Monday, March 16, 2009

The Wordy Shipmates

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The Wordy Shipmates
The key to the title of Sarah Vowel’s book The Word Shipmates lies in her statement that the Puritans’ “single-minded obsession with one book, the Bible, made words the center of their lives.” You are probably thinking “oh boy a book about Puritans, another Thanksgiving story”, but, you are wrong because this book is not at all about those Puritans.

The main event that Vowel centers on is the Massachusetts Bay colonists’ arrival in 1630. These colonists were not separatists (from England) like their brothers and sisters who arrived in 1620, the Plymouth Bay colonists. (They were the ones that we think about at Thanksgiving.) From the starting point of the 1630 arrival, Vowel tells an engaging story involving a relatively small cast of historical characters including: John Winthrop, John Cotton, Roger Williams, the Pequots, the Mohegans, and Anne Hutchinson. Some readers will have problems with Vowel’s chatty approach interspersing historical information with personal anecdotes. Other readers will have problems with her not-so-coddling approach with the subject of religion and God. If you don’t mind either of these two aspects the book will be rewarding because before long (unless you are a major history buff already or a Puritan-studies scholar) you will have a better understanding of why the Puritans left England, what it was like for them in America, and how their ideas are still important today.

A case in point is John Winthrop who is a central figure in the The Wordy Shipmates. His 1630 sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” (also referred to as the “City Upon the Hill” sermon) is a theme that Vowel returns to many times in the book. The sermon is part motivation, part warning to the Puritans before leaving England and is considered to be the root of the concept of American exceptionalism. Despite the “we are the chosen and everyone’s eyes will be on us” tone, the sermon as well expresses a strong sense of community interdependence. One famous user of the phrase “city upon a hill” was Ronald Reagan except that it seems he forgot that part about interdependence: “we must delight in each other; make other’s conditions our own”.

Addition: After writing this I was flipping throught the Rochester Review and there was an article about Thomas Slaughter, Professor of History, and his ideas about the two traditions of history (and writing about history). The first tradition being that history be practiced scientifically (hypotheses and verfication) and the second tradition being history as a branch of literature. In the latter tradition historians are storytellers with empathy and intuition. I think that Vowel's book falls into the second tradition.


  1. isn't this blog supposed to be about travel. its like i came here looking for explorations and stuff so i can plan my next trip to Italy or something...and i get a book review! ;) why don't you get out and travel and write about traveling? geez,are you retired from traveling or something? ;)

  2. We are travelling in our minds...


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