Q&A with Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell. Photo by Bennett Miller.
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Sarah Vowell, who visits the LoDo Tattered Cover on Monday, October 20 (click here for more details), has one of the more eclectic résumés around. National Public Radio essayist. Voice of Violet Parr, the emerging teen powerhouse in the 2004 Pixar animated favorite The Incredibles. Frequent columnist for The New York Times. And popular historian whose latest book, The Wordy Shipmates, attempts to make the Puritans era interesting -- and succeeds. She's also a great conversationalist, as she makes clear in the following Q&A.

The conversation kicks off with me noting that my high-school-age daughters recently studied the Puritans and found them to be stultifying -- information that prompts a heartfelt defense of the period from Vowell. Next, she discusses the roots of her fascination with Puritanism, which she traces to her discovery of John Winthrop's famous sermon "A Model of Christian Charity"; her anger at the way Ronald Reagan misappropriated and twisted Winthrop's "city on a hill" image (betcha she was spitting nails when veep wannabe Sarah Palin recently did the same thing); the fascinating friendship between Winthrop and Rhode Island founder Roger Williams, whose irritating qualities make him just that much more amusing, in her view; the figurative kinship of Williams and the Reverend Al Sharpton; her approach to making history accessible; and a 2006 visit to The Daily Show in which she predicted that President George W. Bush would find a way to wreck our economy -- a memory that spurs a frustrated lament about the Bush years and the lingering damage they've caused.

After the interview was over, Vowell apologized for going off on a rant before adding, with characteristic wit, "But you were the one who wanted to talk to me."

Yep -- and it was a pleasure.

Westword (Michael Roberts): My twin daughters are sophomores in high school and they’re taking AP American history, and the Puritan years were among the first things they studied this semester – and they found them to be incredibly boring…

Sarah Vowell: What?

WW: In fact, one of my daughters went to the teacher and begged him to start talking about wars or else she was going to fall asleep…

SV: The Puritans had wars!

WW: In fact, I asked my daughter if they’d talked about the Pequot War, one of the wars you discuss, and she said it was mentioned very briefly – whereas you go into the sort of detail that make it clear why it was a very interesting part of American history. Is that part of the problem, then? That we don’t teach about the Puritan period in a very interesting way?

SV: Is any period of history taught well? I don’t know… It was certainly dull when I was in school. I guess I took AP American history as well, and I don’t really remember what they taught. I remember them talking about it in elementary school, as the buildup to the Thanksgiving pageant. And I don’t remember being intrigued by whatever measly pittance I was handed… I don’t know what the problem is with the way history is taught. I think part of it is, well, don’t textbooks have to be approved by five guys in Texas, and then the whole rest of the country has to live with their choices? I would imagine if there are lively, point-blank, Behind the Music kind of textbooks, those wouldn’t get approved.

The whole reason I love writing about history is precisely because it’s so juicy. There’s so much death and violence and pettiness and jealousy and the occasional high-minded idealist. And it’s funny to me that the whole Puritan period wouldn’t be interesting to high school students, because to me, so much of what’s entertaining about the story is that it is so high school, like most things in life. All the bickering and the feuds and the cliques and the outcast weirdo. It seems like if I was an outcast weirdo – not that I’m not – Roger Williams would be an incredibly entertaining person to know about.

They’re so stuck up, too, the Puritans. That’s what we as Americans get from them. Just their idea of themselves. They’re just so stuck up. They literally believe that they’re God’s own chosen people. I’m sure your daughters must go to a school with people who are like that, you know? People who believe they’re God’s gift to the world. What’s not funny about that?

WW: If you didn’t get excited about the Puritans during high school, when did you connect with it? And what was it that first got your imagination going?

SV: I think John Winthrop. Sometime after college, I think, I got this book of sermons, probably because it had a Martin Luther King sermon – I’m a big fan of his. It had Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity” in it. And my friend Greil Marcus has written on that sermon a few times, so that kept piquing my curiosity. And it’s such a beautiful piece of writing. My interest in the Puritans comes from their writing and their thought. So really, it’s Winthrop.

In one of the previous books, there’s a little stopover in Salem, and who isn’t fascinated by that stupid period? It’s just so ridiculous and horrifying and silly, basically. And being a fan of Winthrop, knowing that his time and place is known for witch trials and a lunch one day in Plymouth, it seems kind of sad to me that he’s not as well known as he should be considering how his idea – the “city on a hill” idea – is so influential.

WW: You talk about that in an interesting way. You talk about Ronald Reagan’s sort of co-opting the “city on a hill” image…

SV: Well, going back to your previous question, I grew up in the ‘80s, when Reagan is throwing around the “city on a hill” idea, Winthrop was much more in the news. That was another thing that got me interested in Winthrop. But please go on.

