The Wordy Shipmates

The Wordy Shipmates

4.1 69
by Sarah Vowell

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From the author of Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, The Wordy Shipmates is New York Times bestselling author Sarah Vowell's exploration of the Puritans and their journey to America to become the people of John Winthrop's "city upon a hill," a shining example, a "city that cannot be hid."

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From the author of Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, The Wordy Shipmates is New York Times bestselling author Sarah Vowell's exploration of the Puritans and their journey to America to become the people of John Winthrop's "city upon a hill," a shining example, a "city that cannot be hid."

To this day, America views itself as a Puritan nation, but Vowell investigates what that means? and what it should mean. What was this great political enterprise all about? Who were these people who are considered the philosophical, spiritual, and moral ancestors of our nation? What Vowell discovers is something far different from what their uptight shoe-buckles-and- corn reputation might suggest. The people she finds are highly literate, deeply principled, and surprisingly feisty. Their story is filled with pamphlet feuds, witty courtroom dramas, and bloody vengeance. Along the way she asks:

*Was Massachusetts Bay Colony governor John Winthrop a communitarian, a Christlike Christian, or conformity's tyrannical enforcer? Answer: Yes!
*Was Rhode Island's architect, Roger Williams, America's founding freak or the father of the First Amendment? Same difference.
*What does it take to get that jezebel Anne Hutchinson to shut up? A hatchet.
*What was the Puritans? pet name for the Pope? The Great Whore of Babylon.

Sarah Vowell's special brand of armchair history makes the bizarre and esoteric fascinatingly relevant and fun. She takes us from the modern-day reenactment of an Indian massacre to the Mohegan Sun casino, from old-timey Puritan poetry, where ?righteousness? is rhymed with ?wilderness,? to a Mayflower-themed waterslide. Throughout, The Wordy Shipmates is rich in historical fact, humorous insight, and social commentary by one of America's most celebrated voices. Thou shalt enjoy it.

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Editorial Reviews

Stephen Prothero
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…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.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Vowell’s account of the post-Mayflower Puritans of New England and their influence on contemporary American culture over the centuries is thoroughly enjoyable in print. But hearing her ironic but passionate little-girl voice making history accessible and providing humorous and often trenchant present-day asides, as she did on NPR’s This American Life, is even better. In addition to fleshing out history with extensive quotes from journals and other documents of the time, Vowell has assembled a sizable cast of co-readers, including Eric Bogosian, Peter Dinklage, Jill Clayburgh, Campbell Scott and Dermot Mulroney. Some narrators feel like stunt casting, although there’s a lovely cameo by Catherine Keener, whose calm, self-contained voice is perfect for Anne Hutchinson on trial. Vowell and company (aided by Michael Giacchino’s musical score) make for pleasurable listening. A Riverhead hardcover (Reviews, July 28). (Oct.)

