The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

Entry #21 – The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

What do you do when you start reading a book and, unless something drastically changes, you know you aren’t going to like it? That’s the question that I had to answer with The Wordy Shipmates. And no, nothing drastically changed. I ended where I began—with an
intense dislike of this work.

But still, some good came out of it. Hang on and we’ll find it.

The author, Sarah Vowell, and I share at least one thing. We both want to bring history to people who might otherwise never read about it. We both believe that it takes a little something extra to get that done—something has to be added if people today are to make the
connection with people from a long time ago. I sympathize with her belief. Judging from the description of her in the back of the book, she’s reached a far wider audience than I’ve ever done or will ever do. I state that plainly. I clap my hands. I tip my hat. I nod my head.

That about does it for the warm-and-fuzzies.

Sarah Vowell wrote The Wordy Shipmates about the early Puritans in 17th century Massachusetts. Her twist on this oft-told historical episode is to blend the facts of dates and people and places with wry observations on 21st century America and clever pop culture references. The practical result is this: for every dozen or so John Winthrop’s (a Puritan leader) written by Vowell there is either a blast against today’s conservative Republicans or an invocation of trendy New York bars. For every handful of paraphrasing Puritan theological statements by Vowell there is her scoffing of religion and disclosure of Sunday reposes at Starbucks absorbing the wisdom of the New York Times. And of course,Vowell roars at actions of the Puritan establishment against Anne Hutchinson, the wisest person of the era because in Powell’s handling she is the brilliant early feminist on the idiotic American scene.

The snarky tone reaches head-shaking levels. Vowell compares the disagreements the Puritans had with other Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries to, of course, the disputes within the Muslim world of the 20th and 21st centuries. The fact that four hundred years separates them? Irrelevant. Wait: it gets worse. She then moves on to illustrate these tensions to her own peer group by saying it’s like arguing over the merits of the two Godfather movie sequels. In a subsequent of the book she refers to The Brady Bunch. Who knows—given her youthfulness maybe she means that as an especially clever point that combines pop culture (television) and history (television with three networks, no tivo-ing, and no viewing on your smart phone).

I should have known. I should have looked more closely at the book’s cover. Remember the adage of not judging a book by its cover? Forget it with Vowell’s book—the opposite is true. Everything about this book can be seen on its cover. I just wasn’t quick enough to realize it.

To begin, Vowell’s name is printed in far larger, far bolder type than is anything else on the cover. That displays in clearest form the author’s sense of self-importance, that the book is about the author primarily and only about its subject secondarily. (And for those of you who want to remind me that other people, not Vowell, made the final decisions on the book’s appearance for marketability’s sake, you’re right. My point is to say that they got it perfectly right regardless of their role or motivation.) She would defend it by saying that she’s commentating, blending the past with the present, the boring with the hip, the “them” with the “me.” Sorry, that’s doesn’t work for this reader. If Vowell has the appeal the book suggest, she should have insisted on a reduced type size for her name. It would have sent a proper signal, one of modesty.

Here’s another example from the cover. The book jacket has the title The Wordy Shipmates. The adjective is the tip-off. It carries the hint—no, stronger, the clue—that Vowell’s first thought about the Puritans is negative. They’re wordy. They add words when they shouldn’t. They don’t know when to close their mouths or drop their pens. They muck up what they’re thinking and saying with excessive words and, almost certainly in Vowell’s view, bloated self-importance. (There’s irony for you.) Nothing about the writing style of the times, nothing about the value of having these words from a world that can no longer speak very clearly for itself, nothing positive or even explanatory. For Vowell, the Puritans are negative from the first, a joke from long ago.

Finally, and this really is amazing for its clarity and appropriateness, there is the photo on the book’s front jacket. The photo is of four little toy Puritan or Pilgrim figures placed on the kind of sand you’d purchase in a bag from a hobby shop. The figures are in the foreground. In the background is a blurred image that looks like a model ship, again likely purchased in a kit from a hobby shop. (Down in “the Village”, I’m certain.) Vowell’s writing treats real people—the Puritans—like toy figures in a fake setting so why shouldn’t the book cover do the same thing? The book that is a caricature has a cover that is a caricature, too. A perfect match.

