The Puritan settlers of America are often blamed for the more irritating aspects of its modern society. Their tightly-wound moralism is blamed for America’s fidgety, repressed sexuality while references to the “Puritan work ethic” imply that an aversion to fun and relaxation is somehow embedded in its cultural genetics. Their penchant for religious hysteria and supernatural beliefs, as dramatically demonstrated in the Salem Witch Trials, is often used to highlight and mock those who lose reason and rationality. The idea is that had we been settled by French libertines instead of English churchgoers, the United States would be a nonstop, epicurean party. Instead, it’s, well, puritanical, deeply rigid and averse to change.
To believe that the Puritans of Boston poisoned the well for the whole United States of America right from the start, you’d have to ignore the fact that their sphere of influence in the 17th Century hardly extended beyond the Connecticut River, and that their colonial domain of Boston and its environs is today a bastion of liberalism and Papist religious observance the likes of which would have driven them absolutely crazy. Salem, scene of the epic battle between the righteous forces of Puritanism and the imagined legions of Satan, has surrendered entirely to witchcraft and has become a Mecca to those looking for novelty broomsticks and family-friendly occult experiences. If the very heart of Puritan America has evolved into something radically different, it’s hard to believe that the whole of America has been tainted by their social mores.
The common image of the stern, stentorian Puritan in his drab, black ensemble, preaching fire and brimstone, is largely an exaggeration that elides the fascinating nature of these devoted, adventurous, flawed, and yes, influential people. In The Wordy Shipmates, NPR fixture and historical humorist Sarah Vowell argues that misunderstanding of the Puritans obscures the roots of America’s national character and clouds their true contribution to our culture, which even today informs its political and social attitudes: American Exceptionalism.
The term ‘American Exceptionalism’ is a euphemistic cover for that old bugbear, nationalism, which you may remember from the prologue to every chapter about disastrous war and conflict in your high school history textbook. Nationalism differs from patriotism in that it not only declares that its own culture, government, and society is great, it (whether implicitly or explicitly) casts all others as terrible. It’s a sentiment planted by Puritan John Winthrop, who first cast their New World home as a “city on a hill”, and later employed to different ends by politicians like John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and in a faint echo of the “Great Communicator” during her 2008 Vice Presidential Debate, Governor Sarah Palin.
The “city on a hill”, a beacon of rightness in the world, is a noble and laudable sentiment, one that Vowell feels particularly fond of, though as she demonstrates throughout her book, the well-meaning ideals of Winthrop and his brethren are a double-edged sword. American Exceptionalism has the potential to spur great innovation and bring about profound change, yet it can also be a destructive, insular force that pits the country against those who dare question its authority. The road to Puritan Boston was paved with good intentions, and Vowell is quick to draw obvious parallels to the current situation in Iraq. Much as the American involvement in Iraq was expected to be greeted as liberation, the emigrants to Boston saw themselves on a mission to aid the Natives who knew nothing of Christ. The crest which represented the voyage of these well-meaning Puritans, Vowell notes with exasperation, depicted an American Indian explicitly asking “Come over and help us”.
Still, even in the face of such questionable thinking, Vowell can’t help but have a soft spot for these early Americans because, well, they’re too much like the current Americans to look down upon. She takes great steps toward sweeping away the caricature of Puritans that’s continually reinforced by pop culture and sloppy, lazy history. The portrait she paints of these hearty settlers is both endearing and tragic, as they set out in search of a better, more perfect life and occasionally stumble into wrong-headedness and conflict.
Vowell’s narrative is bolstered by a series of trips she takes to Boston, Providence, and the Foxwoods Resort and Casino, providing useful contemporary context for the historical vignettes. The Foxwoods sequence in particular, which traces the fortunes of the Mohegan and Pequot tribes as they struggle for survival and refine their relations with the Puritans, is particularly poignant, and finishes off with a reality check that will leave readers stunned by how much history passes by them every day, in the most familiar places, and how expensive the cost of getting to the present, our comfortable, relatively safe present, has been.
The Wordy Shipmates is an admirable effort in bringing the reality of America’s early years to the public in a highly readable, entertaining, and informative way. Vowell doesn’t load the book with minutiae or seek to provide a cumbersome, comprehensive survey of the Puritan story. Instead, she distills the vital elements and links them with modern events in a way that grounds them and makes them more salient. Vowell knows that understanding the past is the best way to understand the present, and The Wordy Shipmates is sure to convince plenty of others of that fact, too.