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Kirkus Reviews
NPR contributor Vowell (Assassination Vacation, 2005, etc.) takes a hard but affectionate look at the legacy of those doughty, slightly deranged Puritans who landed in the New World in 1630. Fans will be pleased to see that Vowell's admittedly smart-alecky style is alive and well: It's not every historical monograph that tosses together Anne Hutchinson and Nancy Drew, Dolly Parton and John Endecott. The author's characteristic devotion to detail is also evident. Previously she was obsessed with America's political assassinations; here she pores over the texts-the many texts-of the principals who interest her: John Cotton, John Winthrop and Roger Williams, in addition to the aforementioned Hutchinson and Endecott. She likes to visit the places most relevant to her subjects too; we learn, for instance, that a Boston jewelry store now occupies the site where Mistress Anne's house once stood. Vowell examines what she sees as the cascading effects of the Puritans' arrival, drawing a straight line from Massachusetts Bay to Abu Ghraib. She continually bashes the current President Bush, points out the tarnish that others seem to ignore on the well-burnished image of President Reagan (who patently lied about Iran-Contra) and ends with a paean to JFK. This approach can be jarring, as the author yanks readers back and forth between recent and colonial history from Charlie's Angels to the Visible Saints. Still, she dives into dense Puritan sermons and self-flagellating journal entries to emerge, generally, with a bit of truth. She chides us for careless use of the word Puritan and disdain for public intellectuals. "The downside of democracy, she finds, is "a suspicion of people who know what they aretalking about." In the end, she admires Winthrop's surprising tenderness, Hutchinson's chatterbox courage. At times dense, at times silly, at times surpassingly wise. Agent: Jaime Wolf/Pelosi Wolf Effron & Spates
Barbara Spindel
Unsure whether you should invest in Sarah Vowell's The Wordy Shipmates? Take a brief quiz to find out. Does seeing the run-up to the Pequot War likened to the "irrational frustration that makes [skateboarders] occasionally break their own skateboards in half" illuminate that 17th-century conflict for you? Does thinking of dissident religious leader Anne Hutchinson as "the Puritan Oprah" help you grasp her role in the American Colonies? Does being reminded of the Happy Days Thanksgiving episode in which the cast was clad in Pilgrim garb and Fonzie said things like "greetethamundo" make you chuckle with nostalgia?

If you answered these questions in the affirmative, then by all means give Shipmates a go. This is not history in the strictest sense but rather a series of funny, chatty historical musings, lacking chapter breaks and any clear chronology. This isn't to say that readers who prefer their early American history free of Brady Bunch references won't find anything of substance here. The book is smart and engaging, and it even has a unifying theme -- that the Puritans who settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony are misunderstood today, despite their persistent influence on American ideology -- though Vowell, author and frequent contributor to public radio's This American Life, is happy to wander from it when it suits her.

In focusing on the Puritans who set sail for the New World on the Arbella in 1630, as opposed to the more famous Mayflower Pilgrims of the previous decade, Vowell intends to rehabilitate the image of the less celebrated group. "I'm always disappointed when I see the word 'Puritan' tossed around as shorthand for a bunch of generic, boring, stupid, judgmental killjoys," she writes. "Because to me, they are very specific, fascinating, sometimes brilliant, judgmental killjoys who rarely agreed on anything except that Catholics are going to hell."

The most well-known members of her gang include Massachusetts Bay Colony governor John Winthrop; minister John Cotton; Roger Williams, who was banished from Massachusetts for, among other radical opinions, his belief in the separation of church and state (he eventually founded a settlement in Rhode Island); and Hutchinson, who was also banished from Massachusetts for unorthodox views, joining Williams in what Vowell calls "madcap" Rhode Island.

"The most important reason I am concentrating on Winthrop and his shipmates in the 1630s is 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," Vowell writes. She cites Winthrop's sermon "A Model of Christian Charity," in which he urges the colonists to be "as a city upon a hill." Today, of course, that phrase is more strongly associated with Ronald Reagan. "Talking about Winthrop's [sermon] without discussing Ronald Reagan would be like mentioning Dolly Parton's 'I Will Always Love You' and pretending Whitney Houston doesn't exist," Vowell observes.

Vowell's thoughtful critique of American exceptionalism measures Winthrop's city on a hill against Reagan's. Whereas the Puritans' hopes for their New World settlement were invested with a grave humility, Reagan's frequent use of the term, embellished with the adjective "shining," came to denote a reflexive patriotism and stubborn optimism that refused to acknowledge many of the problems tarnishing the shining city -- homelessness, poverty, AIDS -- during his administration. "At least the arrogant ballyhoo that New England is special and chosen by God is tempered by the self-loathing Puritans' sense of reckoning," Vowell notes. "From New England's Puritans we inherited the idea that America is blessed and ordained by God above all nations, but lost the fear of wrath and retribution."