WW: For me, one of the things I really like about your writing is the way you treat history as something fluid. Instead of only talking about Winthrop in the context of his times, you’re able to shift forward to the 1980s and deal with the way Reagan revised the phrase in a way that clearly doesn’t thrill you…

SV: Yeah. Well, thanks! (Laughs.) I guess I didn’t know how to talk about Winthrop and the “city on a hill” without talking about Reagan. It seemed like that would be a horrible omission. First of all, it’s just interesting. Second of all, it’s ironic, especially as someone who’s read Winthrop’s sermon – and I’m not sure President Reagan got all the way through it.

Basically, the entire sermon is about charity. It’s about helping people. It’s about sharing. It’s about rejoicing and suffering together and being knit together by the ligaments of love. It’s Communist-level communitarian idealism, and it seems like the fact that Reagan took that one little sound bite, about a city on a hill, from a sermon that’s about generosity is just kind of hilarious to me considering the legacy of his administration and the way he ran his administration. I talk about cutting the Housing and Urban Development budget. As a lot of people said at the time, he more or less invented homeless. And that his catch phrase comes from this sermon about generosity and charity when he’s cutting school lunch programs is… well, “fascinating” is one word for it. “Galling” might be another.

And Winthrop’s idea that New England could be a city on a hill came from this hope that they would be a community that took care of each other. That didn’t seem to be one of Ronald Reagan’s priorities.

WW: Since Ronald Reagan grew ill and passed away, the part of his legacy you talk about has mostly been wiped out by historical revisionism. Now all we hear about is how he was this tremendous speaker who brought all Americans together and made the nation feel good about itself again. Was it important for you to say, essentially, “Hey, wait a minute. This was the real Ronald Reagan”?

SV: Yeah, because I was alive. I was one of those people. And I think people forget that. The ‘80s was actually a really contentious time. And also, I kind of got cracking on the book after Reagan’s funeral. All of that stuff came rushing back to me, especially in the context of current events – specifically the moment in Reagan’s funeral when Sandra Day O’Connor is reading “A Model of Christian Charity.” She said she was reading this because President Reagan used the “city on a hill” clip so much. But the context in which she read that sermon at the National Cathedral in front of all the national leaders past and present – it was a couple or three weeks after the Abu Ghraib photos came out.

When she said, “The eyes of all people are upon us,” one of the people sitting there was Al Gore. And a week before the funeral, I went to this speech Al Gore gave at NYU calling for Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation. And Rumsfeld was, of course, sitting there listening to O’Connor as well. And he was talking about Abu Ghraib not just as a horror in and of itself, but basically as a betrayal of American exceptionalism that we get from the Puritans. So all that stuff came crashing in on me and made me get started on writing about Winthrop.

I guess this is basically Anne Hutchinson-level heresy to say, but I found at the time, and I still do, a lot of Reagan’s policies to be not particularly Christ-like. And Winthrop’s sermon is about some of the more revolutionary aspects of Christianity, like love and generosity. And so I just wanted to be a little footnote, I guess, in Ronald Reagan’s chronicle of sainthood.

WW: You mentioned Roger Williams earlier, and his relationship with Winthrop is one of the more fascinating aspects of the book – as is your sense of how well Winthrop leaved up to the ideals he espouses in his own sermon…

SV: That’s one reason I wanted to write the book, too. I’m really fascinated by friendship. There’s something so intriguing about the friendship between Winthrop and Williams. Winthrop is one of the magistrates who banishes Williams for being such a disturber of the peace. But when the magistrate sent the militia captain to round up Williams, to literally stick him on a boat to deport him back to England, Williams wasn’t there because someone had warned him that the militia was coming, and that man was John Winthrop. So the idea that Winthrop could be so publicly opposed to Williams but privately help his friend is just so human and so understandable and kind of fascinating. It just kills me that friendship can still triumph in a way. And just the way they kept writing each other letters more or less until Winthrop dies.

And that notion that Winthrop has that they’re all bearers of the same body and they’re really knit together by the ligaments of love: In a public position, he sees Williams as someone who threatens the existence of that community. But I think he never kind of gives up hope that Williams will come back to the fold. Because Williams is one of them – or Winthrop wants Williams to be that. So there’s this really bittersweet thing about Winthrop and Williams that really appeals to me.

WW: You characterize Williams as a very worthy person who’s also an incredible pain in the neck…

SV: That’s why I loved writing about him – because he’s just so annoying. Annoying people are so much funnier to write about than nice, sane people. It’s like my last book [Assassination Vacation]: My favorite person to write about was probably President Garfield’s assassin, who was nuts, but he was so self-absorbed. And the same thing with Williams. That’s just a classic comic character. Someone who can’t shut up and is self-obsessed and self-absorbed. I make a lot of hay with that. He was just so annoying. But that’s part of what I admire about him. He was just so self-determined, and he stood up for what he believed in no matter what – no matter if it meant he lost his friends or lost his home. They kicked him out because he wouldn’t shut up and wouldn’t back down. That’s pretty admirable. But I think hanging out with him for more than 45 minutes might be a little trying.

