Friday, May 15, 2009

Dolly Parton, Ronald Reagan and the Non-Separatist Puritans of Boston

The Wordy Shipmates The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm a huge Sarah Vowell fan. Whether on the radio or in her books, she melds memoir, pop culture and ruminations on under-told stories of American history with wit, insight and flashes of profound grief and compassion. She's like a fencing master of intertextuality- which the first section of her newest book so brilliantly displays, where she compares John Winthrop's 1613 diary list of Calvinist spiritual goals to Jay Gatsby's self-improvement routine. In fact, it's the opening portion of Vowell's 'Wordy Shipmates' that exemplifies the best of what she has to offer in drawing together historical oddities and their comical (and disturbing) contemporary ramifications. While the book focuses on the highs and lows of the non-Separatists Puritan community of Massachusetts Bay (as opposed to the darling Puritans of Plymouth Colony who were Separatists) the first section tracks the history of Winthrop's 1630 sermon "On Christian Charity" and its perseverance through time in famous presidential speeches. To quote, "Talking about Winthrop's "A Model of Christian Charity" without discussing Ronald Reagan would be like mentioning Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You" and pretending Whitney Houston's doesn't exist. Whitney and Reagan's covers were way more famous than the original versions."

Throughout this opening section, Vowell points out that America's self identification as the 'CIty on a Hill" disregards the other elements of Winthrop's (and the book of Matthew's) point, that includes humble submission and service to one another. "...the "City on a Hill" is the image from Winthrop's speech that stuck and not "members of the same body." No one is going to hold up a cigarette lighter to the tune of "mourn together, suffer together."

This is the kind of perspective I love Sarah Vowell for, but unfortunately, the majority of "Wordy Shipmates" lacks the most important element: Sarah Vowell. At a certain point, she seems to leave the conversation and just get bogged down in historical reporting, with little interpretation or commentary. That's where the book turned textbook and left me behind. I read Vowell to journey with her, to see what pops up in her head as she researches and writes about Anne Hutchinson, Roger Williams or the Pequot War. But 'Shipmates' is heavy on the names on dates and light on reflection. It's a worthwhile read for the first 70 pages alone, but by the end, I missed Vowell's voice and winning way of educating, elucidating and entertaining.

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