The Wordy Shipmates

I was hoping this book would be a revelation. It wasn’t.

That’s not to say I was disappointed with it. Okay, I was, but that was no fault of the book’s: it’s a good book, well-written, interesting, informative. It’s just that I wanted my jaw to drop, wanted my impressions of the Puritans — built through a childhood spent in Massachusetts, going to Plymouth Plantation  on a school field trip every year between third grade and eighth–  to undergo a startling transformation. It’s happened to me before, when I first seriously taught Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, about the Salem Witch Trials; because in the play’s text are extensive passages of background about the Puritans of 1692 Massachusetts, and one of the companion pieces I taught with it was On Plymouth Plantation by William Bradford, the first governor of the Plymouth Colony. That was the first time I saw the Puritans as courageous, traveling thousands of miles into an unknown, landing in the wrong place, losing half of their number in the first winter — and then staying there anyway, and fighting for survival in a harsh and hostile environment. Miller talks about how this circumstance forced the Puritans to live in each other’s pockets, because they either worked together and protected each other, or they all would die; it was just this sort of all-in collective life, surrounded by a danger that the Puritans personified as Satan (who lived in the woods and had wild animals and the Native American “savages” as minions) that led to the Witch Trials as Miller depicted them in his play.

I was hoping this book would change my mind again, and give me yet another perspective on the Puritans beyond “Religious fanatics whose draconian morality caused half of our country’s hypocritical opinions regarding sin and pleasure, and work ethic and such,” or “Those Thanksgiving guys (who actually betrayed and slaughtered the Native Americans who helped them out).” And it sort of did, because Vowell shows that the Puritans were extraordinarily literate — hence the “wordy” in the title —  and valued learning and reading and writing and thought, all of which  I appreciate. She shows how their remarkable idealism was what really pushed them to become the trailblazers they were, and allowed them to survive in the conditions they met on that trail. She shows most clearly how that idealism both informs our modern view of America, and how it has been corrupted by cynical politics, when she speaks of the co-opting of “the City on a Hill,” which came from a Puritan minister’s sermon, and was then used by both John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, among others.

But while I hadn’t known how literate the Puritans were, I don’t know how interesting that is. Which is how I felt about the book. Maybe I was already too aware of the Puritans and their history; maybe I am not aware enough of the history of literacy and the valuing of education; but the book was good when I wanted it to be great.


I hope someone else can find it great.

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