Sarah Vowell, whose idiosyncratic voice (in both senses) is familiar to listeners of National Public Radio’s This American Life, expended a considerable amount of effort trekking to places associated with events of national tragedynamely, the murders of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield and McKinleyfor her most recent book, Assassination Vacation. It is hard to imagine that she missed anything.
She visits an island off the coast of Florida, an isolated hamlet in frozen Alaska, a deep-woods spot in the Adirondacks, a forgotten stretch of the New Jersey shoreline and other locales that are sometimes only peripherally associated with the original crimes. Vowell is not interested only in surveying Ford’s Theater, naturally the first stop for anyone studying Lincoln’s assassination. She is also keen on securing a key to Manhattan’s Gramercy Park to gaze upon a statue of John Wilkes Booth’s brother, Edwin, a renowned Shakespearean actor of his day.
Her narrative is very droll, curmudgeonly and discursive. But as anyone who has read or heard her knows, Vowell’s toneand she is master of itis not limited to geeky world-weariness. She is a believer in simple, commonsensical truths, a cornily enthusiastic collector of kitsch experience and an indignant patriot of progressive bent.
The highlights of this, her fourth book, are the instances when the indignant patriot in her surveys a South that may not be entirely free of its racist past. Her most powerful comments, made more powerful because her indignation flashes only rarely, come when visiting locations connected with Booth’s flight from justice. She notes that the phrase sic semper tyrannis (Thus always to tyrants), shouted by Booth after he fired the fatal gunshots, is contained in Maryland’s state song. One might think that a state song hinting at presidential assassination would have eerie echoes when that state’s native son assassinated said president and therefore it might be headed for the title of state song emeritus,’ the dust bin into which Virginia herself tossed its racist favorite Carry Me Back to Old Virginny.’
More troubling to Vowell’s mind are the Virginia road signs that direct tourists to the site of Booth’s death. The signs were erected by the state of Virginia. Logically, they bear the state’s official seal. And that seal, of course, features the state motto, inscribed in Latin: Sic semper tyrannis.
It is unfair of me to say so, but the slogan Booth shouted from the stage of Ford’s Theatre, the overblown, self-important, pseudo-Shakespearean blather, being etched on the sign marking his death feels like the stamp of approval.
It is typical of Vowell to notice a tree of this sort amid the Sherwood Forest of assassination information. She has done her homework, providing lucid descriptions of the murders and agile summations of the scholarly assessments of each era. She has a great eye for odd bits of lore, and she relishes discovering the forgotten and ignored. Who knew that there is no plaque commemorating the spot where Charles Guiteau shot President Garfield? (For the record, it is where the back entrance of the National Gallery of Art in Washington currently stands.) She visits a piece of Booth’s thorax, on display at a medical museum in Philadelphia, and tells the story about Geronimo paying his respects to McKinley’s coffin in Buffalo, where the president was killed by anarchist Leon Czolgosz. The rainbow of hope is out of the sky, the Apache warrior wrote in a card. Heavy clouds hang about us. Tears wet the ground of the tepees. The chief of the nation is dead. Farewell.
The author’s jokes occasionally fall flat, and sometimes her anecdotes veer toward the cutesy. Some of the passages would probably have worked better on radio, where, as with Garrison Keillor, Vowell’s inimitable delivery adds an additional layer of meaning and expression to the text. But overall this is a delightful read, full of wonderful surprises about our nation’s history, told without the institutional omniscience of the made-for-C-SPAN historian.
For reasons not clear, Vowell does not discuss President Kennedy’s death, though it is hard to imagine that she and her obsessive spirit could have avoided visiting its shrines. That’s too bad. I would have relished Vowell’s description of Minsk, once home to Lee Harvey Oswald, or her explication of the magic-bullet theory. Is the world ready for another Kennedy assassination book? Only if Vowell is writing it.