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43 pages 1 hour read

Sarah Vowell

The Wordy Shipmates

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2008

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Essayist and commentator Sarah Vowell published her historical and social commentary The Wordy Shipmates in 2008. A humorous but seriously critical examination of the Puritan emigrants that traveled with the flagship Arbella from England to Massachusetts in 1630, the book revisits leading Puritan figures and the colonial events and ideologies they created while trying to establish the “city upon a hill” that defined their Christian mission in, what was to them, a New World.

Though colonial history is at the heart of the book’s story and analysis, Vowell invites the reader to consider the longstanding legacies of the time, place, and characters that she examines. The United States prizes its Puritan origins, but few modern Americans know very much about the exclusive Puritan societies that moved into Indigenous territories after claiming the land as New England. Vowell’s social commentary spans centuries, inviting a reevaluation of the Puritans and the ways we remember and commemorate them.

The titular nod to the historical actors’ “wordiness” references the great emphasis these colonists placed on producing and consuming literature, primarily through writing that ruminated on the Bible’s applications for governments and societies among men. Vowell examines Puritans’ cultural production: What they talked and wrote about in church, in court, in published pamphlets, and in journals. Her findings illuminate contemporary discourse on several key themes: colonialism (most tragically, the Pequot War in which colonists and Native allies burned a Pequot village alive), politics (including a tenuous standing relationship with the English monarchy), the limits of religious tolerance, and gender.

The historical portion of the book is most acutely focused on the tumultuous 1630s, from the westward voyage of the English emigrants in the beginning of the decade to the warfare and banishments that sustained it. Vowell describes the aftermath of some of the book’s major historical events and the lives of its central figures, but the heart of the book is concerned with the early establishment of Puritan societies in the land that would become the US.

Vowell also considers Puritan rhetoric and imagery in 20th- and 21st-century politics. John F. Kennedy imagined himself in the tradition of Massachusetts trailblazers when Americans elected him President in 1960. Two decades later, Ronald Reagan sought to embody John Winthrop. Through scattered anecdotes like these, the reader sees how a warped Puritan legacy continues to fuel the American mythos—most notably, the ideology of American exceptionalism, the notion that the United States is the model nation, unique and superior to all others, and therefore deserving of its power and might. Just as colonists envisioned themselves “helping” Native communities by spreading Christianity and Western culture among them while actually spreading disease and discord, so too modern Americans have used the rhetoric of protecting democracy and helping various people of the world when annexing territories to become a world power. The book urges a reexamination of this political ideology.

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