Vowell Discovers Timeless Humor in U.S. History

'The Wordy Shipmates,' by Sara Vowell

With roughly three weeks until elections, the American cultural landscape stands on the precipice of a paradigm shift the like of which has not been seen in nearly a decade. The shift is one that will define a cultural vocabulary for the next four, if not eight years, and it has less to do with the cramping Federal Reserve and the frantic Dow Jones and more to do with bear attacks and the abstract idea of “truthiness.” That’s right: every vote cast on Nov. 4 will be a vote to determine the future of American political humor, whether it be a brittle rehash of the stale conservative robot-rhetoric gags, or a softball jabbing of an administration that most liberal humorists have all but canonized already. Folks like Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, who have flourished under the current administration, now find themselves in a perplexing and significantly un-funny dilemma: a risky change or more of the same.

Luckily, after the map has been rent all asunder and our nation bleeds red and blue again, we’ll still be able to look toward the horizon for another installment from Sarah Vowell. Vowell, a humorist and contributing editor for public radio’s “This American Life,” is a unique and moving voice in American culture, whose incisive and intelligent writing is rarely surpassed but often matched by her ubiquitous sense of irony. What makes Vowell’s brand of humor impervious to any shifts is the fact that her best work—“The Partly Cloudy Patriot,” “Assassination Vacation” and her latest, “The Wordy Shipmates”—have dealt in her rich knowledge and extensive research of American history.

“Assassination Vacation,” her last book, followed the arc of Vowell’s pilgrimage to the sites of three of America’s four presidential assassinations—those of Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley—along with equally relevant and macabre side trips. Amidst the American historical non sequiturs for which she seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge, Vowell keeps her attention fixed on each assassination’s social and political context, all filtered through a self-conscious awareness of the present. Not to mention, it was very funny.

“The Wordy Shipmates” takes the most engaging aspects of that book—its dry, biting wit; its playful narrative; and, most importantly, its passion for history—and enriches them. Free from that last book’s novel yet somewhat extraneous framing device, “The Wordy Shipmates” dives right into its historical focus, the life and times of the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Among the vaunted cast of America’s founding patriarchs (and matriarchs), the icons of John Winthrop, Roger Williams, John Endicott, and Anne Hutchinson are increasingly obscure—and Vowell knows it. But their virtual anonymity in the American cultural lexicon leaves them as blank slates for Vowell to fill in with tireless research and her own humanizing perspective.

Fans of “This American Life” will know that, like most contributors, Vowell has an innate ability to forge strong connections between research and personal experience, and “The Wordy Shipmates” exhibits this skill at its most fully-realized. She doesn’t just introduce us to the cast of characters; she adds herself to it frequently enough to keep the narrative in contemporary perspective. In essence, there are three voices at work: the cerebral historian, the observant wit, and the empathetic commentator. A reader of Vowell’s other work is well acquainted with the first two, but it’s the third’s appearance throughout the new book that makes “Shipmates” unique. If not for the overwhelming ease with which Vowell alternates voices, it may have seemed overwrought and out of place to compare a moment of striking camaraderie in post-9/11 New York to the resolve of the passengers of the Arbella. The book could just as easily be a conversation with the author herself.

“The Wordy Shipmates” is a gem, and Vowell’s ambitious and rewarding work to date. Unlike her contemporaries Bill Maher and Lewis Black, who use a skewed view of American history to point out its flaws, Vowell exhibits a deeply sympathetic perspective for American figures both past and present, and in doing so, she evokes the same in her audience.

—Staff writer Ryan J. Meehan can be reached at rmeehan@fas.harvard.edu. Sarah Vowell will be speaking at the Harvard Bookstore on Oct. 11 at 7p.m .

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