Writer Sarah Vowell is amazing. I could go on and on with praise for her radio essays and writings, including her new book, The Wordy Shipmates, but I will try to contain myself.
I have previously, publicly, admitted my crush on her, something I have never done for any other writer. But ours is an unrequited love. Anyone that smart, witty and literate, especially if they can make history fascinating and funny, is crush-worthy and she routinely hits it out of the park.
One way she does this is with modern cultural references, often musical ones. In the new book at one point she is trying to get across how amazing it would have been had two puritans made speeches at the same time and she said it would have been the puritan equivalent of the time she saw the Breeders open for Nirvana.
Here is an except to make my point, on the topic of theological differences.
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-Sunni rift in Islam, might look deep into 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 may 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?
Vowell does radio essays for This American Life, one of the mast fascinating programs on public radio. I will link below to a few of her essays. I first came to know her by reading Radio On which was ostensibly about listening to the radio every day for a year but was really about so much more.
I reviewed her next book, Take The Cannoli.. It was a collection of columns she had written for various publications, including Salon, as well as versions of essays she did for This American Life.
Her next book, the Partly Cloudy Patriot, was more political as she explored issues I have wrestled with, namely the difficulty of loving your country and government at a time when you may not love what is happening in your country and what your government is doing.
That book contained one of my favorite columns of hers, on the topic of how people are/were constantly comparing themselves and others to Rosa Parks. You can read that piece here.
With her last book, the Assassination Vacation, Vowell was getting better known. That book was ostensibly about exploring some of the lesser known presidential assassination attempts (she skips the obvious easy one, i.e. Oswald), but is often about so much more, from comparing past history to present history to a great deal of other issues. As excellent as the book was the audio version was even better because various well known writers as well as members of the Daily Show do the voices for some historical figures.
Which brings us to her new book, which has already received favorable reviews in several publications.
In the publicity material for the book is a conversation with Vowell. This exchange is notable:
Why did you decide to write a book about the New England Puritans?
I can probably pin it down to how I kept thinking about John Winthrop's 1630 sermon "A Model of Christian Charity" during three events between 2001 and 2004—the terrorist attacks, the war in Iraq, and Ronald Reagan's funeral. I write about how, as a New Yorker, I was so comforted by the part of Winthrop's sermon in which he called upon his shipmates to rejoice and mourn and suffer together "as members of the same body."
Then, all of the rhetoric leading up to the war smacked of the American exceptionalism that derives from Puritan notions of New Englanders as God's new chosen people, Winthrop's idea and ideal that Massachusetts should be "as a city upon a hill." And, since no one had adopted that phrase as a personal motto like Reagan, when Sandra Day O'Connor read part of Winthrop's sermon at Reagan's funeral, during a time when everyone in the world had Abu Ghraib on the brain, when she stood there in front of the current president and various members of his administration who got us into that whole mess, when she read the part where Winthrop warns that "the eyes of all people are upon us," it hit home how much Winthrop and his fellows are still with us.
Also notable is this exchange
Where did Ronald Reagan get the phrase "a shining city on a hill," which became so identified with him? And why do you write that the citizens of the United States not only elected and reelected Ronald Reagan, but that "we are Ronald Reagan"?
Reagan got his pet phrase from Winthrop's "A Model of Christian Charity," in which Winthrop, inspired by the Sermon on the Mount, called for New England to be "as a city on a hill." Reagan interpreted this idea to mean that the United States is supposed to be a sparkly beacon of hope. But Reagan pretty much ignored the bulk of Winthrop's sermon—the parts about sharing, about suffering together, the foreboding ending in which Winthrop worries that, come failure, he and his shipmates will suffer the wrath of God, that they'll be a cautionary tale. Much of Winthrop's sermon is Christlike and therefore tough—a call for charity and generosity and selflessness. But charity and generosity and selflessness were not what the Reagan years were about. Just the opposite of course. Reagan just chose to ignore the fine print—a very American thing to do. He chose to focus on Winthrop's pretty, upbeat imagery and more or less ignored Winthrop's sober call for communal responsibility. Americans tend to accentuate the positive. We get snowed by cheerful advertising.
Vowell also did the voice of Violet in the movie the Incredibles, thus a question below about Violet. There is a hilarious DVD extra on the Incredibles where Vowell compares life as Violet, fast and frantic, to that of herself, reading and thinking. Also you may have seen Vowell on television lately. She was on David Letterman a week ago and on the Daily Show last week. You can watch her on the Daily Show here.