In a few minutes I’ll share with you my thoughts on substantive leadership points from the book. Yes, they’re there, if you ignore the writing. Before then, however, I’d like to offer something that genuinely moved me as I read Vowell’s book. I hesitate to do it but still I think I should take the risk and do so anyway.

Let’s go back to the book’s paper cover.

As you can guess, I found myself thinking that the figures in the front cover photo are for children. A child’s toys. It occurred to me that in real ways Vowell strikes me as child-like; I don’t mean that as an insult but simply as a description, one that sadly fits many people I
encounter from hour to hour. Her belittlement of the Puritans’ religion, their spiritual faith, and their struggle to live both out on a daily basis—as all such people do, with more failures than successes because they’re people, after all—seemed like a bit of cry, the faintest of weeping, for wanting something of substance to believe in for herself. She clings to wit and sarcasm and smugness to fill the void left by absent things of greater weight and further heft. Yet when the wind blows hard these habits and beliefs will be among the first to fall. What is left standing will be all that remains to hold on to.

I probably sound rather condescending to you. I do not wish to. I’m saying directly that I have the sense that Vowell and the millions of people like her can’t bring herself, or themselves, to admit that whatever the disdain for spiritual faith, an urge to see something higher, bigger, more overarching, exists in almost all of us, including her and them. Maybe I’m wrong in my commentary on Vowell’s commentary. But I really don’t think I am. The style of expression communicates on a deeper level than she realizes.

On to leadership and the points found in Vowell’s book in spite of herself. I’ll credit Vowell for offering information that enabled me to discover these points.

Each Puritan church of the 17th century had two key positions of leadership, the pastor and the teacher. The pastor preached the Word from the Bible. The teacher applied that preaching to everyday life. They co-existed in the same congregation. The congregation elected both. As you might anticipate, the preacher-teacher pair could become a source of tensions within a congregation. The two leaders, among their many duties as leaders, had to attend to this two-person relationship. It required energy and attention.

The pastor-teacher relationship is co-equal. Your organization or team may have something similar in it. Two leaders, working co-equally, is a different sort of relationship than the one between leader and follower. Two co-leaders have comparable claims to authority and influence. They can overlap, involving the same follower but with divergent issues and needs. The near-certainty of the thing is that the co-equality of the relationship may be easier to maintain between the two leaders than it is between each leader and their shared followers. Almost inevitably, some followers will gravitate toward one of the two leaders more than the other. That fact of inevitable preference, as I’ll call it, will then circulate back and affect the relationship between the two co-leaders. It’s a fast-moving cycle that can easily outrun the two leaders and their relationship.

In addition to the pastor-teacher dynamic, I found a powerful leadership story in the final interaction between Puritan leader John Winthrop and Puritan dissident Roger Williams. You may know Williams’s name as the founder of what would become Rhode Island. He did so in the mid-1600s with one of the most stirring declarations of religious freedom in American history. Looking back, many people draw a clear line between Williams’s idea on religious freedom and our modern understanding of the separation of church and state.

For several years Roger Williams attempted to live in Winthrop’s Massachusetts. He was finally banished because he would not stop criticizing Puritan leaders in the colony. These same leaders determined that the best way to deal with Williams was to have him seized and sent back to England for punishment. When a group of soldiers authorized by the Puritan leaders of Massachusetts arrived to arrest Williams, they found him gone. As it turned out, John Winthrop, a member of the Puritan hierarchy, had secretly warned him ahead of time so that Williams could flee. Winthrop opposed Williams’s ideas but recognized his worth as a person and, I suspect, fellow leader. Vowell admits that Winthrop’s action was among the reasons she “loved” him so much as an author and 21st century bystander. I agree with her.

Is there someone you know and with whom you interact personally that you admire despite the fact that you oppose nearly everything they recommend or insist upon? Have you ever quietly, even secretly, helped that person? Would you ever consider doing so?

It can be a difficult thing to do.

The men and women who helped start the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the late 1620s and early 1630s were brave, flawed, courageous, flawed, high-minded, and flawed. And though I certainly understand and accept a book that includes the flaws, I maintain to you that we miss the best of the story when we make everything else about them secondary or peripheral in importance.