The Wordy Shipmates, by Sarah Vowell

[This is a long post, with lots of longish excerpts from the book — these excerpts really resonated strongly with me, so quoting at length.]

I’ll be honest, I didn’t love this book — Vowell’s story of our Puritan roots, and in particular the life and impact of John Winthrop, who would become governor of Massachusetts, and creating the turn of phrase “city on a hill” that Ronald Reagan would find so useful centuries later.

But I do love Vowell’s love of American history, and her reverence of the principles and people who first built the foundations of our country. And I’m incredibly happy that her voice exists. She’s a total history nerd, making the world better by making some esoteric parts of our past a little more accessible.

While I didn’t love reading the book — found it a bit of a slog — there are passages in it that capture perfectly some of the ways that I feel about being an American in 2009, so I’ll quote a few.

First, some context:

“I will say that the theological differences between the Puritans on the Mayflower and the Puritans on the Arabella are beyond small. Try negligible to the point of nitpicky. I will also say that reads who squirm at microscopic theological differences might be unsuited to read a a book about seventeenth-century Christians. Or, for that matter, a newspaper. Secular readers who marvel every morning at the death toll in the Middle East ticking ever higher due to, say, the seemingly trifling Sunni-versus-Shia rift in Islam, might look deep into their own hearts and identify their own semantic lines in the sand. For instance, a devotion to The Godfather Part II and equally intense disdain for The Godfather Part III. Someday they might find themselves at a bar and realize they are friends with a woman who can’t tell any of the Godfather movies apart and asks if Part II was the one that had ‘that guy in the boat.’ Them’s fightin’ words, right?”

And a little personal reflection, a clear sign of the times in which the book was written:

“Honestly, I wish I weren’t so moved by this Puritan quandary. I wish I did not identify with their essential questions: What if my country is destroying itself? Could I leave? Should I? And if so, what time’s the next train to Montreal?

Well, maybe not Montreal. The first reason Winthrop’s pros-and-cons tract gives for crossing the Atlantic is to build a Protestant New England as an antidote to Catholic New France, to ‘raise a bulwark against the kingdom of Antichrist, which the Jesuits labor to rear up in those parts.’ Antichrist, by the way, is another name they call the pope.”

Then she mentions a sentence from one of Winthrop’s speeches the she calls “one of the most beautiful sentences in the English language:

“We must delight in each other, make other’s conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body.”

She’s right, and that’s one of the things I really like about Vowell: she notices the noble sentiments that were so often obscured by the less noble contexts of our founding.

And now a series of quotes that are a little longish, but the central contemporary point of the book for me. It’s in the context of watching Ronald Reagan’s 2004 funeral in the National Cathedral. Many of the eulogists evoked Reagan’s “city on a hill” imagery, and quoted Winthrop at length, and in particular she notes Sandra Day O’Connor’s speech, where she quotes a line “…the eyes of all people are upon us so that if we shall deal falsely…we shall be made a story and a byword through the world.”

And Vowell writes:

“At that moment, there was one story known through the world, a byword on everyone’s lips: Abu Ghraib. A couple of weeks before O’Connor said that last line, I went to New York University to hear a speech given by one of the people sitting in the National Cathedral — former vice president Al Gore – demanding that another person sitting there — Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld — resign because of the revelation that American Military Police officers had tortured, raped, and killed Iraqi prisoners at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib penitentiary.

Everyone in the cathedral, everyone watching on television, hearing O’Connor’s voice, had seen the appalling photos…

In his NYU speech, Gore…even implied that these crimes against Iraqi prisoners of war were an offense not just to us, right now, but to our Puritan forebears: ‘What a terrible irony that our country, which was founded by refugees seeking religious freedom — coming to America to escape domineering leaders who tried to get them to renounce their religion — would now be responsible for this kind of abuse.”…

Gore used the argument of American exceptionalism (first set forth by John Cotton and John Winthrop and their comrades) to bemoan this betrayal of American exceptionalism — how we as a people ‘consistently choose good over evil in our collective aspirations more than the people of any other nation,’ how Lincoln, early on in the Civil War, called for saving the Union because it was the ‘last best hope of earth.’

That was the speech in which Lincoln pointed out ‘we cannot escape history.’ Well, we can’t. I can’t really fault Gore for saying that what happened at Abu Ghraib is sickening, not only because it’s just plain sickening but because America is supposed to be better than that. No: best. I hate to admit it, but I still believe that, too. Because even though my head tells me that the idea that America was chosen by God as His righteous city on a hill is ridiculous, my heart still buys into it. And I don’t even believe in God! And I have heard the screams! Why is America the last best hope of Earth? What if it’s Liechtenstein? Or, worse, Canada?

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.

Very serious thoughts, simultaneously sophisticated, knowing the truth, and childish, wanting & needing America to set the example, to be the example that it can be. In truth, that’s where I am, too. With my head, I know that the country has come to a perilous point, wish it weren’t true, and am hopeful that we can pull ourselves together and become great again, like so many other times in our history.

Vowell ends the book with John F. Kennedy, as he contemplated the beginning of his presidency, and, wouldn’t you know it, he also invokes Winthrop’s city on a hill.

“‘I have been guided by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates on the flagship Arabella three hundred and thirty-one years ago, as they, too, faced the task of building a new government on a perilous frontier,’ Kennedy says.

Then he boils down the two phrases from [Winthrop’s] “A Model of Christian Charity” that mean the most to him: ‘We must always consider, [Winthrop] said, that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.’

I fall for those words every time I hear them, even though they’re dangerous, even though they’re arrogant, even though they’re rude.

‘Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us,” Kennedy points out. He does not mention that the whole world is starting in America’s direction because we have a lot of giant scary bombs, but I am guessing that is partly what he meant. He says that he hops that all branches of government, from the top on down, are mindful of ‘their great responsibilities.’ Responsibilities that include trying not to use the giant scary bombs.

He does not sound entirely steady. ‘I ask for your help and your prayers, as I embark on this new and solemn journey,’ he pleads. At this grave moment, he is not a man merely talking about the Arabella. He is on the dock in Southampton, ready to board the Arabella, along with the people before him. The mood is ominous and the fear is real. But this is a new beginning and he is not alone.”

So those bits are worth the price of admission right there, and why I keep coming back to reading Sarah Vowell’s banter about somewhat humorless people who lived centuries ago. Because in her words I find hope, certainly, empathy of views for sure, and people whose actions and words we can all aspire to.

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