Sarah Vowell’s “The Wordy Shipmates”

Her form of “history” is different than most other kinds of history you’ve read. How does that kind of “rule-breaking” impact you as a reader? How does it help the essay as a whole?

Vowell’s story telling is different because she finds a way to relate history to today’s current events. Unlike textbooks that spew out dates and locations, she starts off her analysis on Puritans talking about how most of our knowledge about that time period comes from tv shows like The Brady Bunch, The Simpsons, Mr. Ed, and Happy Days. In addition, what we have learned in school about New England colonials focus on Plymouth in 1620 and Salem in 1692. What makes Vowell’s writing different is she focuses on one area of history that many people don’t know about. She does not tackle a huge subject by writing about the Puritans over a multiple centuries, she focuses on 70-year span of history. In comparison to school textbooks, this is a very small time frame to write about. This allows Vowell to very closely examine and research her topic.

Another rule that Sarah Vowell breaks is formality. While reading her book, I felt like she was talking to me instead of at me. This was a very refreshing writing style for me to experience because most history textbooks or articles are very dry, boring, and never funny. She has a sense of humor which makes reading her book fun and engaging. She also talks about her own childhood and the two Cherokee family heirlooms she owns, reinforcing the idea that she is talking to you instead of at you. This level of informalness makes the reader feel more comfortable about what they’re reading; they don’t feel like they’re going to be quizzed at the end of the chapter.

Another “rule” she “breaks” is crossing time boundaries. While textbooks are very rigid about the time period they discuss, Vowell brings up Obama, The Great Gatsby, Martin Luther King Jr, Reagan, and 9/11. This helps the reader relate the distant past that we probably don’t know much about to events or people every American is aware of.


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