On Monday at Town Hall Sarah Vowell read from her recent book “Wordy Shipmates.” I attended the reading but had not read any of her books. There are four previous books. “Assassination Vacation” was probably the most popular. It was on on the overstock table at Elliot Bay which means that the publisher expected a lot of sales and carries a vague hint of disappointment.
Sarah Vowell, as you probably know, early in her career worked with David Sedaris on Ira Glass’s show “This American Life,” and still occasionally does a piece for the radio show. I find her little autobiographical pieces side-splittingly funny and her books have been highly recommended to me but have just never made it to the top of my reading list.
For all her public speaking and television and radio appearances, she is quite shy and reserved in public, at least on this stop of her book tour. Nonetheless her reading and discussion afterwards was very enjoyable and made me bump her new book to the top of my reading list.
I’ve just started but can already recommend the book as a very engaging and unique look at American colonial history. The breadth and originality of her associations with early writings and historical events is almost mesmerizing. Pop culture, contemporary events and Puritanical doctrine seem to somehow blend in a way that enriches the reader’s understanding of all of them.
One of the things that has struck me is how two threads of the colonist’s doctrine have been unwoven from that fabric, one has been largely abandoned and the other used to justify things far from the minds of the Puritans.
The Puritans advocated a rich inner life of learning, reading, appreciation of history, science and literature (mostly Biblical). They were creatures of the Age of Reason and avid writers, committed to the exchange of ideas. They saw the colonies as a refuge from hostilities between nations.
This developed into our founding fathers’ abhorrence of “entangling liaisons” with other nations. This prioritization of scholarly learning and the development of our understanding of science and literature does not seem to have taken a firm grip on today’s society. Nor does the notion that in the interest of fostering this enrichment we ought to avoid becoming entangled with other countries.
The other thread was probably thought of at the time as a benign Christian notion. I guess it still is but it has lost some of its “benign” luster. Sarah Vowell’s book discusses the Massachusetts Bay colony, which was founded by Puritans faithful to England, people full of doubt and second thoughts about leaving. They were fleeing persecution but searching for a Godly justification for the trip.
The official seal of the colony, brought over from England, has on it an Indian and the words “Come over and help us.” A person glancing at the official documents of the day might get the impression that the trip was motivated by a heathen’s call for help. Things certainly didn’t work out that way.
This call for help has echoed down the course of American history and heard at opportune times by our leaders. It was heard by William McKinley who sent gunboats to Manila to Christianize Filipinos. The ardor of this vision was not abated by the discovery shortly after arrival that the Philippines had been Catholic for two hundred years. John Kennedy heard the same plea from the Vietnamese (at least from the ones at the south end of the country) and sent aircraft carriers to “help freedom defend itself.” George W. Bush and Dick Cheney heard the same pleas. Bush heard the people of Iraq crying to him for freedom and Cheney knew that we would be greeted as liberators. Sarah Vowell reminds us that we have been hearing this for a long time.