“Some communitarian subcultures are more inspirational than others,” advises writer Sarah Vowell, gulping down a Starbucks coffee in the lobby of the Westin Harbour Castle, in town for the International Festival of Authors before making another appearance in Atlanta that evening.
“I wasn’t really cut out to be a rural person. I have friends who are part of the ‘slow food’ trend, who give back to the land and idealize and romanticize that way of life. I buy organic vegetables, but I’m not really a tiller of the land type. I like a nice rock.”
Hailing from Muskogee, Oklahoma, the adopted New Yorker has gained notoriety for her sardonic examination of American culture. A regular contributor to National Public Radio’s This American Life, Vowell has acted as a guest columnist for the New York Times, a music critic for SPIN, and the voice of Violet in The Incredibles. In 2005, her non-fiction work Assassination Vacation took her on a cross-American road trip (she doesn’t drive but Ira Glass taught her to parallel park) to the murder sites of Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley, and James Garfield. Her newest cultural summit, The Wordy Shipmates, is a little tamer: it’s about Puritanism.
Specifically John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, elected on Thanksgiving Day 1629, whose Sermon on the Mount gave Vowell solace after the attacks of 9/11.
“Any old day in New York there’s a definite feeling of community. Maybe it’s because we’re all so crammed together. But that idea of being members of the same body really spoke to me. That aspect of the puritan always did, getting in a boat with your community and sailing off…” she muses, drawing her legs into a puffy sofa chair.
“I always loved that sermon of Winthrop’s. I’m not religious by any means but I’ve accumulated a bible of sorts—speeches, movies, pop songs, and novels culled for inspiration. I can turn to these texts in a time of need.”
In part a tribute to her own upbringing, Vowell has relinquished the Red State, hardline Christian values of her Midwestern parents (her father is a member of the NRA) to ponder the meaning of America’s need to divide and conquer. There are parallels for instance, in the puritans intent to “help” the savages offset by a fevered recitation of the Bible. Though Winthrop spoke of a desire to “make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labour and suffer together,” American pathos leaves Vowell with distinctly bitter tastes.
“When you’re an author, you meet the Americans who by definition read books. They’re usually well-informed, free thinking, and open hearted. Between the land and the people, [going on tour] is a pretty skewed and rosy view,” she admits of her cult-lit status.
“But I also have to go on call-in radio shows. There’s ugly sentiments out there, whole pockets of the country who are desperate and bitter, and that kind of hopelessness breeds contempt. I’m aware of how the rest of the country is seen. I trip all over myself trying to hide my American-ness. But I can’t help that I’m writing about history in a country that doesn’t care about history.”
Or perhaps they’re more intent on recreating their own. Unenthused about Obama’s prospects (she deems him a “garden variety Democrat”), Vowell yearns for the simpler times of 2000, an election she cheered on with clear resolve.
“There’s so much at stake now, it’s like trying to put the apocalypse back in a bottle. I’ve been invited to election parties, but I’m not going. I plan to sit at home in my pyjamas and watch the returns with all the anxiety of a father waiting for his child to be born.”