Sarah and the shipmates

Vowell on the Puritans and the founding of Rhode Island
By MICHAEL ATCHISON  |  October 22, 2009


ROGER! Vowell calls Williams “the founding freak.”

Humorist, historian, superhero. Sarah Vowell is a woman of letters and voices. Her four books and her contributions to public radio's This American Life display a brilliant, droll wit, but also a serious mind. Her most recent book, The Wordy Shipmates (just out in paperback), combines a detailed history of the Puritan settling of Providence and Boston with thoughtful reflections on the perils of mixing faith and government, plus humorous observations on everything from 1970s sitcoms to Indian casinos. Still, despite her more grown-up concerns, Vowell is best known among the kid-set as the voice of Violet, teen heroine, in Disney's animated feature The Incredibles.

Sarah Vowell will read at Brown University's MacMillan Hall, 167 Thayer Street, Providence, on October 29. We recently spoke with her by phone.

INTHE WORDY SHIPMATES, YOU EXPRESS ADMIRATION FOR JOHN WINTHROP'S SERMON "A MODEL OF CHRISTIAN CHARITY," WHICH CONTAINS COMPASSIONATE WORDS FROM A MAN WHO SOON THEREAFTER, AS GOVERNOR OF THE MASSACHUSETTS BAY COLONY, WOULD ORDER A MAN'S EARS LOPPED OFF. WHEN YOU TOOK COMFORT IN WINTHROP'S WORDS IN THE WAKE OF 9/11, DID YOU EVER THINK, "YEAH, BUT THAT GUY COULD REALLY BE A BASTARD"? Well, sure. [But] you can't dismiss the power and beauty of those words even though you know that Winthrop as governor was perhaps uncharitable to those who disagreed with him. The way I grew up learning about American history was a kind of civic indoctrination into the idea that you were a citizen of the best, most good nation on earth. And that's not true most of the time. But I feel the same way about more strident multi-cultural denunciations of the founding fathers. You could easily dismiss the Constitution because right there towards the beginning black people are dismissed as three-fifths of a person. But I don't think you can write off the entire document because it has this one gaping horror. Same with Winthrop. I can take what I what from that sermon. It probably comes out of being a fan of popular culture. If you're a woman and you're a fan of the Rolling Stones or Jay-Z, you find yourself singing along with words you find, at best, iffy. I love Jay-Z's "99 Problems," but it's not exactly a feminist anthem, you know? I just take what I want from things. I never really thought about it before, but I feel the same way about "A Model of Christian Charity" as I do about "99 Problems." There's poetry in both that I respond to.

YOU WRITE, "THE COUNTRY I LIVE IN IS HAUNTED BY THE PURITANS' VISION OF THEMSELVES AS GOD'S CHOSEN PEOPLE, AS A BEACON OF RIGHTEOUSNESS THAT ALL OTHERS ARE TO ADMIRE." YOU FINISHED THE BOOK MORE THAN A YEAR AGO. HAVE SUBSEQUENT EVENTS TEMPERED YOUR CONCERN? I feel like that's been tempered a tad with the new president. But even though he has a more nuanced, responsible view of the idea of American exceptionalism, he completely buys into it. The thing about the Puritans is that they have this idea of God's new chosen people. And this idea rubs off on the rest of us. And with the next major era in American history ? the Revolution ? some things happen to back up that idea. In the 18th century, the United States was this real exception, and a lot of those founding ideals I do believe to be the most just and righteous on earth. I started writing the book [shortly after] the Abu Ghraib photos came out. It's one thing to believe you're a beacon of hope to all the world. It's another thing to live up to that. And that idea seemed worth reinspecting.

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