Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Puritan Thanksgiving

I guess a third year in a row officially makes my annual Thanksgiving read of Sarah Vowell's The Wordy Shipmates a tradition. Though it's actually about the Puritans, not the Pilgrims, it just feels Thanksgiving-y in its tale of religious fanatics plonking themselves down on a strange continent and proceeding to kill the natives whenever it was convenient.

When we think about the Puritans, we think of a bunch of dour killjoys in buckled hats hunting witches. But they were actually a really interesting bunch of dour killjoys who only occasionally hunted witches (though the buckled hats thing is a myth). They had a bookish bent to them that is endearing, at least to bookworms like me, as well as an intense, persistent anxiety, mostly about how much God hated them, which is also endearing to people like me who also exist in a state of intense, persistent anxiety, even if I'm a total heathen.

Their self-conception as a people so special that, so manifestly the best, that very world depended on and looked to their success, is incredibly important to America's own self-conception and history that they really shouldn't be dismissed or ignored. They perfectly encapsulate the tension between American ideals and American realities, with soaring words words of brotherhood and liberty on one hand and intolerance and raging hypocrisy on the other.

And, at least in Vowell's hand, the Puritans are fairly funny, if only ironically. Plus, John Winthrop, Roger Williams, and Anne Hutchinson, the main figures Vowell talks about, are just interesting characters. Terrible, annoying, endearing, totally-glad-they're-dead-and-we-don't-have-to-put-up-with-them, interesting characters. As some of the foundation-layers of these United States, they and their fellow travelers are worth reading about.

Speaking of Puritans, inspired by the period between Halloween and Thanksgiving, I recently read In the Devil's Snare. I had heard of the book a few years ago when it came out thanks to Book TV, and always meant to read it. Turns out it's much more interesting being talked about than actually read.

It's an academic treatment of the Salem Witch Trials (or, to use a moniker she considers more accurate, if rather prosaic, the Essex County Witchcraft Crisis of 1692), and is thus... well, very academic. There's a lot of quoting primary sources (complete with the idiosyncratic orthography of the day), a lot of consideration of then-current legal theory, exhaustive examination of dispositions and court records, and a dizzying array of names, dates, and statistics. It's just not particularly fun, though the central idea, that the crisis was caused and nurtured by the Indian wars going on at the time in Maine and the resulting tensions and dislocations, is very interesting and well-argued. As an academic work, keeping in mind that I'm not a historian, it succeeds; as a popular work, not so much. Still, it is interesting and certainly provides a much broader and more nuanced view of an episode in American history that, like so many others, we know only in broadest caricature.

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