In her radio and print essays she will often compare modern political life to that of the Puritans. At one point she talks about TV shows like Happy Days doing episodes about Puritan times:
"Mostly, sitcom Puritans are rendered in the tone I like to call the Boy, People used to be so stupid school of history....
Check out those barbarian idiots with their cockamamie farce of a legal system, locking people up up for fishy reasons and putting their criminals to death. Good thing Americans put an end to all that nonsense long ago.
And then there are zingers like this
From New England's Puritans we inherited the idea that America is blessed and ordained by God above all nations, but lost the fear of wrath and retribution. 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.
Reactionary immigration legislation-then and now. "The Bay Colony's reactionary immigration legislation is not unlike reactionary immigration legislation throughout history-it exposes a people's deepest fears. For example, the Anarchist Exclusion Act of 1903, passed by Congress to bar anarchists from the United States after an anarchist assassinated President McKinley. Or the not particularly Magna Carta-friendly clause in the USA Patriot Act of 2001 allowing for illegal immigrants to be detained indefinitely and without legal counsel for up to six months if they are suspected of terrorism or simply have terrorist 'ties.'" [p. 218]
Here is the interview interspersed with some excerpts:
Sarah: What? I thought I was writing a book about Annie Oakley or something and then one day I noticed the narrative was getting a little too John Winthrop-y? Maybe I should have done that. It would have started out with shoot 'em ups and Sitting Bull and then the reader turns a page and suddenly John Cotton and Roger Williams are engaged in a pamphlet war about the finer points of Protestantism.
I love The Scarlet Letter. I think Hawthorne is actually a great place to start. There's that lovely scene with Hester Prynne at the death of John Winthrop. I think that would be a fine jumping off point for students who could then back up and learn about the founding of Massachusetts Bay sixty odd years earlier and Winthrop's ideals before the experiment devolved into witch hysteria. Hawthorne is so haunted by seventeenth century New England-he's horrified, but he's also intrigued
and moved by the era, couldn't stop thinking about it. I think one person's passion is always a wonderful introduction to any subject. But a reader needn't stop there. Hawthorne is simply a nifty invitation to the Puritan party. And, oh, what a party it is. Violence! Bickering! Banishment!
I wanted to mention one section from the book about the Scarlet Letter:
The United States is often called a Puritan nation as a lazy way of saying Americans are sexually repressed. Which seems true, because we all read The Scarlet Letter in ninth grade. The Puritans were troubled by adultery, and who can blame them? It is, at the very least, a lapse of common courtesy. But the Puritans were actually quite gung-ho about sexual intercourse for married couples because they believed God came up with it." [pp. 131-132]
As a New Yorker, I found comfort in John Winthrop's sermon "A Model of Christian Charity," in which he called upon his fellow New Englanders to "mourn together" and to "suffer together" as if they were "members of the same body." They were to be "knit together" with the "ligaments of love." Manhattan in the days and weeks after the attack was the most
loving place on earth and the sweetness of Winthrop's ode to solidarity was such a solace.
In the book she speaks movingly of life in New York City post-9/11:
"We were breathing sooty air. The air was composed of incinerated glass and steel but also, we knew, incinerated human flesh. When the local TV news announced that rescue workers sorting through the rubble in search of survivors were in need of toothpaste, half my block, having heard that there was finally something we could actually do besides worry and grieve, had already cleaned out the most popular name brands at the corner deli by the time I got there, so at the rescue workers' headquarters I sheepishly dropped off fourteen tubes of Sensodyne, the toothpaste for sensitive teeth.
We were members of the same body, breathing the cremated lungs of the dead and hoping to clean the teeth of the living."
Generally, I find reading history provides a useful reminder to count my blessings. Hutchinson was a mouthy, charismatic female leader who was thrown out of Massachusetts for preaching heretical biblical interpretations and sowing unrest within the colony. She was banished from her home for doing something I've gotten paid to do for the last twenty years-sharing her opinions with other people. President Bush is her descendant. I would say that he inherited her sense of certainty and apparent ability to hear the voice of God but not her gift for gab. She really outwitted the magistrates of Massachusetts during her trial. The president, on the other hand, isn't exactly God's gift to repartee.
She also writes in the book in more detail how she is like Hutchinson:
"I wish I didn't understand why Hutchinson risks damning herself to exile and excommunication just for the thrill of shooting off her mouth and making other people listen up. But this here book is evidence that I have this confrontational, chatty bent myself. I got my first radio job when I was eighteen years old and I've been yakking on air or in print ever since. Hutchinson is about to have her life-and her poor family's-turned upside down just so she can indulge in the sort of smart-alecky diatribe for which I've gotten paid for the last twenty years."