With incisive analysis and sharp wit, Vowell traces a straight line from the Puritans' sense of mission (which had devastating consequences for Native American populations) to the war in Iraq, which "temporarily unites even some...Sunni and Shia Muslims, who hate each others' guts but agree they hate the bully America more." Shipmates had already gone to press by the time Sarah Palin exploded onto the national stage and helped make Vowell's point. During her debate with Joe Biden, the vice-presidential candidate said, "And we are to be that shining city on a hill, as President Reagan so beautifully said, that we are a beacon of hope and that we are unapologetic here." The repentance-happy Puritans, Vowell reminds us, were anything but unapologetic.

As with much of Vowell's output (see 2005's Assassination Vacation, in which she travels the country touring spots related to the murders of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley), Shipmates is as much about the author's journey as her destination. We read about her visit with her sister and young nephew to Plymouth, where a replica of the Mayflower, complete with waterslide and hot tub, leads her to muse that perhaps the Arbella Puritans are fortunate to have been "spared the indignity of fame." She describes her conversation with a Boston taxi driver as she visits sites related to her research. And reading Winthrop's journal at the Massachusetts Historical Society, she writes, "I don't think Winthrop was any more nervous leaving England than I was leafing through such a brittle, wrinkly, nearly four-hundred-year-old book."

But her unique style still manages to function like history at its best, insisting upon the profound relevance of our past to our present. The connections she makes are not only cautionary but occasionally uplifting as well. In another passage from his "Christian Charity" sermon, Winthrop said to his fellow Puritans, "We must delight in each other, make others' conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes...our community as members of the same body." Vowell writes movingly of finding comfort in these words in the days after the September 11th terrorist attacks: "When we were mourning together, when we were suffering together, I often thought of what he said and finally understood what he meant."

But that moment of earnest reflection is fleeting, which might be welcome news to those readers who prefer their Vowell smart-alecky. A few pages away she calls speculation by historians that Winthrop's sermon was delivered on the same occasion as Cotton's "God's Promise to His Plantation" sermon -- the "double-bill equivalent of this one time in Dublin I saw the Breeders open for Nirvana." --Barbara Spindel

Barbara Spindel has covered books for Time Out New York,, Details, and Spin. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies.

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Penguin Publishing Group
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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher

"[Vowell's] a complex blend: part brilliant essayist, part pop-culture-loving comedian and a full-time unabashed history geek. The mixture makes her both proudly pointy-headed and forever entertaining."
-Seattle Times

"Sarah Vowell lends her engaging voice and keen powers of observation to a work of social history...Provid[ing] a glimpse of what life was really like for the people of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the founders of Plymouth."
-Los Angeles Times

"Vowell's words crackle on the printed, quirky and unabashedly incendiary...Vowell is very funny. She is generous as she wrestles with the moral intricacies of our nation's beginnings and how Puritan contradictions inform our sense of American exceptionalism today...The Wordy Shipmates is more than a punk-ish twist on our brave, verbose, tortured forebears, living in their new colony like 'an ashram in the woods.'"
-Cleveland Plain Dealer

"For those of us who'd rather harvest our history lessons from The Simpsons than the History Channel, Vowell is a latter-day hero...Fascinating."

"Vowell...reads history with attitude, humor and sensitivity."
-Minneapolis Star-Tribune

"[Vowell exercises] her trademark sweet, silly, arch sense of the incongruous ways we memorialize the American past."
-Chicago Tribune