As a character, though – someone to read about and write about – he was a lot of fun. And also, he’s someone who I think the modern reader can really identify with. For one reason he stuck out so much at the time was because he had crazy ideas like the state shouldn’t tell people what religion they should be – that the state should be separated from the church. I would like to think we still have a consensus in this country that this is still something we believe in. And they also thought he was insane because he thought the king of England should have gotten Indian tribes permission for settling on their land, which they thought was ridiculous – but that seems fairly logical to me. I guess that phrase “ahead of his time” is so overused, but he really was. And that’s part of what was tragic about him, too. I think I say that basically he was a television pundit before the First Amendment, not to mention television. He was talking and yakking and arguing and saying what he thought, and that could get you into a lot of trouble back then. It’s something we just take for granted today.

WW: I’ve been trying to think of an analogous public figure to Roger Williams today. It’s pretty amazing, given all those annoying qualities you talk about, that he gathered so many allies – that people followed him instead of fled from him.

SV: Yeah. I don’t know who it would be. Would he be Al Sharpton? Al Sharpton is kind of a comic character. But Al Sharpton has a real moral backbone. He’s right a lot of the time. He’s a polarizing figure and he’s certainly not without drama. So I guess he’s sort of that person. Someone who’s always yakking and has this core belief of what he believes to be right and wrong.

WW: Early on in the book, you talk about how superficially most of us learn about the Puritans – and you use as examples episodes of The Brady Bunch and The Simpsons. Is that a way of drawing readers in? To make history seem not forbidding but accessible?

SV: For sure. Honestly, if you’d asked me that question three years ago, I would probably have pooh-poohed that as a motive. But I think I’m just ready to cop to it more now – my educational bent. That’s not my first goal. My first goal is just as a writer. But I do feel that certainly, within the last few years, it would be handy for, say, some of our elected officials to be a little more mindful of our history, just in terms of meddling. I sort of came to that a little bit in the last book when I was writing about President McKinley and the Spanish-American War – just the idea of us saying we’re going to go free Cuba when Cuba still isn’t free. We really messed that up. We just believe, like the seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, with that picture of an Indian saying, “Come over and help us.” We really believe we are helpful to a fault. And sometimes we are. Look at World War II. America has obviously has been a force for good a lot of the time – but not always. And we just need to question our own motives and our own history.

Part of our sense of ourselves as infallible that we get from the Puritans, and the idea of ourselves as God’s chosen people, means that certain Americans in charge don’t question this country’s motives. And we have them. We have motives. We have our own agenda, and we’re not always helpful. Look at Vietnam. Look at Cuba. I just think it would be worth knowing that. Look at the Puritans – that Massachusetts would have an Indian saying, “Come over and help us” on their official seal, and then what do they do? Within seven years of settlement, they literally burn hundreds of Pequot alive – and they still have that “Come over and help us” seal. It’s so ironic… I’m just getting on my soapbox here, but I just think of that seal all the time – and when we were getting into this war in Iraq and the idea that we’d be greeted as liberators and handed bouquets of flowers, because that’s the way it always turns out. But no, that’s not the way it always turns out. Sometimes we really, really mess things up.

WW: In preparing for this interview, I watched a segment of you on The Daily Show, and you talked about going to George W. Bush’s inauguration and crying because you were afraid he was going to wreck the economy…

SV: I was worried. I’m just a normal old-school Democrat who always fears when Republicans are in charge of the economy.

WW: After mentioning that, you said you were a little ashamed of the failure of your pessimistic imagination. But I guess the past few weeks might have made you feel better about your prognostication abilities…

SV: Not really. When I said I was upset, I really thought there’d be some low-key recession like the one the President’s father brought about, which was bad, but not like the economic apocalypse. I really had no idea just how bad things would get. When I said “wreck the economy,” I didn’t mean no one’s going to be able to buy a home or retire in the foreseeable future. I just had no idea things could get as bad as they have. When I said I was afraid he’d wreck the economy and mess up the environment a little, I certainly didn’t foresee this. I was pessimistic, but looking back, I was the most optimistic of all pessimists. That man, he always opens up new possibilities for wide-scale failure.

WW: A lot of media people will look at events like this and feel torn. On the one hand, they’ll feel awful about what’s happening in the country – but on the bright side, it gives them something to write about. You write columns for the New York Times on a pretty regular basis, but I get the sense you’d much rather have nothing to write about than to have to write about this…

SV: I would love to have nothing to write about. I would love to have to go back to history to find horrifying things to write about. I would love that. I would happily endure trying to come up with other ideas for opinion pieces. I guess that’s the bright side of the past few years. People certainly seem to care more about the news these days (laughs).

WW: You have to look pretty hard for that bright side…

SV: I do kind of miss the days when people had less to worry about.

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