“The Wordy Shipmates” makes Puritans edgy

“The only thing more dangerous than an idea is a belief,” begins ‘The Wordy Shipmates,’ Sarah Vowell’s latest book. And dangerous beliefs are what the Massachusetts Bay Puritans, the subjects of ‘Shipmates,’ are all about.

The Massachusetts Bay Puritans came to America in 1630, led by Reverend John Winthrop. They quickly established a small colony they named “Boston.”

By the time the curtain closes on John F. Kennedy’s 1961 farewell address to Massachusetts, 90 percent of the New World’s natives will have been massacred by the settlers and their diseases, dozens of would-be Americans will have frozen to death during the voyage from England, and Boston will have become a successful city.

Is it the city on a hill of John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon?

Perhaps not. The Massachusetts Bay colonists have their fair share of prejudices, privations, and downright petty arguments (there has never been a better visible precedent to internet trolling than the pamphlets written by John Cotton and Roger Williams, which address ad nauseam the concept of God’s “bloudy tenets”).

In “The Wordy Shipmates,” Vowell argues that, whether it ever existed or not, the idea of a “city on a hill” still haunts present-day America.

She mentions, among other politicians’, Ronald Reagan’s interpretation of Winthrop’s speech, because “talking about … ‘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 didn’t exist. Whitney and Reagan’s covers were way more famous than the original versions ever were.”

The book is rife with similar pop culture references. Occasionally, they can become distracting, as when Vowell compares the buildup to the Pequot War, which resulted in the near-evisceration of the Pequot tribe, to the skateboarding term “focusing your board,” i.e., frustration so great that it causes temper tantrums. Underneath the flippant surface, however, Vowell always has something weighty to say.

Midway through an explanation of Puritan justice by way of The Brady Bunch’s Thanksgiving, Vowell notes, “Check out those barbarian idiots with their cockamamie farce of a legal system, locking people up for fishy reasons and putting their criminals to death. Good thing Americans put an end to all that nonsense long ago. “My point being, the amateur historian’s next stop after ‘Boy, people used to be so stupid’ is ‘People: still stupid.'”

Sarcasm that poignant makes it little wonder that Vowell has been called the modern Dorothy Parker many times over.

She certainly has a rare stranglehold on black humor, which has characterized most of her works, and indeed, most of her life. (In her youth, Vowell’s elementary schoolmates nicknamed her Wednesday Addams.)

The cynicism is oddly well matched by unexpected hope. For all her biting comments, Vowell has more patriotic spirit in her than most.

Her interest in the actions, both past and future, of her country drives her to read John Winthrop’s agonizingly dull journals, comment on food supply lists for the Boston community, comb libraries for a rare witness account of Pequot genocide, and distill it all into a book about how America regards and is influenced by its Puritan past.

Vowell’s writing reflects this dichotomy. A book both caustic and dreamy, erudite and glib, historic and timely, “The Wordy Shipmates” is well worth reading.