Puritans' "errand into the wilderness" was not primarily an economic or a political errand, Vowell argues. It was an errand in reading and writing and interpreting texts.

The core text of this venture -- and of Vowell's book -- is John Winthrop's 1630 sermon "A Model of Christian Charity." Here Winthrop describes Massachusetts as "a city upon a hill" and sets in motion the sordid history of American exceptionalism -- a history that, according to Vowell, has vouchsafed to us (among other things) wars in the Philippines, Vietnam and Iraq.

On first blush Vowell seems like an angry atheist set down at the historian's table. But under this anger is a good measure of empathy. Hers is not the narrative of an angry adolescent who never wants to return to her Pentecostal parents' home. It is the narrative of an adult who wants to see her American home for what it is -- and for what it has done to her, and to us.

Central to Winthrop's "Christian Charity" was a "communitarian ethos" that Vowell admires. Breaking for one telling moment out of her oh-so-21st-century pose of Manhattanish irony, she refers to Winthrop's injunction to "delight in each other, make other's conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together" as "one of the most beautiful sentences in the English language." And at the end of the book she admits to falling in love with one side of Winthrop: "the Winthrop [whom] Cotton Mather celebrates for sharing his firewood with the needy, the Winthrop who scolds Thomas Dudley for overcharging the poor, the Winthrop of 'Christian Charity,' who called for 'enlargement toward others' and 'brotherly affection.' "

Vowell, who was raised in Oklahoma and now lives in New York City, is part of what Republican candidates refer to as the East Coast elite, so it should not be surprising that the politics here is standard-fare liberal: President Reagan bad, Dr. King good. Bad of the Puritans to banish Anne Hutchinson -- "the Puritan Oprah" -- and to kill so many Indians in the Pequot War. To all of which, the Homer Simpson in me says, "D'oh!"

Nonetheless, there are important historical points to make, and Vowell makes many of them well. At some moment between the time Winthrop delivered his famous sermon and Reagan was inaugurated, the covenant between Americans and God lost its "if" -- if you do mercy and seek justice, then God will bless you; but if you do otherwise, God will deliver punishment. We may be a Puritan nation, but what we have retained is only Puritanism's easy half. We are convinced that God blesses our endeavors, but we seldom consider that some of those endeavors are not worth blessing. And it never occurs to us that they might bring down upon us God's righteous anger.

Vowell also makes something intriguing of the oft-discussed distinction between Winthrop and colonial New England's champion of religious liberty, Roger Williams. These two men, she observes, do not just embody the divide between "orthodox Massachusetts" and "madcap Rhode Island." They also illustrate what she calls "the fundamental conflict of American life" -- "between the body politic and the individual, between we the people and each person's pursuit of happiness." "At his city-on-a-hill best," Vowell writes in one of her book's best passages, "Winthrop is Pete Seeger, gathering a generation around the campfire to sing their shared folk songs. Williams is Bob Dylan plugging in at Newport, making his own noise." Vowell, whose other books include a quirky travelogue of sites related to the assassinations of Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley, obviously is partial to people who make their own noise. But to her credit, she also recognizes the dangers individualism poses to community.

In the end, however, what makes The Wordy Shipmates float is not so much its arguments as its voice. Most writing on the Puritans is as dour as the Puritans themselves. Vowell has fun with them, and in the process, she helps us take seriously both their lives and their legacy. ยท

Stephen Prothero is professor of religion at Boston University and the author of "Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- and Doesn't."

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