Sarah Vowell — a This American Life essayist, as well as the voice of Violet in The Incredibles — writes funny books about American history. Her latest, The Wordy Shipmates, takes on the Puritans.
During the vice presidential debate, I noticed Sarah Palin invoked Reagan’s ”city on a hill” speech, which is an image largely credited to a Puritan sermon you write about, by John Winthrop.
It’s quite a chestnut. Part of why I wanted to write the book was so I could talk about the sermon and what it means, to not just throw it around like a sound bite. When it’s used as a sound bite, I feel like the ”city on a hill” image is all about this ”We’re number one, people should look up to us!” But the sermon is about how we should look after each other. And the ending of it is quite foreboding.
Palin’s quote was ”We are to be that shining city on a hill, as President Reagan so beautifully said, that we are a beacon of hope and that we are unapologetic here.”
The ”unapologetic” part killed me, because Winthrop’s sermon is all about being prepared to apologize to God if you fail to take care of one another.
Do you feel bad for John Winthrop that Reagan gets all the credit for his speech?
Well, to be fair, Winthrop took it from Jesus Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. [Laughs] So he deserves it.
You’d argue that we can learn about the present by studying the Puritans, right?
Winthrop and John Cotton and other founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony believed themselves to be God’s new chosen people. And that’s a crucial part of our American DNA. But I think part of this pickle that we’re in — if I may be colloquial, even though I’m not running for office — is that we’ve lost their sense of responsibility.
You also write about how Puritans revered words and intellect in a way that we don’t anymore.
They have their faults, but I did want to stick up for them just for that reason. What I love about the Puritans is how they were born before the Age of Reason, but they appreciated learning, thinking, reading, and thought. They’re only here six years and they start building Harvard. Maybe it’s just me, because I’m a writer, but there’s something so great about this joy in knowing things. Why wouldn’t you want to be as smart as you can? And why wouldn’t you want your leaders to be as smart as they could be?
You’ve carved out a nice niche writing funny histories. Gonna write more?
I’ve found my calling. History, to me, is so rich, and American history is more interesting than any other history because you have this sort of violent streak next to these high-minded ideals, our gun-toting side matched with our Declaration of Independence side. Our history is full of all these cranks and weirdos and heroes and muckrakers and sex maniacs and killers. And I just love dead people. They’re easier to interview.