So here's the last of my Sarah Vowell reading, just in time for Thanksgiving! I'll admit I had reservations about this one because it's about the Puritans, and are they really anyone's favorite anything? Sarah mentions that most folks her age know of the Puritans through the usual stuff in school and terrible television comedy episodes. After watching the Happy Days Thanksgiving episode, “I remember sitting there watching that and realizing, for the first of many times, “Oh. Maybe the people who founded this country were kind of crazy.”
“Mostly, sitcom Puritans are rendered in the tone I like to call the Boy, people used to be so stupid school of history. Betwitched produced not one but two time-travel witch trial episodes-one for each Darrin.”
“Check out those barbarian idiots with their cockamamie farce of a legal system, locking people up for fishy reasons and putting their criminals to death. Good thing Americans put an end to all that nonsense long ago.”
Sarah’s also delighted to recount the brief existence of a 1999 show called Thanks, about how miserable the Puritans were in winter. “The show was quickly canceled, but I cannot overstate how excited I was about it. I felt the way an avid stamp collector might if she found out CBS was about to debut its new series, CSI: Philately.” The gag is that they’re all miserable in a cramped cold house wher ethe teenager can’t stomp off to her room. “The main character, here named James Winthrop, though he’s clearly modeled after John, is the lone dreamer in a town full of whiners. He welcomes in the spring, saying, “What a beautiful day it is. The snow is melting. Everyone out and about airing out their clothes, lugging out their dead.”
Anyway, so she got fascinated with television Puritans, but what about the real ones? She’ll tell you:
“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.”
“This book is about those Puritans who fall between the cracks of 1620 Plymouth and 1692 Salem, the ones who settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony and then Rhode Island during what came to be called the Great Migration.” She wants to focus on them because “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.” She cites John Winthrop’s sermon “A Model of Christian Charity,” in which he calls on New England to be “a city on a hill.” Which was something Reagan cited a LOT.
“Because even though my head tells me that the idea that America was chosen by God as His righteous city on a hill is ridiculous, my heart still buys into it. And I don’t even believe in God! And I have heard the screams! Why is America the last best hope of Earth? What if it’s Lichtenstein? Or, worse, Canada?”
She goes into some detail on Puritan beliefs--namely that God will do whatever he wants and then Puritans will thank him for it anyway, God already knows if you’re going to hell or not so you need to seem saved, and even John Calvin himself doubted if he was a good enough Calvinist--“which is of course the most Calvinist thought he could have.” John Winthrop mentions a woman who went so crazy over the idea she threw her baby down a well and said now she was sure she should be damned. “That’s how heavy the weight of Calvinism can be-that a mother would seek relief in murdering her own offspring.”
Even though Sarah starts out liking Governor Winthrop, she likes him less as her reading goes on. Christian charity? He orders a dude to be whipped, LOSE HIS EARS, and get banished--but the latter won’t happen until winter’s over. “Winthrop was one of those parents who never wants to see his kid again but drives him to the bus station to make sure he leaves town warm and dry.”
This one's probably more of a research/retelling book rather than a travelogue. While there's some travel scenes here and there with sister Amy and nephew Owen, mostly it sounds like Amy and/or Owen found them very disturbing. Owen was traumatized by a museum video and started asking Sarah if ANY states never had a war (nope), and in that case, which state probably had the least wars? Sarah guesses “Idaho?” but guess what, they had a war too. Meanwhile, Amy runs into “Pilgrim Archie Bunker” at a re-created English village and gets annoyed at his bigotry towards Indians. “Then my sister grabbed Owen by the arm and said, “Come on, Owen. Let’s get out of here before Mama punches a Pilgrim.” I like you, Amy.
Here's a fun incident for you: “A certain Salem resident who shall remain John Endecott”--oh, Sarah. wanted the red cross of Saint George cut out of the king’s flag because Puritans don’t like crosses and consider it a graven image and idol worship. Knowing “that gossip this juicy is not going to stay on this side of the Atlantic for long,” eventually the court condemns Endicott, but he gets a mild sentence of not being allowed to hold public office for a year--”and not, say, having his ears sliced off with his own flag-ripping sword, because he acted “out of tenderness of conscience, and not any evil intent.” In other words, they agreed with what he did, just not the showboating way he did it.” Uh-HUH, Puritans.
There’s a lot of fun involving the religious battles of ministers Roger Williams and John Cotton. “Neither Williams nor Cotton will ever get over their arguments of 1633-35. The two will spend the rest of their lives irking each other so much they would engage in the seventeenth-century New England version of a duel: pamphlet fight!”
A lot of the book is dedicated to the drama that Williams stirred up in particular.
“Williams’s greatness lies in his refusal to keep his head down in a society that prizes nothing more than harmony and groupthink. He cares more about truth than popularity or respect or personal safety. And while his pursuit of truth leads him to some eccentric beliefs about racial equality, self-determination, and religious liberty that good people now hold dear. In his tormented, lonesome, obsessive, Calvinist way, he is free. I find him hard to like, but easy to love.”
Roger Williams writes his wife a letter when he hears she’s ill and oh, the snark that Sarah comes up with about it. He sends her something worth more than gold and silver: a sermon that he considers a bouquet. “See? This is better than regular flowers. Regular flowers can’t boss her around from the grave.” Also: “This charming, romantic get-well card includes this returning image of a repeat sinner: a dog vomiting, then lapping up its own vomit. There is the comforting reminder that Mrs. Williams should regard her bout of the sniffles as a “warning from heaven to make ready for a sudden call to be gone from hence,” i.e. as good practice for death.” Fun dude.
