A few thoughts on The Wordy Shipmates

I expressed some mixed feelings about Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates in my post from earlier this week, and I thought I’d expand on those a bit. For the most part, I enjoyed reading the book. It’s under 300 pages and is a quick read, so it’s a good way to learn or review a little history, especially if longer, more serious history books aren’t your thing (which they aren’t for me).

Vowell tells the story of the pilgrims who sailed to America in 1630 and founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony. She analyzes what motivated them to leave England, and then describes the problems that faced them once they arrived — the challenge of settling themselves in to a strange and difficult landscape, the internal conflicts and disagreements that inevitably came up, and the wars with Indians that eventually arose. The most interesting parts were her descriptions of the Puritan’s religious beliefs and the legacy they left to America. She argues repeatedly that although we think of ourselves as cultural descendants of the Puritans, our relationship to their legacy is enormously complicated. The evangelicals of today who might seem like the Puritans’ most obvious descendants differ from them in crucial ways. John Winthrop’s famous use of the phrase “city on a hill” to describe the new colony appears again and again in the book, most effectively when Vowell launches a scathing critique of Ronald Reagan’s many uses of it for purposes that would have been quite a surprise to Winthrop.

Vowell makes all of this interesting (although it’s interesting material to begin with, I think) by her sense of humor and her method of moving back and forth in time, making connections between what happened then and has happened since. She has a sarcastic, smart-ass tone that provides some laughs (I don’t have the book anymore, so I can’t give examples. unfortunately) and also keeps the narrative light and fast-moving. At times it’s a little glib for my taste, but the truth is, I don’t know of many history books written in such an amusing manner, so overall, I appreciated it. She also frequently jumps forward in time, sometimes to tell a lengthy story, such as her discussion of Ronald Reagan or her story of visiting Plymouth Plantation with some family members. She also uses contemporary references to help explain her points, such as her description of how American history gets portrayed on The Brady Bunch. It gets silly sometimes, but it’s also fun, and illuminating.

You can tell from my descriptions that I’m not a huge fan of Vowell’s sense of humor. My other complaint is that I would have liked a better sense of the book’s structure. There are no chapters, which means it’s hard to get a sense of the overall structure of the book — what its historical starting and ending points are and how the narrative elements are organized.

However, if you want a quick review of early American history, this is a great place to go, or if you want to know more about the Puritans and their legacy (again, without reading something longer and weightier), this book will suit you.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

7 responses to “A few thoughts on The Wordy Shipmates

  1. Yeah, I don’t think I could take a whole book of Vowell, although I do enjoy her radio spots. I fear she would start to seem overly self-satisfied in book form, which is maybe another way of addressing your glibness point. She is amusing in small doses, though.


  2. I’m really intrigued by this as non-fiction is definitely being pushed by editors towards the accessible, wise-cracking, smart end of the spectrum. But of course it’s a chance to put your sense of humour on the page, as lots of readers won’t share it. It does sound an interesting book. Mister Litlove recently read a non-fiction book about the collapse of the banks that traced the faultline back to attitudes from the Puritans, so they are clearly a hot topic!


  3. I read Vowell’s Assassination Vacation a few years ago, and while I enjoyed it, I came to the conclusion that she’s better on the radio. I love her spots on This American Life, for example. I’ve found the same to be true of David Sedaris. For some reason, I find their humor easier to appreciate when I’m listening to them. I’ll probably listen to the audiobook of this at some point.


  4. Some writing is good in small doses–and she sounds like a good example. I’m looking forward to reading something by her–I think I might like her but more as a starting point to history perhaps. It sounds like she would be fun to listen to so I’ll have to see if my library has anything on audio.


  5. I’ve read one book by her and just can’t bring myself to do another. I agree with the others who said she is better on the radio. I think her humor comes across better there than on the page.


  6. I will agree that not having chapters bothered me, but I have to say that I love her sense if humor. I also wish I’d had her as suplemental reading in college. I also love the way Nick Hornby plays off her (he has a cameo in Assassination Vacation) in his books like Housekeeping V. The Dirt. I hate most parties where I know no one, but I would give my eyeteeth to attend an NPR party with Vowell, Sedaris, and Hornby.


  7. Emily — yeah, I think I may like her better on the radio as well, although I don’t think she really gets self-satisfied. But still, it’s a voice I didn’t love. She can definitely be amusing.

    Litlove — my sense is that Vowell wouldn’t do as well writing in any other way, so I’m not sure she’s taking advantage of current trends in nonfiction so much as benefiting from the fact that her style aligns with them well. She’s lucky it does! How interesting that there are other books out there now that touch on the Puritans — they are a useful bunch for explaining American culture!

    Teresa — one of my best audiobook experiences was listening to David Sedaris reading one of his books. It was really, really funny. I like it when authors read their own books, although I’m not sure about hours spent listening to Sarah Vowell, with her unique voice!

    Danielle — I think she’d be a great starting point for further history reading, and she includes a list of books to read at the end, so she makes it easy to go further. I think the book would be good for listening, although perhaps not if Vowell read it herself.

    Stefanie — Interesting. I had a decently good experience with this one (not perfect, obviously), but I think this may be my last Vowell as well.

    Emily B. — now that would be an excellent party! I’d love it. Did you read her list of acknowledgments in any of her books? The one in The Wordy Shipmates was amazing in how many famous names it had on it. (I don’t have the book here now so I can’t give examples.) She has high-powered friends, and if she ever has a party where she invites all of them, I think we should crash it.


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