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Washtenaw Flaneurade
6 January 2009
Farting Squirrel Hot Sauce
Now Playing: The Fratellis--"Chelsea Dagger"

If it ever shows up at the grocery store, I'll be partially to blame.

Sarah Vowell, The Wordy Shipmates (2008): Sarah Vowell is a writer and broadcaster who has appeared frequently on This American Life, the ultra-twee NPR oral-story icon making sense of an often strange and confusing world for people who don't get out that much. From everything I'd read and heard of Vowell, I was ready to hate this book with a passion. My idea of her veered close at times to the female version of the proudly mediocre Chuck Klosterman (who's also appeared on This American Life) in the excessive dollops of irony and frequent pop-culture references used to season her work, and her reported stories on the show reveal that she has a voice akin to Sara Gilbert's when the latter did her impression of Jenna von Oy in the Saturday Night Live parody of the NBC sitcom Blossom during the early nineties (a classic sketch probably better remembered for Mike Meyers' Joey Lawrence). The voice issue is hardly unappealing, but everything I'd read about The Wordy Shipmates prepared me to revile it, especially a review by Virginia Heffernan in The New York Times Book Review. The Wordy Shipmates, you see, is an impressionistic analysis of the New England Puritans and the influence they've had on American history and literature. Vowell, a noted history buff, previously published Assassination Vacation, the story of her journeys to various famous assassination sites throughout the U.S., and The Wordy Shipmates promised to be another chapter in her quest to quirkily snark on some cherished myths about our collective past. The first twenty pages or so were profoundly unpromising, Vowell gassing on about how she saw the Puritans during her childhood, referencing Brady Bunch episodes and so forth, with hipster slang cast this way and that, that I was halfway prepared to give up, as I'd already read Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs and really don't want to relive the experience. I'm not sure how to describe what happened next. It was somewhere between instant seduction (maybe unfortunately, I think Vowell's cute, and coupled with the voice, that might have had some effect)* and getting used to the pool temperature. After the first few pages, it just becomes fantastic, Vowell recounting the stories of colonial power-players like Massasoit, John Cotton and John Winthrop, and lusty "heretics" like Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, and making frequent asides to later centuries, when political figures such as Reagan, Dubya and Mario Cuomo bandied about Winthrop's classic "city on a hill" vision to describe America. I fell in love with it, pperhaps largely through Vowell's unabashed personal fondness for many of these people. She feels that the Puritans don't get a fair shake in conventional accounts of American culture, and her vehemence struck a chord, as I share a similar defiant affection for the Puritans' contemporaries (and nominal superiors), the Roundheads of the English Civil War (Harry Vane, one of the condemned regicides of 1660--the men still alive who'd condemned Charles I to death in 1649, makes a surprise appearance in The Wordy Shipmates, as an idealistic young whippersnapper out to make a name for himself in 1630s Massachusetts). One thing Vowell does very well is to expose how human and vivacious the supposedly strait-laced Puritans really were, citing poetry and sermons (the latter for which she confesses an uncontrollable love). At times this book reminds me of one of those sermons, supposedly cool and ironic but with a torrent of affection bursting forth for those marginalized or despised in the historical consciousness, an affection hardly sparing of its beloved's genuine flaws and misdeeds (her accuont of the Narragansett-Pequot War of 1636-37, in which the Puritan colonists revealed a side of combat devastating to the indigenous population is both well-done and bracingly incongruous to the tone of the rest of the book). The chatty style and breakneck alternation of ironic distance and deep emotional identification start to create a gently disorienting feeling, especially by page 162, where she cites Elliott Gould's performance in Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye (1973) as an example of the Algonquin spiritual concept Manitou (as understood, anyway, by Roger Williams). By the time she arrived at a triumphant conclusion, I felt quite intellectually ravished.

*Not that it should, really; I've thought Natalie Merchant a goddess for twenty years and only stopped loathing her music a few years ago. 

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 11:28 AM EST
Updated: 6 January 2009 11:33 AM EST
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