Sarah Vowell confesses in her travel memoir, Assassination Vacation, that she drags her friends and family along with her when she visits monuments and historical sites. She does the same with her reader: the book reads like a chatty car ride to obscure, off-the-beaten path places such as a hike up a mountain to see where Theodore Roosevelt was when he received the news that President McKinley had been shot, as well as to well-known places like the Lincoln Monument or the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Vowell blithely confides that she is usually either the youngest of the group at museums, or the oldest, and she prefers being the youngest because it means she has a shot at being the prettiest. It is this intimate dialogue that engages the reader while she relates her depth of knowledge of American presidential history. While we learn about history we’re also learning about Sarah Vowell, and it was this that I found the most interesting and, at times, off-putting.
Vowell lets you know who she is and what she thinks with sly, self-deprecating humor. We know by page three that she is impatient with ceremony, aloof around strangers until the subject of American history is introduced, and that her mother’s voice rings strong within her. I found myself liking her as I read her chapter on Lincoln: she seems to take pains to be even-handed in her treatment of Mary Todd Lincoln and her son, Robert Todd Lincoln, as well as with Booth and his conspirators, as though she’s trying to understand them as people. She quotes Booth’s journal, in which he bemoans America’s reaction to the assassination, then writes, “Not that I have much sympathy for Booth’s groaning, but I think I understand where his befuddlement comes from. Where could Booth have gotten the fantastical idea that committing political murder would be greeted as an act of heroism? Not from the South…A little poking around in the Booth biography uncovers his earlier rendezvous with history—the 1859 execution of john Brown” (82). While Booth didn’t agree with Brown’s ideology, he ”adored Brown’s fight-picking, gun-toting methods” (83). The tributes Brown received inspired Brown, “So,” she writes, “Booth isn’t entirely misguided in thinking he’d inspire a song or poem himself” (83).
Vowell’s pursuit of the ghost of Lincoln helped me connect with him myself, as well as with the mourning nation. I found myself sympathizing with Mary Todd Lincoln in particular because of her obsession with séances. Back then people thought she was insane where today she would be understood to be reaching out in grief for her sons. I respond personally to this because after my mother died I was obsessed with tarot card reading, and I think both are a form of trying to somehow take control—of something. If we could just know what comes next maybe we could at least prepare for it. Mary was committed to an insane asylum by her son, Robert, and she never forgave him for it. He didn’t understand, I think, and it makes me wonder what I didn’t understand about my own mother, who I’ve often thought was mentally unhinged. Did I judge her too harshly? Do I still? These stories about Mary and Robert make me wonder.
Vowell moves on to other presidents, focusing mainly on Garfield and, later, Theodore Roosevelt. What I found fascinating was the fact that even presidents can be nobodies. I don’t mean they actually were nobodies, only that they were forgotten, like Garfield. That Garfield’s name isn’t better known is surprising to me in light of his refusal to be cowed by the very powerful bully, Senator Conklin. Garfield resisted Conklin’s constant nagging to put certain people in office, and Conklin was not a man to be ignored. Vowell’s stories about Garfield made me like him and want to read more about him.
It was in these pages, however interesting her stories were, that I developed a distaste for the author herself. She writes about Guiteau, Garfield’s murderer, and his five-year stay in a polyamorous community in Oneida led by John Noyes, which banned
“all expressions of over-the-top passion…[a] gifted violin player in danger of becoming a virtuoso and thus too attached to his instrument handed it over to the Oneida authorities and never played again. When a visiting Canadian teacher complained that the community did not foster “genius or special talent,” Noyes was delighted, replying, “We never expected or desired to produce a Byron, a Napoleon, or a Michelangelo.” You know you’ve reached a new plateau of group mediocrity when even a Canadian is alarmed by your lack of individuality. (144) (emphasis mine)
Up to this point I was willing to brush aside Vowell’s political mini rants, which are peppered throughout the book. I took them as simply being both part of who she is and part of her message. But now I was turned off because she was displaying a closet nationalism, the very thing she seems to be against. This hypocrisy made me read the rest of the book with a more critical (or jaundiced) eye.
She writes disparagingly of one of Garfield’s early speeches in which he speaks of the value of leisure time to think, somehow not connecting a later lament in his journal: “What might a vigorous thinker do, if he could be allowed to use the opportunities of a Presidential term in vital, useful activity?” (167) Garfield was pressed in at all sides by “indurate office seeker[s]” including Guiteau himself. He despaired over the amount of time it took to deal with them, and Vowell quotes this, but doesn’t make the connection. Neither does she explore Guiteau’s motives for killing Garfield, writing it off as insanity, along with Guiteau taking the Republican party’s metaphor too far. (During the election campaign they said that a vote for a Democrat was a vote against the United States.) Vowell writes about a humiliating encounter between Guiteau and John Blaine, Secretary of State, in which Guiteau is summarily dismissed by a harried Blaine with a shouted demand that he never again broach the subject of being the ambassador to France. A month later, Guiteau shot Garfield, and in his confessional letter Guiteau reveals that he hatched his idea to kill Garfield four weeks earlier. Vowell does not discuss any possible connection between Guiteau’s humiliation and the assassination, nor does she explore Guiteau’s tireless attempts to be a part of Garfield’s company as perhaps a clue that his assault was less due to politics than to pride and alienation. This made me wonder if her dismissal of Garfield’s earlier youthful “leisure” speech was more to do with her own predilection for off-the-cuff impatient observations than with the value Garfield was espousing.
Although Vowell didn’t delve as deeply as I would have liked with regard to Garfield, this book is a worthwhile read because of her passion and style of writing, which is breezy and informal, and she has a knack for weaving in and out of past and present tense that doesn’t jar the reader.