"Logical but warm, pragmatic but not without frippery, grand and human all at once."
So Sarah Vowell describes the architecture of Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright's mentor, noting that those happen to be the same qualities she admires in Abraham Lincoln. It's an apt description, besides, of her own work.
Quite possibly, you first heard Vowell on public radio's This American Life, reading an essay about following The Trail of Tears with her twin sister (the family is descended on both sides from members of the Cherokee tribe) or about the time, acting on her long-held desire to look more menacing, she flew to San Francisco for a private lesson in goth from a woman named Mary, Queen of Hurts.
Perhaps you encountered her distinctive voice in a movie theater, as the actress behind the raven-haired, teenage Incredible daughter, Violet Parr.
Or maybe you've met Vowell exclusively in print — you might be the type of reader that simply gravitates toward nerdy Oklahoma-born humorists or the literature of Presidential assassination.
"Any writer who can put James A. Garfield and Lou Reed in the same sentence leaves me in slack-jawed awe," admits Charles Matthews of the San Jose Mercury News. "But a lot of Assassination Vacation is like that. History is so often thought of as the province of the ponderously academic that it's a treat when an amateur in the oldest and best sense of the word: a person who engages in something for the love of it reminds us that it's an essential part of who we are."
Sarah Vowell: Do you mean, Why not include Kennedy?
Vowell: When I started out, it was going to be about all of them, including the botched attempts, but I kept narrowing down. Then I discovered that Robert Todd Lincoln was there for each of the first three assassinations, and that gave the story a through-line and coherence. And I knew that I wanted to write about the Lincoln Memorial, so when I found out he had attended its dedication, that helped focus it further.
Also, because the first three to die are all Republicans and the assassinations take place in a relatively short period of time, between 1865 and 1901, a lot of the same people show up. John Hay was Lincoln's Secretary and then became McKinley's Secretary of State and also Roosevelt's.
That period of American history isn't well known; it's so murky. I always wondered how the party of Lincoln turned into the Republican Party we all know and love today. You can watch that happen; it happens in that period.
Dave: And that's where you introduce McKinley's advisor, Mark Hanna, Karl Rove's campaign strategy hero.
Vowell: The President before Garfield, Rutherford B. Hayes, took office after a disputed election. The Republicans barter with the Democrats; they say, If you make Hayes President, we'll pull our troops out of the South, effectively ending Reconstruction, which is to say, effectively ending the enforcement of black suffrage. Then McKinley, the last Civil War veteran to become President, uses the Spanish-American War to reunite the country, which was important, but he and Mark Hanna realize that to raise more money and to solidify their political power the Republican Party should court white, male voters in the South.
They decided that McKinley should give speeches in which he now claims that the Civil War was not about what it was actually about; the Civil War is just the story of American valor, a story of American bravery. It's a way of courting old Confederates. And now, of course, white male Southerners are the Republican Party's core constituency.
Dave: Cultures evolve, but people remain fundamentally the same; several times in my reading I came back to that idea. Another example is Robert Todd Lincoln's cover-up of cannibalism on a scientific expedition to the Artic; this happened in the 1880s, but you can imagine politicians treating the news in exactly the same manner today.
Vowell: It's just one example of a government bureaucrat messing up and trying to cover his tracks. Then all that Spanish-American War stuff in the McKinley chapter. After God told McKinley to annex the Philippines, you had a disgusting guerrilla war where American soldiers were torturing the enemy, and Filipino rebels were torturing Americans. It's eerily similar to the dispatches from present day Iraq. We go in to liberate Cuba, but Cuba still isn't free; we don't really think through what we'll do after the initial treaty is signed, but we're still occupying. There's chaos and torture and finally an outcry; finally there are Senate hearings...
One thing I find ridiculous is the notion of the good old days and the decline of American morals. This period of American history is called The Gilded Age for a reason. It's all about greed. And it's not solid gold; everything is covered in gold leaf — it's all about appearances and power and money and management versus labor. In that sense, our forebears were just as corrupt as our contemporaries. I actually find that reassuring in a way.
Dave: A couple months ago, Malcolm Gladwell was here, and we were talking about the fact that he's sometimes criticized for being a popularizer of other people's ideas. He's not in the lab doing the primary work, in other words. He finds it funny that people consider that to be a criticism, as opposed to just describing what he does.
Your work isn't altogether different. You're reading through a lot of what must be incredibly dry source material, visiting places that most people will never see, interviewing experts, and then turning what you've learned into an informative but entertaining narrative.