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The Wordy Shipmates 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 69 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A nonfiction account of the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who were loyalists, as opposed to the Puritans in Plymouth, who were separatists. Vowell presented both positive and negative aspects of the times, comparing past issues with similar ones today. Her story made the people seem more real to me. I enjoyed reading this candid version of history—much more complex than what I was taught in school.
Drew31 More than 1 year ago
Sarah is again at her snarkiest as she pulls no punches in documenting the true objective of our Puritan settlers: LIMITED religious freedom.
Kat Erickson More than 1 year ago
Vowell details the bickering amongst early collonists as if she were gossiping on the campus quad. Loved it!
Persephone16 More than 1 year ago
In her latest book The Wordy Shipmates, fiercely witty author Sarah Vowell revisits the motley crew of European expatriates who provided a foundation to our country. As witnessed through the vivid language of speeches, debates and verbal catfights, these literary innovators created a layered story of stoic ideals, dramatic controversy, and rugged but determined heroism. All of this blockbuster drama is woven into the syllables of American history. A few brave colonists took a chance on ship across the angry Atlantic and became the nation's first jet-setting rebels. Who were these star-spangled celebrities? The Puritans. The word 'Puritan' does not bring to mind the glitz and glamour of a fight for democracy and independence. Most Americans conjure a few images of Thanksgiving and thankless manual labor at the very mention of the word. A 'Puritan work ethic' is the most enduring image of these original New Englanders, but Sarah Vowell makes it apparent that it is their spirit for new ideas and quest to become the idyllic "city upon a hill" that has permeated the root of American culture and society. Though the sentiment behind the words may have witnessed several transformations, America remains a nation of words just as the Puritans who landed in New England in 1630. Sarah Vowell reminds us of how much we didn't learn in history class about our assumed ancestry. She guides both the casual and avid American historian on a journey of words from stormy England across the sea to the colony of Massachusetts Bay. Among the most purely Puritan of the cast of shipmates included in the story are the persistent and stoic governor John Winthrop and his right-hand minister John Cotton. Providing drama are the colony's premiere upstarts such as "American Jezebel" Anne Hutchinson, a woman who dared to have some words of her own, and Roger Williams, whose rebellious and shocking ideas led to such American standards as freedom of speech and separation of church and state. Shipmates showcases not only history, but the vitality of real people who happened to set the stage for a future democracy. The reader is left with the sense of just how important words still are. The words of the past come back to form new styles of government. The words of today reflect a new way of saying an old idea. This book updates the Puritan image and interprets the words and concepts of our forefathers in an accessible format. Just as our Puritan ancestors, we have good intentions and we make mistakes, but still we encourage education, debate and the spirit of discovery. Sarah Vowell demonstrates an idea that I find to be comforting. America's wordy ship is still sailing. The Wordy Shipmates is a must ready for any American, historians and rap stars alike.
Strongmedicine More than 1 year ago
Sarah Vowell is a smart aleck who took the most boring subject (religious folk in old New England) and made it into an animated relevant event. Her style is a mixture of wise cracks and solid research. She takes a bunch of Puritans from hundreds of years ago and relates their dilemmas to present day events - thus puttting the reader in Puritan common sense decision trees. The book was not at all what I thought I wanted, but it was a great way to learn history - I consumed it greedily ... all dessert. I loved the style and want to have her teach me more boring subjects with the same gift for making it current and amusing.
CopakeWillow More than 1 year ago
It's clear that Vowell has done a thorough job of research and knows her subject intimately. She has a wonderful rye sense of humor, enjoying all the contradictions and foibles of the various Puritans and Pilgrims. But she also has great affection for them. So she doesn't tear them down; she just shows how human they are. Vowell not only thoroughly explains the historic context at the time, but also follows it through to today. Her take is unorthodox, but always thought-provoking and often laughter-provoking, too. This is actually an important book for us to read today, because these are our intellectual and often political & economic forebears and they still live on in us today.
Andrew_D More than 1 year ago
As anyone who has read any of Sarah Vowell's other books might have expected, this book is a terrific, enjoyable, and informative read. It's well-written, insightful, engaging, and a must-read for anyone who is interested in, knows about, or cares about history... or is just looking for a terrifically written, wonderful read. Highly recommended.
Chipper714 More than 1 year ago
Starting with the oft-overlooked differences between Pilgrims and Puritans, Sarah Vowell dives in the world colonial Massachusetts to show that we are even today profoundly influenced by the thinking and rhetoric of those early colonists.

She addresses the career of John Winthrop who at times rules the early colony with a stern hand but still manages to recall from time to time the Christian principle of compassion. Vowell also gives us a look at the revolutionary philosophy of the gifted founder of Rhode Island, Roger Williams and briefly touches on the fascinating Anne Hutchinson.