Massachusetts Bay colonists consider a lot of things to be omens, such as Roger Williams getting a case of laryngitis being a hint that he should shut up. “it pleased him to stop your mouth by a sudden disease, and to threaten to take your breath from you,” said John Cotton. Eventually Williams gets banished from the colony for refusing to shut up when writing letters--because nothing will shut him up!
And then there’s my favorite Puritan, Anne Hutchinson, “a female blabbermouth who is so difficult and so defiant that the General Court will long for the good old days of bickering with the comparatively easygoing Williams.”
Anne was a John Cotton groupie that she followed to America. She had a husband that pretty much did what she wanted and fifteen kids. She was a midwife, met all of the ladies in town, and held some Bible study classes that got pretty popular and influential, down to the Governor listening to her.
“Unfortunately, Hutchinson didn’t write down or publish any of her commentaries. She suffers the same fate in the historical record as the Pequot: her thoughts and deeds have been passed down to us solely through the writings of white men who pretty much hate her guts.”
“She has something other people want, some combination of confidence and glamour and hope. She is the Puritan Oprah--a leader, a guru, a star.” Hutchinson, still swooning, spiritually speaking, for Cotton, nevertheless starts departing from her mentor’s lectures and lets rip her own opinions and beliefs.” This was considered threatening. “The difference between Anne Hutchinson and her accusers is that Hutchinson believes that anyone, even a nonbeliever, can seem saved. The only way to know one is saved is when one feels saved. Puritans, however, are suspicious of feelings, especially the feelings of a woman without proper theological training from Cambridge University.”So they put her on trial and she argues like a champ. “Winthrop really is no match for Hutchinson’s logic. Most of his answers to her challenges boil down to “Because I said so.” Anyway, her friend Cotton exonerates her, and she could have gotten acquitted except that Anne ... kept on talking and got herself banished for being super scandalous.
“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.”
Anne claims she hears the voice of God, Moses, John the Baptist, the Antichrist.... which she knew by an immediate revelation, she claims. “This is blasphemous enough, but she’s on a roll. She then dares them to mess with her, a woman who has the entire Holy Trinity on speed dial.” She compares herself to Abraham and Daniel and thinks she’s going to be saved by God. “She was quoting God. Not the Bible. Just something God said to her one day when they were hanging out.” At this point Cotton has a dilemma-- if he sticks up for her now, he'll get banished. So instead he sells her out and she gets banished and excommunicated. Banishment left her “somewhat dejected,” but excommunication cheered her right up. According to Winthrop’s diary, “she gloried in her sufferings, saying that it was the greatest happiness, next to Christ, that ever befell her.” She moved to Rhode Island with her friends/followers and Roger Williams and founded Portsmouth.
(Then the book gets into this whole “buried the mutant fetus” rumor thing where it was rumored that Hutchinson buried her friend Mary Dyer's mutant baby and they actually dug up the body to check. They blame the mutant baby on Anne, and then gloat when Anne's sixteenth kid is born dead. Sarah straight up calls Winthrop a monster when he mines for gossip about that one, and John Cotton celebrates the death of the fetus in his next sermon. GROSS, PEOPLE.)
At the end of the book, Sarah visits the Hutchinson-Dyer Women’s Healing Garden and feels uncomfortable there. “It’s unfair that her gender kept her from pursuing her calling. She should have been a minister or a magistrate. She should have had John Cotton’s job--or John Winthrop’s. Instead, she spent her working life brewing groaning beer and burying deformed fetuses in the dead of night.” Hear, hear.
Let's finish out with a Quote Corner:
- “Honestly, I wish I wasn’t so moved by this Puritan quandary. I wish I did not identify with their essential questions: What if my country is destroying itself? Could I leave? Should I? And if so, what time’s the next train to Montreal?”
- “So I always cringed, wondering why, when the English showed up, most of the Cherokee dropped whatever they were doing and adopted English ways on the spot, from becoming Christians and speaking English to eventually printing their own newspaper, ratifying a constitution, and owning black slaves like the white Southerners they aspired to be. Perhaps this is why: they “despaired so much that they lost confidence in their gods and the priests destroyed the sacred objects of the tribe.” It makes so much sense. Some microscopic predator comes along and wipes out most of the tribe and of course they would abandon their gods. Their gods abandoned them. Of course, they would take one look at the English-so alive, so well-and bow down to this English deity with so much mojo he endows his believers with some magical vaccine.”
- Nathaniel Hawthorne quote: “Let us thank God for having given us such ancestors: and let each successive generation thank Him, no less fervently, for being one step further from them in the march of ages.”
- The Vowell family stays in the Mohegan Sun Casino, run by the Mohegan tribe. “It looks like it was designed by Ralph Lauren, Bugsy Siegel, and Willy Wonka after a night of peyote. Which is to say that I kind of like it.”
- “So the impulse that leads to democracy can also 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.” Still smarting about Gore, I see.
- “In fact, before this trial started, the colony’s elders had agreed to raise four hundred pounds to build a college but hadn’t gotten around to doing anything about it. After Hutchinson’s trial, they got cracking immediately and founded Harvard so as to prevent random, home-schooled female maniacs from outwitting magistrates in open court and seducing colonists, even male ones, into strange opinions.”
So....overall this is a good read. It isn't my favorite (I think Assassination Vacation/Unfamiliar Fishes/Lafayette are mine), but it's a solid book in the middle and well written and there's good snark, so...four stars too.