America’s Puritan Heritage (and a plug for The Wordy Shipmates)

It was like providence. Or Providence. Pun intended.

Less than a week ago, during the time when I was feverishly preparing myself to begin my American Philosophy course, I just happened to be browsing in the world’s best bookstore, Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon, when I caught sight of this winsome little book. It was all orange and blue and white, and glossy. And relatively slender. I like books of a certain size, and this was one.

And then, the author’s name caught my eye: Sarah Vowell. I love Sarah Vowell. What an American treasure! Vowell rose to fame because of her distinctly comic radio essays that can be heard with great frequency on Ira Glass’ excellent NPR show “This American Life”. (If you don’t know this show, well, consider that an assignment). Score! In truth, I was already on the lookout for books by her. I must have noticed the book because her name was on the cover.

You see, I had heard she was writing a book on the history of Hawaii; loving Hawaii, as I do, that sounded promising to me. Vowell is known for her funny travelogues and historical nonfiction, which sounds boring, but she brings her acerbic, critical, self-deprecating and almost macabre panache to every sentence of her work. This is mind candy.

This book, however, turned out not to be the one on Hawaii. It turned out to be a book on Puritan America.

This was amazing to me. I had just been studying the Puritans myself! and I had found my fascination with their writings steadily growing. My plan for American Philosophy is to begin by having students read primary source texts from such Puritan luminaries as John Cotton, John Winthrop, Roger Williams, and Anne Hutchinson. And I had been puzzling about how to present these figures and their era without resorting to clichés and stereotypes.

And now here was funny lady Sarah Vowell, writing a full, book length essay, full of her good humor and intelligent insight and written in her crystal clear prose… and hadn’t she just done all my work for me. If it weren’t true, it would be too good to be true. If only I had assigned the book to my students when I submitted my book orders! Alas.

The way Vowell sees it, Americans mistakenly think of the Puritans as a bunch of killjoys. And because of their deep, evangelical — and let’s be frank, fanatical — Protestant Christian faith, they are usually also assumed to be early representatives of the anti-intellectual, anti-rational, pro-religion tradition of American thought. What Vowell sees, however, are “Wordy Shipmates,” literary proponents of an ideal society.

What Vowell points out is that these figures were passionately intellectual literary types, obsessed with ideas, books, and language. Vowell can identify, as can I. Those of us who are still literary types in an America where a love for language and for literature has fallen out of favor might look back to Puritan America as a potential wellspring for renewal. If we only cared to look.

But, weren’t they a bunch of misogynistic witch hunters and myopic bigots who perpetrated genocide on America’s native population? Well, yes, sort of. But that sort of description can only apply if you care to ignore the side of Puritan ideology that is so deeply and warmly oriented towards society viewed as community.

While the theocratic Puritan world they attempted to create in early colonial America is no longer on the top of most people’s lists of ideal societies, reading about their world and ideas demonstrates that they were also passionately idealistic about creating a society that was a true commonwealth (Massachusetts, to this day, is called a “commonwealth” and not a state; see their constitution).

When John Winthrop articulated his compelling vision of the Massachusetts bay colony as God’s “City on a Hill” — apparently appropriating ancient Israelite Zionism for English colonial interests — he created an image that has frequently been exploited in the service of what is today called “American exceptionalism.” America regards itself as the leader of the free world, the policeman of the world, and the guiding light given to the nations in politics and economic and culture. The image has often been exploited in American politics (most prominently by Ronald Reagan). And it has become steadily identified with a distinctly conservative brand of politcs.

Shrewdly, Vowell points out the discord inherent in this position. Our Puritan forebears may well have been arrogant exceptionalists (they did, after all, believe God Himself was guiding their progress). But what conservative politicos who have embraced the image of the “City on the Hill” have missed is that the Puritan idea of a Godly social order was deeply communitarian, being rooted in an ideal of self-sacrificial Christian charity and the obligations that come from our mutual interconnection in society. Once again, Vowell rescues the Puritans from that one-dimensional viewpoint that sees them merely as a bunch of Tom Delays in shiny black boots with big buckles on them. Those of us who care about the idea that people should work together in society to care for the general welfare of all, i.e. “we the people,” we have Puritan forebears too.

It’s a fascinating read. Highly recommended.

Sarah Vowell, The Wordy Shipmates (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008; ISBN: 978-1-59448-400-1); preview it on google books.

what do you think?

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