HISTORIAN, WRITER, and National Public Radio contributor Sarah Vowell has a flair for the past. She somehow manages to blow the dust of time and tedium off the most esoteric subject matter and bring it to light with stories of people that we didn’t have access to in American History class. In her latest tome, The Wordy Shipmates (Penguin Books), Vowell revisits the 17th-century Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Company, finding them to be a singular and idiosyncratic bunch.
Did you have a firm concept for The Wordy Shipmates in mind when you began doing research? It reads like you just followed your fascinations. I once heard the writer Ian Brown say that there are two kinds of writers: the ones who write because they have something to say and the ones who write to find out what they think. I’m definitely the latter kind.
What drew you to the Puritans in the first place? I was impressed with their commitment to scholarship and studious behavior. They were so bookish and worshipful of words and knowledge. I write about how they would barely finish building their rickety little cabins before they got cracking on building Harvard so their sons could learn Hebrew and Greek.
Are there any Puritan characteristics present in either of the presidential candidates? I suppose young Obama’s thirst for higher education could be called a Puritan characteristic, but one reason I wrote the book is to escape sociology. Ultimately, the thing that kept me interested in these old-fangled religious fanatics long enough to write a book about them was trying to tell the stories of a few men and women.
Did your admiration for the Puritans result in any changes, profound or minute, in your own life? Nope. I’ve been who I am for as long as I can remember.