The Wordy Shipmates
Riverhead Hardcover, 2008
272 pp., $25.95
Reviewed by Abram Van Engen
The Good, the Bad, and the Puritans
Reading recently through a theological controversy of the 1630s, I had opportunity to see this respect for learning up close. One clear way it appears is in Puritan citations of multiple theologians: Luther, Calvin, Piscator, Pareus, Bellarmine. That last name speaks volumes. Robert Bellarmine was one of the preeminent Catholic thinkers of his day, and Puritans cited specific passages of his works—book, section, page, and line. In other words, the Puritans felt that in order to argue with one's enemies, they needed first to read what their enemies wrote—even to spend money buying and shipping their books across the sea. This commitment to learning, Vowell suggests, might be a legacy worth retrieving. As it stands, "the U.S. bears a closer family resemblance to the devil-may-care merchants of New Amsterdam than it does to Boston's communitarian English majors."
And that, it seems, is one of the main lessons of this book: not just a balanced respect for the past, but what the past can still teach us today. Vowell acknowledges the difference between the ideal (a model of Christian charity) and its reality (the annihilation of Indians; the lopping off of ears). But she never denies the power and the pull of that original ideal, the idea that a people could live together as members of one body. She thus turns in her final line to a "new beginning," in effect calling America to live up to its highest ideals. The Puritans, she points out, were able to do what they did only through the power of their beliefs; yet, as Vowell notes in the first line of her book, "the only thing more dangerous than an idea is a belief." She maintains, then, this balance: arrogance and humility; a blessing and a reckoning; learning and fanaticism; a community based in love and a carefully enforced conformity. Yet in this mixed legacy of good and bad, Vowell wants to ask whether we can yet separate one from the other, whether we can keep (or retrieve) the good and leave the bad behind.
Best of all, Vowell does so in a genre uniquely her own: this is history as personal essay. Yet Vowell does not leave careful scholarship behind. When the book settles into stretches of straight history (a quick account of the Reformation, twenty uninterrupted pages on Roger Williams), the narrative is brilliant, balanced, humorous, and concise. (Vowell's summation of the Reformation: "The word of God, not a man of God, is The Man.") Moreover, Vowell manages to do what so many find impossible: she holds together both humor and respect, supporting each with the other. Funny, smart, balanced, and accurate—this is the intro lecture to American history that you've always wanted (even if you didn't know you wanted one).
Abram Van Engen is a graduate student in literature at Northwestern University.
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