Sarah Vowell on the Puritans' Legacy

The author and 'This American Life' correspondent talks about her book on the colonies' early religious leaders

Puritan leader John Winthrop arrives in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. (Corbis)

If you're a fan of the public radio program "This American Life," or if you remember the sweetly sarcastic character Violet from the recent film The Incredibles, you're already familiar with Sarah Vowell's distinctive speaking voice.

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Her writing voice is just as striking—alternately sweet and sour, naïve and cynical, but always unflinchingly candid. She is the author of several bestselling books, including Assassination Vacation, The Partly Cloudy Patriot, Take the Cannoli, and Radio On.

Vowell's work investigates how American history is intertwined with our popular culture, often to amusing effect. Vowell recently sat down with Smithsonian Magazine to discuss her newest book, The Wordy Shipmates, which focuses on Puritan settlers in New England.

Why did you decide to write about Puritans? How have people reacted to this choice of topic?
No one really gets excited about Puritans! It's just: "Um, why?" But I guess that's one of the reasons I wanted to write the book. People seem to have no respect for the Puritans. Sure, there are a lot of horrible things about them, as with any human beings, but I do admire their love of language and learning and knowledge. I wanted to stick up for them a little bit.

I specifically write about the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and in particular, John Winthrop, who was their first governor. He also wrote my favorite Puritan sermon, "A Model of Christian Charity," where we get the image of New England as a "city on a hill."

These people are where we as Americans get our idea of ourselves as exceptional, as chosen, and as an object of admiration. This DNA of ours has been rather apparent the last few years.

How so?
Well, I'd been thinking about Winthrop a lot because of the war in Iraq. And I really started working on the book after watching Ronald Reagan's funeral on TV. [Former Supreme Court Justice] Sandra Day O'Connor is reading "A Model of Christian Charity," because of Reagan's affinity for the "city on a hill" sound bite, and she gets to the part where Winthrop writes, "The eyes of all people are upon us."

And it was right after the Abu Ghraib photos came out. I thought [Winthrop's sermon] was such a perfect thing to read—kind of for the wrong reasons. The eyes of the world were upon us, and what they saw was: An American military police officer, standing next to a pile of naked prisoners, making a thumbs-up sign.

To Winthrop, when he said, "the eyes of all people are upon us," he meant: They'll be waiting for us to fail. And if we do fail, then everyone will be able to have a really good view of our failure. And Winthrop was afraid of that, because they would fail their God.

Who are some of the other main characters in your book, besides Winthrop?
I also like Roger Williams, especially in relation to Winthrop. Williams was this rabblerousing young theologian. He's the Puritan all the other Puritans wished he would calm down about religion a little bit, you know?

About Amanda Fiegl

Amanda Fiegl is a former assistant editor at Smithsonian and is now a senior editor at the Nature Conservancy.

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