While the engaging humorous asides and breaks for her personal commentary that have marked her previous books are still in evidence and still endearing, they are fewer and farther between. There also seems to be a greater depth of research with more detail than earlier works. Less humor, more research and a topic like the Puritans may seem to make for a boring doesn't.

What Sarah Vowell does is brilliant. Her treatment of the topic may not rise to the scholarly level of a history professor, but it is much more likely to be read and discussed. That's a very good thing. I'll be honest, I envy Sarah Vowell for her ability to commit to such a demanding topic and write about it with such genuine affection for some of the long dead figures that you wished the book were longer. She is a gifted writer and a gift to our country.
Anonymous 3 months ago
Too much drawing room epic and snark here to be as enjoyable as Assination Vacation.
tcarrico More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this often humorous and insightful looks at the Puritans in the 1600s.  The author does a great job of showing how this history relates to current events and politics.
lovelybookshelf More than 1 year ago
Don't pick up The Wordy Shipmates expecting a grown-up version of Thanksgiving-centered lesson plans from grade school. Sarah Vowell offers an accurate portrayal of the Puritans in this well-researched non-fiction title, which regularly quotes primary source material and is delivered in a fast-paced, humorous, narrative style. Vowell introduces us to colorful characters who pop off the page, real people from our country's past who demand attention and dare to be remembered. She brings history to life. I especially loved learning more about Roger Williams and the founding of Rhode Island. Here's this crazy zealot who, despite his own fanatical beliefs, believes in and advocates for the separation of church and state so wholeheartedly that he is exiled. He's a man well ahead of his time. My only complaint: There are a few moments when the commentary veers far off topic with an unnecessarily venomous slant. It seemed as if she was actively looking for opportunities to insert a jab. Don't misunderstand: I enjoy sarcastic, sardonic humor. I also think there's no need to be cruel. (You'll definitely find out how deeply she hates Ronald Reagan). So yes, once in awhile Vowell gets soapboxy; but for the most part, it's nice to walk through the connections she makes, how the past ties in with current events. Vowell is passionate about her topic, and that really shines through when reading The Wordy Shipmates. I couldn't help but think how much more interested in history I would have been in school if our texts had expressed even half of Vowell's enthusiasm. Sarah Vowell believes the Puritans are worth getting to know, and I think she succeeds in convincing her readers of the same. 3 1/2 stars.
ConfuzzledShannon More than 1 year ago
In The Wordy Shipmates we are shown that the Puritan’s life was not Thanksgiving every day.  They fought with the Indians,they fought the British and they fought with each other.  I found I liked The Wordy Shipmates near the end where she describes a trip with her niece and nephew to Boston.  During a reenactment of the Puritans war against the Indians, author Sarah Vowell’s nephew, who is wincing through violent scenes,  asks when do they have Thanksgiving. Vowell’s answer is 16 years earlier.  I like that because I related with the boy as he learned about the history but that was only one sentence or more. I found this a very hard read.  I picked it up because I had seen Vowell on The Daily Show and I liked her sense of humor.  I found myself trying to read and not understanding what I read.  From other reviews it seems I picked the wrong Sarah Vowell book to start with.  The fact that it had no chapters was not a good thing.  It needed something to breakup what was being learned. I wish I could have connected with the book and understood better to especially catch the humor. As for now I will be on the lookout for Vowell’s early books.  This one is going to the exchange pile.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book taught me things I did not know about the english who settled in New England. Sarah Vowel has done a magnificent job of detailing how America became the America we live in today.
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LizLopez15 More than 1 year ago
I never thought I'd read a book about religious zealots and never thought I'd be so satisfied with it. The book makes the case for the separation between church and state. I loved it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I don't remember learning barely any of this in school, which says a lot about public school, or my memory. In any case, this was a great read, even though i had to put it down at times to lumber through the slower parts.
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