Sarah Vowell is my kind of chick. Not that I find her overly attractive mind you, but she’s got that appealing combination of sassy atheism, skepticism, and liberal disgust that is usually enough to bring the brain and loins together for a conversation. Additionally, she’s a passionate nerd, which means that she spends her time reading, traveling to unpopular destinations, and annoying the hell out of everyone in her vicinity with her quirky interests. I have no doubt that I’d bond with such a woman, and I suppose I’d accept a blowjob now and again just in case her dry lectures on James Garfield became overly familiar. But after three of her books, I am devoted to the cause of Miss Vowell; a sly wit who won’t get you rolling with hyena-inspired lunacy, but will help you find your humanity right at the moment you thought you might have lost it forever. That’s not to say that she’s gooey or sentimental, but she does explore the American landscape with a love for what makes us uniquely insane. And this time, she’s investigating our commemorative tendencies, which usually amount to little more than an obsession with markers and plaques, as if they alone could tell our national story. That said, she is vehemently pro-plaque.
The strongest element to the book lies in its undying affection for the unknown and the ignored. At this point, most Americans have severed any ties with the past that don’t involve their own yawn-inducing family tree, and this is especially true of the minor figures, regardless of how large they may have loomed in days gone by. She violates this love for the obscure by devoting a significant block to the Lincoln assassination, but more than makes up for it with sections on Garfield and McKinley. Fortunately, she avoids Kennedy altogether, I’m assuming because his death is still too fresh in our collective memory. What’s more, one need not be a history buff to find JFK fascinating, which is a testament to our preoccupation with celebrity and glamour.
I was deeply involved as she went from Springfield, Illinois to Washington, D.C. in her quest to rediscover Lincoln’s murder, but more so when she tailed John Wilkes Booth and his flight from justice. Few care about these historical hotspots any longer, as Ford’s Theater pretty much sums up what people continue to digest (and even that is a tourist trap for tubby Midwesterners). But Vowell treks from Booth’s unmarked grave in Baltimore to the Key West site of a conspirator’s prison cell. She manages to find a few fellow travelers along the way, but mostly uniformed guides who are paid to care. Of her few interactions with average citizens, she spends most of the time correcting misunderstandings and historical error. Take the D.C. stop where an oblivious parent fails to correct her dippy child on the identity of a statue. Despite an obvious marker, parent and child seem content to believe that it is Paul Revere, even though Vowell angrily submits that it is in fact General Sherman. Vowell also deals with the glassy-eyed stares of fellow guests at a bed and breakfast where she recounts the thrill of watching the Broadway musical Assassins (which I have seen — yes, it’s utterly brilliant). Because I could share her sense of isolation at that moment, I wanted to hug her with reassurance. No dear, you are not alone.
Vowell also visits assorted organs, locks of hair, pistols, and spines, which reveals a charming (and affectionate) level of morbidity. Again, her words on Garfield and McKinley warrant the most attention, as throughout we get the sense that if she didn’t make this journey, no one would. And why is it that most of the sites concerning Garfield’s and McKinley’s deaths no longer stand? True, these buildings were long ago reduced to rubble, but what have we done to resurrect their memory? Or maybe I’m thinking only of myself, for I too am the sort of American who believes a vacation is valueless unless something is being learned. Few are the eyeballs that didn’t roll with disgust upon learning that I would be spending my honeymoon wandering through presidential homes and blood-soaked Civil War battlefields. Or that I intentionally went to Buffalo, New York so that I could have a chat with Millard Fillmore’s obelisk and walk through the Wilcox Mansion, the site of Theodore Roosevelt’s impromptu inauguration. You might summer in the Bahamas, I’ll take Mentor, Ohio.
She also peppers her travelogue with interesting facts only a nerd could love, such as the strange case of Robert Todd Lincoln, who was within earshot of all three pre-JFK assassinations. It’s also worth noting that within a year of sitting with Warren Harding at the Lincoln Memorial dedication, the 29th President also dropped dead. There’s also a quietly moving visit to Long Branch, New Jersey, a popular summer destination for the elites of the Victorian era, and the current neglect (physical and otherwise) that haunts the ground that once witnessed so much history (including the dying days of Garfield). Still, Vowell never fails to probe the mind of the assassin himself, wondering how an ego careens so far out of control that it believes it has the duty to overturn the will of the electorate. Maybe she should just ask Antonin Scalia.
For her, no assassin is more entertaining than Charles Guiteau, Garfield’s killer. Guiteau was so unfailingly optimistic and deluded that he literally sang the 19th century equivalent of show tunes right up until the moment he was hanged. He was so charming in his loony worldview that he even suggested that Garfield’s doctors actually killed him, for he “only” fired the bullet. Vowell prefers the sunny savagery of Guiteau to the more somber Leon Czolgosz, the man who murdered McKinley. Czolgosz was motivated by the politics of anarchism and class warfare, which makes him a tragic figure rather than a source of entertainment. Guiteau–in contrast–even pulls at the heartstrings when he recalls that while stalking the President, he refrained from firing because his wife looked too tender and just might fall apart after witnessing the deed. Only someone of Guiteau’s madness would believe he’s being gracious by waiting until Mrs. Garfield was out of the room before proceeding with murder. Even Booth is too calculating for Vowell’s taste, even though his plot was more widespread and intricate. Still, ego carried the day as Booth genuinely thought that he’d be embraced as a national hero rather than hunted down like a villainous dog.
In the end, Vowell keeps history alive for those who’d rather focus on death, decay, and division than the so-called “unifying” elements that are largely illusory. We are a nation borne of bloodshed; conceived in the notion that we are much too sinful to take care of ourselves. Even worse, we are a nation that forgets, presumably because our “can-do” spirit is looking ever forward, but most likely because we are impatient with anything at which we could not be present. And if we choose to scour the historical landscape at all, it is only to justify and rationalize, as our prejudices and biases are far better served if accompanied by the approval of a revered (yet misunderstood) figure from the past. But Vowell sees all too well that if we are going back at all, it’s only worthwhile if we remember the numerous bodies–even those of the powerful–that line the path to understanding.