Sunday, October 18, 2009

Shoe-Buckles and Big Ideas

I usually try to avoid recommending books until I've finished reading them, but I am so thoroughly enjoying Sarah Vowell's The Wordy Shipmates that I'm going to go ahead and jump the gun on this one. Sarah Vowell (regular contributor to PRI's This American Life and author of Assasination Vacation) is the very best kind of history writer: sharp, hilarious, nuanced, detailed, and equally generous to and critical of her subjects. Her work reminds me, a bit, of some fortuitous combination of Philip Gourevitch, Adam Hochschild, James Loewen and Ira Glass. The Wordy Shipmates is Vowell's take on America's Puritan roots, and she guides her readers back through the letters, sermons, pamphlets and court documents of our forbears in order to dispel the overly-simplistic and often inaccurate caricature we have of those early settlers.

The Wordy Shipmates also gets my vote for the best opening lines in a piece of nonfiction. Vowell begins:
The only thing more dangerous than an idea is a belief. And by dangerous I don't mean thought-provoking. I mean: might get people killed.

Go pick this one up! You won't regret it.


steventhomas said...

I heard her interviewed on Fresh Air, I think. It does seem like a good book, though she basically is just making accessible and fun-to-read what scholars in history and English departments have already been saying for years ever since Perry's book The New England Mind, published in 1939.

But that said, I appreciate her witty dispelling of the myths and the monolithic stereotypes of Puritans.

For example, in my class just two days ago, I taught three Puritans who were arguing about the slave trade -- so three different views on one issue, all published in Boston between the years 1700 and 1706. Sewall was anti-slavery and argued blacks and whites were all "one blood." Saffin was pro-slavery and argued the Bible justified it and that Africa was un-Christian and barbaric anyway. And lastly the minister Cotton Mather in the middle, afraid to piss off the many slave-owning members of his congregation but aware of slavery's immorality, so he suggests that the slave-owners morally obligated to convert their slaves to christianity and that in order to do this must make sure their working conditions were good.

The debate between Sewall and Saffin sounds very similar to the debate between Locke and Filmer in the first treatise, which shouldn't be surprising since the Two Treatises were published just eight years before. But I think it's hard for most people to wrap their heads around the fact that the Salem Witch trials happened the same time as Locke, Newton, and Boyle. (Sorry, too much information... all this is in one of my dissertation chapters.)

Dr. Trott said...

I recently read her book _The Partly Cloudy Patriot_ which was about the three presidential assassinations in American history and the people involved and their random connections to one another. It was pleasurable and I learned more about presidential assassinations than I even knew there was to learn which is always the best kind of learning.