NPR’s Sarah Vowell tells about ‘Wordy Shipmates’ at All Saints
Think of warring factions within a religion, and the strife in Iraq between Sunni and Shia Muslims might come to mind. Unless you happen to be Sarah Vowell, best-selling humor essayist and star contributor to NPR’s “This American Life.”
Vowell has just released her fifth book, “The Wordy Shipmates,” in which she reveals the internecine (and sometimes humorous) conflicts that existed between the disparate factions of Puritans who helped found our own nation. Illuminating the battles over separation between church and state that were carried out via dramatic court trials, vicious pamphlet wars, and even orders of exile, Vowell also takes time to show the strange and surprising ways that Puritan culture affects our lives to this day (including via a Puritan-themed water park).
Speaking by phone from her New York City apartment before launching a promotional tour that brings her to Pasadena’s All Saints Church tonight for a reading and signing event sponsored by Vroman’s Bookstore, Vowell readily admits that the similarities between Puritan factions and Iraq’s Muslim factions helped light the fire for her new work.
“I wrote about this for a lot of different reasons. One of them is just simply that I have an illustration in the book — the seal of the Massachusetts state colony, with an Indian saying ‘Come over and help us,’” Vowell explains. “This is the official seal the Puritans brought with them from England, and it shows the ironic vision of how they saw themselves: they’re here to help, whether anyone wants their help or not. I feel that — and their notion of themselves as God’s new chosen people as always right, the city on the hill — I find that to be just a really enduring component of the American DNA.
“But also just in terms of the whole intricacies of Islam — there were so many days I’d put down the newspaper about all these squabbling theological factions over there and get back to work on my squabbling theological factions that were here. Every era has them.”
American history’s dark and quirky underbelly is a continuous source of fascination for Vowell, whose previous book, “Assassination Vacation,” detailed an extensive trip she took across America, visiting the sites of famous assassinations and digging up odd forgotten facts about the killers and their victims that have been otherwise scrubbed from our official historic texts. She developed her passion for history when she and her sister drove along the notorious Trail of Tears that cost the deaths of 4,000 displaced Cherokee Indian ancestors back in 1838. The audio documentary that resulted changed the course of her life.
“I had started out writing about music and books, but at ‘This American Life’ I started doing stories about music and family. That trip made me fall in love with history and the process of discovering it,” Vowell recalls. “The documentary wasn’t just about the Trail of Tears, it was also about our driving on it, so there were all types of off-topic shenanigans. I guess part of it is that I write about American history for Americans, which is to say a bunch of amnesiacs who don’t care about history.”
Ironically, Vowell’s stop at All Saints Church comes even as she admits to being a secular atheist. Some might think she is not the ideal candidate to write about one of America’s founding religions, but she says her earlier childhood upbringing in a Pentecostal church has maintained its influence on her in many ways.
“I have an incredibly classic evangelical background, and while I’ve thrown off the trappings of the mythological aspects of Christianity, I’m still influenced by the teachings of Christ, I guess,” says Vowell. “Also, religion was my entry into scholarship basically. In the town where I lived until I was 11 years old, almost no one had gone to college and almost the only scholarly facet of life was Bible study. I think that kind of childhood was enormous influential to me becoming a quasi-scholar/writer. Religion was the only way you got to spend your life in a library, and the thing I love most about the Puritans is their love of words and knowledge and learning, scholarship and intellect.” — Carl Kozlowski