Thursday, March 4, 2010
Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell
I first saw Sarah Vowell on The Daily Show and I was intrigued by her. This slight, dry, kind of sleepy-looking woman was not who you might expect when you run the words "presidential historian" through your mind (in my mind, "presidential historian" is usually an older man of leisure who's managed to be lucky enough to turn a passion into a job), but there she was. The fact that she was also really funny impressed me even further. And so, since I have a long-running fascination with presidential history myself, I set out to Mooch this book. And it was well worth it.
Being interested in Presidents means a lot of things. For some, it's the semi-regular top/bottom ten Presidents lists, or comparing one to another in terms of their accomplishments and scandals. Some people develop a fascination with the more obscure Presidents, hoping to rescue their names and deeds from the dustbin of history. Others look to see what kind of social or cultural changes they made in their times. In short, if you want to learn about the Presidents, there are a lot of ways you can go about it.
Ms. Vowell here explores the more morbid side of Presidential history, especially the inevitable morbidness of being in history-love with Abraham Lincoln. In the special features section of The Incredibles DVD (she played Violet), you can see that she compares Lincoln to a superhero, and has multiple instances of Lincoln idolatry around her home. She admires Lincoln's steadfastness and resolve, his determination to hold the Union together, and the humanity that connected him to the rest of the common people. Lincoln, in life, has a great deal to appreciate.
Study Lincoln long enough, however, and you eventually get to the sad part - his assassination by John Wilkes Booth in 1865.
Sitting in Ford's Theatre in Washington DC, she was struck by the same thought many people have when they go there - "Wow. This was the place." She sat in the Chinese restaurant that was built on the site of the boarding house where Booth and his co-conspirators made their plans and thought the same thing. And before she knew it, she was on a pilgrimage, a holy quest to visit all the places involved in the death of Abraham Lincoln. And there are a lot of places to visit, in New York, Illinois, and even off the Florida Keys, to say nothing of the area immediately around DC. Lincoln's assassination echoed from that box seat in Ford's Theatre and shook the nation.
Of the four Presidents that have been assassinated, most people only really know about two: Lincoln and Kennedy. But there were two others brought down by the assassin's gun - Garfield and McKinley. So Vowell expanded her pilgrimage to include them as well, giving them the same treatment and respect that she gives to her hero, Mr. Lincoln. Why she decided not to do Kennedy is not explained. Perhaps because it hasn't been long enough since the event, or because there's so much controversy surrounding it already....
The book is a nice tour through the lives of one President we all know, and two that we don't. And it's all fun to read, which is usually hard to do with history, much less the history of James Garfield. She reveals that each assassination came about by a complex series of events, and was triggered by many things - frustration, anger, despair, madness - and that each one was a tragedy, even if we don't appreciate them all that much.
Along the way, we get a refresher on American history, and a little contemporary comparison as well. For example, the Spanish-American war, over which McKinley presided, bears a shocking resemblance to the current war in Iraq. Both were wars of choice, fought for material gain, and initiated by dubious claims of aggression, just for starters. "Then, as now," she says, "optional wars are fought because there are people in the government who really, really want to fight them."
One of Vowell's great talents in this field is being able to link things together, so that the decision made by, say, John Wilkes Booth has effects that can be traced to Emma Goldman, and then to Leon Czolgosz. Or how the utopian free love community of Oneida, New York accidentally spawned the bizarre madman Charles Guiteau, and then went on to make rather nice teapots.
This is a technique that history teachers need to learn if they're going to give the world more people like Sarah Vowell - an understanding that history is not a series of isolated events, where you can look at a name, a place and a date and say, "Well, that's that." History is an ongoing process, with cause and effect coming one after another, often in strange and unexpected ways. Perhaps if people could see how a single event in the past directly influences the way they live in the present, they'd take more interest.
It's a fun read. If you weren't interested in history before you read this book, you'll at least be a little warmer to it afterwards. Also, she won my heart right in the beginning by saying that part of the impetus to write this book was watching Stephen Sondheim's musical Assassins, which I know nearly by heart even now, so many years after it was put on stage back at Siena. Every now and then she'd sprinkle a bit from the musical into the book - Charles Guiteau was a hoot - and I'd smile knowingly. Must listen to that again....
"There are people who look forward to spending their sunset years in the sunshine; it is my own retirement dream to await my death indoors, dragging strangers up dusty staircases while coughing up one of the most thrilling phrases in the English language: 'It was on this spot...'"
- Sarah Vowell, Assassination Vacation
Sarah Vowell on Wikipedia
Assassination Vacation on Wikipedia
Assassination Vacation on Amazon.com
Sarah Vowell at the Barclay Agency