I would imagine she would appreciate the often wry tone of the book on the off chance she would have time to read it in between doing her homework and battling supervillains.
My favorite radio story I worked on was the one in which I interviewed high school students and their media studies teacher during the New Hampshire primary in 2000, when Al Gore spoke at their school and was misquoted in the national media and how the students and their teacher not only stood up to the New York Times and Washington Post but also had a clear and profound assessment about the relationship between journalism and democracy.
The students and their teacher had asked Gore to speak at the school on the subject of school violence because a student had been killed at their school. And Gore addressed that issue in a way that really engaged the students. But the press corps following him around misheard a word, reported that he was taking credit for discovering Love Canal and it snowballed into this big stupid scandal.
The writer for the paper of record sparked this stupid, distracting and erroneous brouhaha that was totally high school whereas actual high school students were miffed that the media's gossipy sloppiness meant that not only was a falsehood unleashed but, more importantly, the actually substantive topic Gore was there to address went entirely unreported.
The teacher was appalled enough that she had to lead her students in these lockdown procedures in which the whole school would have to rehearse what to do if a student had a gun-locking doors, hiding behind desks, etc. But she was beyond outraged that instead of reporting the discussion about that, an insipid press corps trumped up a moronic teapot tempest. On the bright side, the media studies class got a front row seat to media behavior.
You can hear the ones on guns and the one on Trail of Tears here.I had forgotten she did the Gore media piece but it is one of the best media analysis pieces I have ever read or heard.
I am a fairly conversational writer so stylistically there's not much difference. I will say that I concentrate more and more on writing books because of the expanse. Radio shows are confined to their time slots. The roominess of books, along with the solitude required to write them, suits me better. That said, I think my inner broadcaster does edit my books. That's why they're relatively short. Radio tends to slap the longwinded dithering out of a person. I like the slow pace of writing books but I still want the book itself to be fast-paced for a reader.
Is there any other kind?
A few other noteworthy excerpts:
"The United States is often called a Puritan nation. Well, here is one way in which it emphatically is not: Puritan lives were overwhelmingly, fanatically literary. Their single-minded obsession with one book, the Bible, made words the center of their lives-not land, not money, not power, not fun. I swear on Peter Stuyvesant's peg leg that the country that became 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." [p. 13]
"I'm always disappointed when I see the word "Puritan" tossed around as shorthand for a bunch of generic, boring, stupid, judgmental killjoys. Because to me, they are very specific, fascinating, sometimes brilliant, judgmental killjoys who rarely agreed on anything except that Catholics are going to hell. Certainly the Puritans believed and said and did many unreasonable things. That kind of goes with the territory of being born before the Age of Reason. Ponder all the cockamamie notions we moderns have been spared simply by coming into this world after an apple conked Sir Isaac Newton in the head." [p. 22]
"In the present-day United States, the Massachusetts Puritans' laughable, naïve, and self-aggrandizing idea that they were leaving England partly to come over and help American Indians who were simply begging for their assistance has won out over the Founding Fathers' philosophy of not firing shots in other countries' wars." [p. 26]
"Talking about [John] Winthrop's 'A Model of Christian Charity' without discussing Ronald Reagan would be like mentioning Dolly Parton's 'I Will Always Love You' and pretending Whitney Houston doesn't exist. Whitney and Reagan's covers were way more famous than the original versions ever were. Winthrop's sermon, as a supposed early model for the idea of America, became a blank screen onto which Americans in general and Reagan in particular projected their own ideas about the country we ended up with. For a ten-year stretch, the 1980s, Winthrop's city on a hill became the national metaphor. And looking into the ways the sermon, or at least that one phrase in it, was used, throws open the American divide between action and words, between what we say we believe versus what we actually do." [pp. 59]
"And speaking of marriage, in colonial New England weddings were 'a civil thing,' civil unions one might say, performed by magistrates, not clergy. Because a wedding wasn't trumped up as the object in life that saves one's soul-that would be God-but rather more like what it actually is, a change in legal status, an errand at the DMV, with cake." [p. 132]
"Protestantism's shedding away of authority . . . inspires self-reliance-along with a dangerous disregard for expertise. So the impulse that leads to democracy can be the downside of democracy-namely, a suspicion of people who know what they are talking about. It's why in U.S. presidential elections the American people will elect a wisecracking good ol' boy who's fun in a malt shop instead of a serious thinker who actually knows some of the pompous brainy stuff that might actually get fewer people laid off or killed." [p. 214-215]