Vowell: I was on a panel about historical fiction at the Sydney Writers' Festival a couple years ago I don't know why I was on it, but I was. A very scholarly, upstanding, Australian writer was beating up this poor German guy who had written a fictionalization of the Holocaust. I remember she said, "We must avoid easy entertainments." And I was just sitting there thinking, Lady, entertaining is hard. Anybody can bore something up, but making some of this stuff entertaining is the hardest thing there is.
One challenge of this book that I enjoyed was trying to make the Garfield administration fun. Garfield's not the most fun guy. His administration lasted only a few weeks, and the major issues of that period were patronage and civil service reform. Luckily, he had a kooky assassin who's fun to talk about.
I'm not a real historian. I don't pretend to be. I try to be an entertainer, and I'm proud of that. I want my books to be fun to read. There's no real point to read them otherwise. If you want just the facts, there are much more august, reliable historians go read them.
History is full of really good stories. That's the main reason I got into this racket: I want to make the argument that history is interesting. I'm still a big moviegoer and TV-watcher. I find in history the same plots and characters that I do watching the WB. There's greed and lust and jealousy, good decisions and bad decisions, jerks and paragons. It's action-packed.
Dave: You note in the book that the Lincoln Memorial is your favorite historical site. What are some of the runners-up?
Vowell: I love the Custer battlefield, Little Bighorn National Monument, because it really tells a story. Unlike, say, Gettysburg, at the Custer battlefield they buried soldiers where they fell, so you walk along a winding path that passes graves where people died. At the end of that path, you think you're finished, and then you look across a little ravine and see another grave. You think, That guy almost gets away. He's across the little creek but he didn't make it. You feel for him, just as another person who hoped not to die.
Dave: In your earlier essays and now in Assassination Vacation, the narrative often switches without warning into the present tense. You don't use a traditional present tense frame to hold a bunch of back-stories together, but those tense shifts give the narrative a certain amount of texture. I wondered if you developed that style from creating material for radio, to be heard instead of read.
Vowell: I think it's purely technical. I'm not overly aware of it. I do it to make things seem like they're happening now, putting me and the reader in the middle of the events, as if we're in our way-back machine, standing in Secretary of State Seward's house and Lewis Powell has just brushed past us to go stab the Secretary. Here we are, with them.
It's pure manipulation and showbiz, which I'm for, as a writer and as a reader, too.
Dave: I just realized that we're wearing the exact same shoes. [Editor's note: blue Puma "California" sneakers.]
Vowell: I didn't notice that.
Dave: Weird, but I'll spare you that line of questioning.
Vowell: That show was important for me as a hick kid from nowhere; it was my first exposure to criticism.
I loved that these two guys argued with each other as if movies actually mattered. Nobody I knew talked about movies that way, but Siskel and Ebert took each movie as it came and talked about whether it was a success on its own terms. They talked about things they liked, not things they were supposed to like.
I didn't come from any kind of academic background, but I lived in a college town and I knew people who weren't without pretense. And there was this idea in the town that if something was European it would be good.
I was a pretty voracious moviegoer, and because my town had this weird fixation on foreign films, I saw a lot of them and I didn't like them all. Then I'd see something like The Suspect with Dennis Quaid and Cher, and it was so entertaining to me, in a way that The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant wasn't. It made me question How come I didn't like this thing I was supposed to like, then this other movie I went to when I was supposed to be doing my Biology homework was so much fun to watch?
Siskel and Ebert had so much faith in their opinions and their beliefs and their reactions. That was emboldening. They were great Americans in that way. And that's one of the things I think my work is about, really, the difference between things you're supposed to like and things you actually do like.
Dave: I was completely unprepared for how many kids came to your reading today. You're not a movie star, and yet you kind of are. A third of the people waiting in line for your autograph were kids with Incredibles books and merchandise.
Vowell: It just turned out that the one time I was an actor, it happened to be in a globally dominant juggernaut. That was lucky.
Dave: You planned that all along.
Vowell: It's great. More and more, I get younger people who watch Conan or The Daily Show, but before that it was mostly people who knew me from public radio. Those people are kind of old, definitely older than me, by fifteen or twenty years. That's always made me nervous. I thought, My audience is going to die before I do.
It's good to see the little kids. They might be around to support me in my old age.
Dave: Is an appearance on Sesame Street forthcoming?
Vowell: I would love to do that.
