NEW YORK – Ask Sarah Vowell a simple question – like, say, “What turned you into the kind of person who would immerse yourself in the writings of 17th-century New England Puritans and write a book about them?” – and within five minutes she’s telling you about the time she became a human paintbrush in a piece of performance art.
This was in the mid-’90s, before public radio’s “This American Life” turned Vowell into a radio personality, before books like “Assassination Vacation” turned her into a best-selling writer and before Pixar Studios turned her into the voice of Violet in “The Incredibles.” Back then, she was just a grad student at the Art Institute of Chicago, doing a thesis on a 1960s phenomenon called Fluxus.
“They were this kind of collective of random artists,” Vowell explains. Among their activities were short performance pieces based on what they called “event scores,” little cards with simple instructions on them.
This explains how she found herself rolling out a 20-foot sheet of butcher paper in the aisle of a Chicago auditorium and crawling slowly down it on her hands and knees, trying to paint a straight line with her hair.
And what, you might ask, is the line that connects the Fluxus-admiring Sarah Vowell who dunked her 20-something head in paint with the Sarah Vowell, now 38, whose fascination with the Puritans inspired her to produce “The Wordy Shipmates,” her fifth book, just published by Riverhead?
Well, she liked the fact that, under the Fluxus umbrella, “all of these really singular eccentrics could do their own art and do their own thing” but come together in group efforts as well. And she sees the theologically quarrelsome yet fiercely communitarian settlers of New England in the same light.
“It’s my ideal of America,” Vowell says. “I don’t like a coherent group, I like an unruly group.”
Or perhaps no group at all.
Never mind her public persona or the clutch of loyal friends she’s assembled. Vowell is the kind of person who’d just as soon be holing up with a book of Puritan sermons or the diary of a dimly remembered president.
“I just like being in my apartment by myself for months at a time and figuring stuff out, in a way that’s just me figuring it out,” she says. “On my own.”
She has been plunked down this day, not entirely happily, in one of her publisher’s conference rooms, the kind where it’s hard to tell if the muted wall color is gray or brown. (“It’s ‘greige,’ as they would say on Apartment Therapy,” Vowell deadpans.) In the course of a two-hour interview, she lets out a good number of short laughs, but you’re more likely to see a corner of her mouth twitch faintly upward when she gets off a good line.
“Assassination Vacation,” Vowell’s previous book, is the kind of hip historical travelogue its title implies. Researching it, she got to sally forth to examine – among other wondrous American locales – “the Vatican of the Lincoln assassination subculture,” a funky old house-turned-museum in Clinton, Md., where fugitive John Wilkes Booth dropped in for guns and whiskey. At Ohio’s James A. Garfield National Historic Site, she got to ponder the chair in which the obscure, book-loving Garfield used to curl up “with all the decorum of a teenager plopped on top of a beanbag.”
“The Wordy Shipmates” relies more on documents than on tourist attractions – making it, in the words of one Vowell friend, “not so much road trip as head trip.” Still, she did spend some time on the road. What sites might she want to show an interviewer if they could flee this greige purgatory?
“The Massachusetts Bay Colony tour isn’t quite as action-packed as even the President Garfield tour,” she says. But perhaps we could start in “this alley in downtown Boston behind the Winthrop Building,” the city’s first steel-framed skyscraper, which sits atop the site of John Winthrop’s house.
If you’re having trouble placing Mr. Winthrop, he’s the leader of the band of Puritan colonists who did not gain eternal renown by landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620 and chowing down thankfully with the Indians. Winthrop’s people showed up a decade later, founded Boston and were far more important than the Pilgrims in shaping what became these United States – though Winthrop himself is now best known for the sound bite about “a city upon a hill” that Ronald Reagan cribbed from him and quoted endlessly out of context.
Vowell loves Winthrop for writing what she calls “one of the most beautiful sentences in the English language”: “We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body.”
After Sept. 11, 2001, she writes, “when we were mourning together, when we were suffering together,” she finally understood what the old Puritan meant.
This is Vowell at her most serious, and there’s plenty of seriousness in “The Wordy Shipmates.” Still, she rarely lets more than a paragraph or two go by without livening things up.
Take this typical then-meets-now analogy: “The Old Testament Israelites are to the Puritans what the blues was to the Rolling Stones – a source of inspiration, a renewable resource of riffs.” Or take the one she employs while describing the first full-scale massacre of Colonial New England’s Indian wars, in which the Puritans ended up burning hundreds of Pequot men, women and children alive.
“The buildup to the Pequot War,” she writes, “reminds me of what skateboarders call the frustration that makes them occasionally break their own skateboards in half – ‘focusing your board.’ The Pequot War is just that – a destructive tantrum brought on by an accumulation of aggravation.”
Not an analogy you’ll likely find in your high school history text.
In Union Square, not far from Vowell’s apartment, stands a statue of Lafayette. The aristocratic French teen who fell head over heels for revolutionary America is a personal Vowell favorite. Listen to her riff on him and you may begin to grasp the strange, insightful muddying of past and present that she has turned into her intellectual home turf.
“You know that Allen Ginsberg poem ‘A Supermarket in California’?” she begins. “There’s a throwaway kind of line about ‘the lost America of love,’ and to me, the Marquis de Lafayette is just all about love.” She elaborates, telling his story in some detail, mentioning his idealism, his being “such a continual friend to this nation when we really didn’t have any,” his desire to be buried under dirt from Bunker Hill.
And what, exactly, does this have to do with a life in the 21st century?
“I just find it makes me happier,” Sarah Vowell says, “that when I go to the grocery store, I can think about the Marquis de Lafayette.”