NPR contributor Vowell (Assassination Vacation, 2005, etc.) takes a hard but affectionate look at the legacy of those doughty, slightly deranged Puritans who landed in the New World in 1630.
Fans will be pleased to see that Vowell’s admittedly smart-alecky style is alive and well: It’s not every historical monograph that tosses together Anne Hutchinson and Nancy Drew, Dolly Parton and John Endecott. The author’s characteristic devotion to detail is also evident. Previously she was obsessed with America’s political assassinations; here she pores over the texts—the many texts—of the principals who interest her: John Cotton, John Winthrop and Roger Williams, in addition to the aforementioned Hutchinson and Endecott. She likes to visit the places most relevant to her subjects too; we learn, for instance, that a Boston jewelry store now occupies the site where Mistress Anne’s house once stood. Vowell examines what she sees as the cascading effects of the Puritans’ arrival, drawing a straight line from Massachusetts Bay to Abu Ghraib. She continually bashes the current President Bush, points out the tarnish that others seem to ignore on the well-burnished image of President Reagan (who patently lied about Iran-Contra) and ends with a paean to JFK. This approach can be jarring, as the author yanks readers back and forth between recent and colonial history from Charlie’s Angels to the Visible Saints. Still, she dives into dense Puritan sermons and self-flagellating journal entries to emerge, generally, with a bit of truth. She chides us for careless use of the word Puritan and disdain for public intellectuals. “The downside of democracy, she finds, is “a suspicion of people who know what they are talking about.” In the end, she admires Winthrop’s surprising tenderness, Hutchinson’s chatterbox courage.
At times dense, at times silly, at times surpassingly wise.