When Sarah Vowell comes to town, she brings with her the oddest bunch of Puritans you’ve ever met. Sometimes cruel, often endearing, highly literate (for a pre-Enlightenment society), occasionally confounding in their contradictions, the Puritans who settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1630s come to life in Vowell’s latest historical slice of arcane Americana.
The Wordy Shipmates reveals Anne Hutchinson as a headstrong Puritan guru who enraged the Puritan leaders by claiming that God spoke directly to her – blasphemy to the Puritans who don’t believe in that kind of revelation. It spotlights Roger Williams as a banished, tormented, confrontational colonist who is “hard to like but easy to love.” The core of the book, however, is John Winthrop, the governor who took the parting sermon of John Cotton in which Cotton tells “these about-to-be-Americans” in inspiring language that “they are God’s new chosen people” and governs the new colony accordingly, helping to sow the seeds of American exceptionalism which would go beyond colonists spreading God’s word to the natives, and would ultimately permeate U.S. foreign policy in the centuries to come.
John Winthrop’s own sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” calls on New England to be “as a city upon a hill” – a beacon of righteousness. As Vowell puts it, the “worldview behind that motto – we’re here to help, whether you want our help or not – is the Massachusetts Puritans’ most enduring bequest to the future United States.” But the same sermon also outlines a more humble notion of America. Vowell writes: “Dig deep into its communitarian ethos and it reads more like an America that might have been, an America fervently devoted to the quaint goals of working together and getting along. Of course, this America does exist. It’s called Canada.”
Sarah Vowell read this passage to a packed and adoring crowd here in Toronto as part of the recent International Authors Festival. We’re a strange bunch, we Canadians. Virtually every day of the year we keep our national pride under wraps, shying away from overt acts of flag-waving, hooting-and-hollering patriotism. But put us in a theatre in downtown Toronto, bring in an erudite and thoughtful writer, and if she heaps even the slightest praise upon Canada, we’re in heaven. More so if it’s an American doing the praising. To us. Out loud. That “Canada” line brought down the house.
Of course that line is an amusing throwaway, but it has a germ of truth at least when it comes to national self-perception. Vowell’s reading at the festival was followed by a lengthy conversation with writer and broadcaster Ian Brown who suggested that America sees itself on a journey, following a visionary course – a destiny, while we Canadians are more concerned with “whether we have enough parsnips in the basement” to get through the long winter.
In The Wordy Shipmates, Vowell frequently breaks the narrative to offer some trenchant opinions of how the two halves of the Winthrop sermon have grown further apart over the centuries. For all their rousing talk of America as a beacon on a hill, many leaders have overlooked the more modest ideals that could be drawn from the same sermon. Vowell takes a mallet and smashes the rose-colored glasses through which many people have been gazing back at Ronald Reagan’s terms in office. One of the most vocal co-opters of the “city-on-a-hill” mantra, Reagan’s eloquent Winthropian language and his grandfatherly demeanor masks the treatment (or rather, neglect) of the already-marginalized in America during his watch.
A ray of hope, though. The book was written, and the reading was given, before the recent election. Which changes things, I think, as President-elect Obama seems, in these transitional days anyway, to be that rarest of things – a leader who combines reason and pragmatism and a sense of a community pulling together, with spirited language and an inspiring delivery. The beacon on a hill appears to be shining a bit more brightly.
Some other Sarah Vowell-isms from the interview:
On the almighty buck: At one point interviewer Ian Brown reached for a bottle of water, took a swig, and then uttered the name of the brand. To which Vowell jokingly chided Brown for giving the bottler an unsolicited, unpaid plug, saying “you Canadians will just give it away for free.”
On her preoccupation with subcultures: Vowell admitted her lifelong obsession with groups, the more unruly the better. From Goths to Puritans, she’s fascinated by their habits whether that means wearing too much make-up or spreading salvation in colonial Massachusetts.
On why U.S. history is more far more interesting than Canadian history: “Canadians are superior human beings,” Vowell said (to huge applause), adding: “and thus nothing ever happens.”
On restraint: “I have a policy where I’m trying not to swear,” Vowell told us, “and I open the newspaper in the morning and I’m like a gangsta rapper who stubbed his toe.”
On the separation of church and state: “It’s on the books,” Vowell assured us, all the while frustrated that vocal and sometimes powerful groups try to pretend that it’s not.
On research: Vowell spent ages sifting through volume after volume of admittedly dull Puritan writing. “I do quote from the juicier bits of Puritan writing for you… and you’re welcome.”
On Jon Stewart: Vowell, in addition to her books and contributions to This American Life on NPR, is a frequent guest on the hip late-night circuit, particularly The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. She was asked what he was really like. “A six-foot-tall black man,” Vowell quipped. And I thought the camera just added ten pounds! On a serious note, Vowell said that Stewart’s humor is derived from a core of sadness, of frustration with misuse of power.
On Pixar: Vowell also made a lasting impression as the voice of Violet in The Incredibles. She has a high regard for Pixar, and applauds the animation studio for using “every aspect of the medium for meaning.”
On superheroes and their powers: During the Q and A, Vowell was asked by an audience member what her ideal superpower would be. To which she replied: “Always being well-rested.”
On meeting me: While waiting in line to have Vowell sign my copy of her latest book, an organizer worked her way through the queue writing each of our names in big block letters on a little yellow post-it notes and sticking them in the books, at the proper spot. When I found myself in front of Sarah Vowell, after exchanging pleasantries, she looked at my name, and, stunned by the unprecedented and unexpected number of Andrews ahead of me in the line, she asked: “Do all Canadians name their sons Andrew?”. We both laughed. “I guess there’s a lot of us,” I quipped, adding: “And I wasn’t even born here!” We both tossed our heads back and laughed some more. She then added, without missing a beat, “But you fit right in.”