Sarah Vowell has a face like a clean plate: round and serviceable, perfect for dishing up history. On a weekday morning in Santa Monica, she is wearing a dark, square-necked blouse, hair in a slightly stylish version of a bowl cut; she wouldn’t look entirely wrong in a starched collar. Vowell -- author, “This American Life” contributor, voice of Violet Parr in “The Incredibles” -- has come to town to give a pair of readings from her new book, “The Wordy Shipmates” (Riverhead: 272 pp., $25.95), an account of the Puritan leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. To meet her is to wonder how much her subject has rubbed off on her.
“The Wordy Shipmates” focuses on John Winthrop, Massachusetts’ first governor, and Roger Williams, the Calvinist minister who founded Rhode Island. It covers the period between Plymouth Rock and the Salem witch trials. “One reason it was attractive to write about the Puritans,” Vowell says, “whatever else they are, they’re obsessed with knowledge and reading. I love in that letter one of Winthrop’s friends sends him when Winthrop is trying to decide whether to come to New England and his friend basically says, ‘Why would you want to go there? They don’t have any books.’ ”
Vowell grew up Pentecostal in a small Oklahoma town without a library. Bible study was the center of communal life. “Once, when I told a member of the fabled East Coast Media Elite that I was raised Pentecostal,” she writes in “The Wordy Shipmates,” “he asked if that meant I grew up ‘fondling snakes in trailers.’ I replied, ‘You know that book club you’re in? Well, my church was a lot like that, except we actually read the book.’ ”
Part Cherokee, Vowell got her history at home from her father and grandfather. “Every summer we would go to the Cherokee Cultural Center to watch a reenactment of the Trail of Tears,” she recalls. Her great-grandfathers -- or is it great-great-grandfathers? Vowell isn’t really certain -- fought in the Civil War, and “it was just all the old folks sitting around telling stories. The way my grandfather talked about history was fairly self-absorbed.”
Vowell has taken this idea of storytelling and given it her own spin -- a mix of pop culture and historical narrative that goes after big ideas. In 1998, after bouncing around various alt-weeklies and dabbling in music writing, she retraced the Trail of Tears for “This American Life.” “That was it for me,” she says, smiling. She had discovered her calling: American history.
For Vowell, though, history is academic if we can’t connect with it. At one point during her radio story, she is in the car, between sites of ancestral suffering, listening to Chuck Berry. “When I think about my relationship with America,” she tells us, “I feel like a battered wife, ‘Yeah, he knocks me around a lot, but boy, he sure can dance.’ ”
In “The Wordy Shipmates,” she compares Winthrop to Pete Seeger and Williams to Bob Dylan. “To me,” she explains, “those guys are all writers; they’re all writing about America and these American subjects, and big questions and religion and country and God, and to me they’re all of a piece.”
These comparisons are funny, ironic even, but there’s something more expansive going on. “I love comedy,” Vowell says, “and I admire people whose sole purpose is to make people laugh, but it’s not mine. I reserve the right to be dreary if I want to.” For her last book, “Assassination Vacation,” she visited sites related to the assassinations of presidents Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley. “The same part of me that loves Quentin Tarantino,” she notes, “visits Gettysburg.”
With “The Wordy Shipmates,” Vowell steps away from what she calls “heritage tourism.” Instead of visiting historic sites, she mentally time travels through the letters and diaries of Winthrop and Williams, John Cotton and Thomas Hooker, as well as other voices of the great migration.
But “The Wordy Shipmates” is hardly plain history. The big idea here is that the past continues to define us as Americans: people with a history of bookishness, elitist pursuits and a humble, Calvinist heritage. “It’s worth revisiting New England’s Puritans because they are our medieval people.” Vowell writes, “The most storied way to get from the castle moat of monarchy to the polluted shoreline of this here republic is on their dank little ships.” On one of these dank little ships, Winthrop gave his “Model of Christian Charity” speech, referring to New England as the “city upon a hill.” This famous speech, invoked by both presidents and dissidents, was credited by Tocqueville as marking the birth of American exceptionalism.
In 2004, Vowell watched Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor repeat Winthrop’s words at Ronald Reagan’s funeral, and was inspired to embark upon this book. At the time, the photographs from Abu Ghraib were everywhere, and when O’Connor got to “that bit when Winthrop says, ‘The eyes of all people are upon us,’ it just seemed like the foreboding aspect of Winthrop’s sermon had come true.” In “The Wordy Shipmates,” Vowell elaborates: “The eyes of all people are upon us. And all they see is a mash-up of naked prisoners and an American girl in fatigues standing there giving a thumbs-up. As I write this, the United States of America is still a city on a hill; and it’s still shining -- because we never turn off the lights in our torture prisons. That’s how we carry out the sleep deprivation.”
Winthrop’s “city upon a hill” metaphor continues to resonate; last month, Sarah Palin brought it up during the vice presidential debate, crediting the line to Reagan. “She used the word ‘unapologetic’ to talk about America’s place in the world,” Vowell says tersely. “This book is kind of my apology. I am apologetic about the prison at Guantanamo, and I am apologetic about those photos, because they’re horrifying.”
As a result, perhaps, Vowell appreciates the Puritans’ self-loathing. She knows how it feels. “I was exposed, from infancy on, to so much wretch-like-me, original-sin talk,” she explains, “that I spent my entire childhood believing I was as depraved as Charles Manson.”
Such humility infuses her account of Williams living among the Pequot. “How jarring it must have been to be an adult Narragansett,” she writes, “and this strange white man shows up out of the blue and shatters his lifelong peace of mind with what the stranger calls the ‘good news’ that the native is in fact a wicked, worthless evildoer.”
Yet lest Vowell seem to condemn the fanatical Williams, she also defends him, giving him the full measure of her charity. “Let’s pause here,” she writes, “and try and look past Williams’ seemingly teenage behavior -- past his tendency toward fussy and abrasive theological scrutiny, past his loopy Christian navel-gazing, past his grating inability to make any of the small, charitable compromises involved in getting along with other people. Williams’ greatness lies in his refusal to keep his head down in a society that prizes nothing more than harmony and groupthink. He cares more about the truth than popularity or respect or personal safety. And while his pursuit of truth leads him to some eccentric, if not laughable, applications of the Ten Commandments, his quest also leads him to some equally eccentric beliefs about racial equality, self-determination, and religious liberty that good people now hold dear. . . . I find him hard to like, but easy to love.”
To find one’s way to that perspective takes more than a careful reading of history; it takes a puzzle solver’s point of view. Indeed, Vowell is happiest when she’s figuring something out. She puts herself in Williams’ big-buckled shoes and breathes life into a ghost.
Of course, flattery only makes Vowell uncomfortable. The closest she comes to pride is a single anecdote. “A few months ago,” she says, “I heard David McCullough speak and, you know, he’s a proper historian and I do admire him, and he was talking about the deplorable state of Americans’ knowledge of their history. He said, ‘It’s our fault and we should do something about it.’ And I was finishing this book and I thought, ‘Oh, I’m doing something about that. I can do that.’ ”