Dave: You once made a pact that you weren't going to buy any new music until you "figured out" all of your old music.
Vowell: When I was about fourteen. I actually thought that if you just listened to something long and hard enough you could figure it out.
I wasn't very keen on the idea of mystery at that point. In fact, I hated mystery. I think it comes from being religious, being a Fundamentalist, especially, because that's all about certainty.
I hated the lost colony; in second grade, we were doing American History, and they said, "We don't know what happened to them." That drove me nuts. I was a big Nancy Drew reader. I liked how it all gets wrapped up Nancy figures it out and then she and what's-his-name go out for ice cream and her dad pats her on the head. Case closed. That lost colony drove me crazy. We don't know? You told us this story, and there are all these people and then they're just gone?!
But to answer your question, I thought with music, Louis Armstrong, that if I just listened to his record every day I could figure out why Louis Armstrong was Louis Armstrong. Which is ridiculous. The whole point of Louis Armstrong is that no one can really figure him out. There was a while where I thought you could try.
Dave: Is "You Got the Silver" the best Keith Richards song?
Vowell: It is. I love it when Keith does his songs. Actually that's my favorite Rolling Stones song.
Vowell: I don't have to choose.
Dave: But now you do.
Vowell: That's a tough one. Not Johnny. I love Johnny, but he's out.
Sinatra, overall... He made some clunkers, but one reason why Elvis is more interesting than Sinatra is that there's more range between the greatness and the horror, the agony and the ecstacy.
In New York City, there's this guy who has a show on public radio on Saturday afternoons — it's a music show — and at some point in the show he plays only Sinatra for about a half hour. It's sort of a ridiculous way to run a radio show, but in a way it's very logical. It's like, Let's take a break from our day and remember how great Sinatra is. And whenever it's the Sinatra time always I drop everything and just sit on the couch and listen to those songs.
But I don't know that I can pick between Elvis and Frank. Don't make me.
Dave: I'll leave it alone.
You've noted that David Sedaris opened a door for people with funny voices on the radio — and I'm not implying that your voice is funny — but it seems strange that radio wouldn't have figured this out without Sedaris's help. What could be more of a stamp a radio brand, really than a distinctive voice?
Vowell: Part of the success of This American Life, I think, is due to the fact that none of us sound like we should be on the radio. Ira Glass doesn't sound like he should be on the radio. I don't. David doesn't, really. We don't sound professional; we sound like people you would know.
So much of broadcasting hasn't really noticed that Watergate happened, that no one takes the voice of authority seriously anymore. There's a difference between being a voice of authority and having authority. David Sedaris doesn't sound like the voice of authority, but he sounds like a confident, thoughtful, intelligent person.
Vowell: Well, I really don't like to read setting-appropriate books. I feel too hokey. The last time I went to Paris, I remember sitting on a bench by the Seine reading that Tom Perrotta novel, The Wishbones, about the New Jersey rock 'n' roll band. That was a really good reading time.
Right now in Portland I'm loving a book called The Devil's Candy, about making The Bonfire of the Vanities film. It's the most New York-Hollywood kind of book — they're in the Bronx making the movie, talking about Tom Wolfe and Wall Street and all that — and this morning I was really enjoying reading that in Portland, Oregon.
Dave: What will you do if your nephew loses his ghoulish nature and turns into a sickly, sweet child?
Vowell: He's very sweet; he just has a bit of an edge. I don't see him turning conventional any time soon. He's a very singular individual, but he is very sweet. I probably don't write about that much because it's boring to talk about a cute, nice kid.
Dave: What would you ask yourself that interviewers don't?
Vowell: What are you hiding?
No one ever asks that. That's one thing I love about the first-person: It's such a great place to hide, especially with essays.
The answer, though, is boring. The thing that I leave out of a lot of the personal essays, even this book, is that so much of my time is spent just sitting at a desk, reading the four volumes of Garfield's diaries or the Robert Todd Lincoln biography. Yawn.
Even my first book [Radio On], the diary of a year listening to the radio so much of that was pure doldrums interrupted by the occasional inanity. That book is really short and edited down; it's not a very accurate portrayal in that every time I write something, something is happening, but most of that year nothing was happening.
The thing I'm hiding is boredom and drudgery. I'm a big fan of editing and keeping only the interesting bits in.
Sarah Vowell appeared on the Powell's stage at Portland's inaugural Wordstock Book Fair on April 24, 2005.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State