COTTON

Sarah Vowell provides a modern and amusing take on the impact that John Cotton and fellow Puritan settlers have had on America.

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ABOUT WORDY SHIPMATES

Excerpt from Virginia Heffernan’s  New York Times Sunday Book Review of Wordy Shipmates.

These days, we have sterling academic American historians (who can hardly be said to have overlooked the Puritans, in whose intellectual tradition the study of American history — at Harvard, notably — was originally conceived). But we are also in a golden age of popular narrative history, produced not only by David McCullough and Ron Chernow and Doris Kearns Goodwin, but by PBS and the History Channel. With all these middlebrow historians making scholarly work perfectly accessible, do we really need still more accessibility — pierced-brow history, maybe, with TV and pop-music references?

The answer would seem to be no. And yet, if nothing else, “The Wordy Shipmates” finds a way to string together excerpts from Winthrop and Williams (and John Cotton and John Underhill) that keeps you reading. My experience of the book: I kept being annoyed, and I kept reading. Most of the time that she wasn’t riffing or telling jokes, Vowell was merely quoting from a 17th-century sermon or pamphlet with the preface that what I was about to read was amazing or frightening. More often than not, she was right.

Throughout, Vowell can’t decide what tense to use: the historical present, the past, and that weird Ken Burns “would” thing (“Cotton Mather would change America forever”). But by book’s end she’s got you cornered. Just as you’re thinking, O.K., the history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony is worth retelling, but could you turn down the hipster stuff, Vowell manages to align herself squarely with the great American dissident and feminist Anne Hutchinson. Rats! Once again, Vowell gets to be the abrasive wild card. She’s annoying and uppity, and the book has made the case for being annoying and uppity. She’s won.

Vowell may not be Anne Hutchinson (hey, did you know that Hutchinson had 15 children?), but she’s a legitimate upstart. After all, having grown up a part-Cherokee Pentecostalist, she has somehow managed to become the one and only Sarah Vowell: a respected social commentator, a public radio star, the voice of Violet in “The Incredibles” and the author of five untrivial books, all while befriending (the tour-de-force acknowledgments section suggests) J. J. Abrams, Dave Eggers, Jake Gyllenhaal, Spike Jonze, Greil Marcus, David Sedaris and Zadie Smith.

How impressive. How annoying.

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