Rock-Solid American

Book cover
The Partly Cloudy Patriotby By Sarah VowellSimon & Schuster. 224p $22.00

The following expropriation of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself appears in The Partly Cloudy Patriot, a collection of 19 reflective, often witty essays by Sara Vowell, author, radio artist, editor, literary critic, presidential essayist and self-admitted Clinton apologist: “The best description of you [President Clinton] I’ve ever read was published in 1855:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”


Vowell’s double-edged swipe at Clinton’s girth and veracity is framed in a protracted intra-office memo. “To: Former President William Jefferson Clinton; From: Citizen Sarah Jane Vowell; Re: Presidential libraries fact-finding tour.” The memo is Vowell’s point of departure for a celebratory essay on presidential libraries and their eccentric directors, and is entitled, “Ike Was a Handsome Man.” The author incorporates a strange admixture of topics into this essay, including Clinton’s sexual perjury, the Oklahoma City bombing, Waco, Walt Whitman and, ultimately, the verity of the Little Rock library itself: “Mr. President, I’m tired. Who wouldn’t be after a decade of sticking up for you? I am looking forward to your presidential library in Little Rock because I am worn out from defending you.”

Vowell, a compulsive president watcher, writes about the American presidents the way Joan Didion wrote about water tables—unrelentingly. In “What He Said There,” a somber piece about Gettysburg, she celebrates Lincoln the writer: “Abraham Lincoln is one of my favorite writers.... All those brilliant phrases I’ve admired for so long, and yet I never truly thought of him as a writer until I visited The David Wills House in Gettysburg’s town square.” But who is David Wills? Why is his house important? The David Wills House is to President Lincoln as Valley Forge is to General Washington: Lincoln slept there, wrote there, rehearsed there and, like all addictive writers, he “re-wrote” there. Vowell’s re-enactment of Lincoln’s lonely wee-dawn moments is eerie: “I walk into the room where Lincoln slept, with its flowery carpet and flowery walls, with its canopy bed and its water pitcher and towels, and for several minutes the only possible thought is that he was there.”

The moment reeks of Madame Blavatsky, the famous theosophist, and her “white dog dream” (for Lincoln it was a recurring dream of a massive black object—a passing ship); but Vowell, a self-admitted “crank tourist” and medium in her own right, steers the séance in a direction we don’t expect: “To say that Lincoln was a writer is to say that he was a procrastinator. How many deadlines have I blown over the years, slumped like Lincoln, fretting over words that didn’t come out until almost too late?” Does Vowell take us all the way to Gettysburg so she can whine about writer’s inertia? Of course she does; and the effect is both hilarious and saddening, and, perhaps, a bit macabre.

“The First Thanksgiving,” as the title warns, examines holiday ritual, food traditions that are really compulsions (the difference between cornbread and johnnycake) and the daunting task of hosting one’s family for America’s quasi-sacred, four-day weekend. “The First Thanksgiving”circumnavigates New York City much like the Circle Line tour, but deviates for special persons and places such as the knife-wielding punker, Sid Vicious, who lived in the Chelsea Hotel. The tone of the essay is harsh and anti-Mid-west (Vowell is from Bozeman, Mont., by way of Oklahoma) but not depicting an overly smug New York. The author beats up her parents along the way, but gives the family equal time: “And there we stand, side by side, sharing a thought like the family we are. My sister wishes she were home. My mom and dad wish they were home. I wish they were home too.”

The eponymous tract, “The Partly Cloudy Patriot”(a modification of Thomas Paine’s “sunshine patriot”), is a puzzling essay about public spirit and jingoism. Vowell begins with a deconstruction of Mel Gibson’s effusively anti-British film, “The Patriot,” but the essay really spins on a wrong-headed moment in Vowell’s college days in which she harangues a local realtor for putting a tiny American flag on her lawn on Independence Day: “I marched into the house, yanked out the phone book, found the real estate office in the yellow pages, and phoned them up immediately, demanding that they come and take their fucking flag off my lawn....”

Eventually Vowell fesses up to feeling “dumb and dramatic” over the incident, but the question lingers: what is it about the “tiny flags waving above the grass” that induces her hysteria? The essay broaches other themes, but it’s too difficult to get past the “flag”-raising issue.

“California as an Island,” an experiential essay about the author’s miserable apprenticeship in a San Francisco gallery, is sublime. Vowell couples the ancient technologies of map-making with the art of the “hard sell” in a gallery run by the notorious dealer Graham Arader. As Vowell tells it, it’s an intern’s Two Years Before the Mast. Ornithology, cartography, writing-about-drawing, Dutch pirates and Dutch publishers flesh out this moody story of the land of fruits and nuts. And in another lyrical essay, “The Strenuous Life,” a title borrowed from a rhetorical device of Theodore Roosevelt’s, Vowell recreates Teddy’s mournful exile to the Dakotas: “When one is in the Bad Lands,” Roosevelt wrote, “he feels as if they somehow look just exactly as Poe’s tales and poems sound.” Fittingly, Vowell adds another melancholic medium to her retinue.

The Partly Cloudy Patriot covers a lot of geography—from Hollywood to the Thai jungles, by way of the Dakotas. Along the way we learn about Tom Landry, Dudley Do-right, Sitting Bull, Audubon, the Rough Riders. She enjoys writing about fresh-air types. “Nerds,” “twins” and couplings (Clinton and Gore, Vowell and her sister, the misfit Htoo Twins, Rosa Parks and Katherine Harris, the Salem witches, game-winning and game-losing quarterbacks) are, at best, interesting distractions.

What best engages Sarah Vowell (writer, cowgirl, humorist and Big Sky reconteur) are men-on-horseback and men by the campfire—the gruff, but soulful characters of the prairie. For her, they are the real deal. For this reader, The Partly Cloudy Patriot is citizen Vowell at her entertaining and insightful best.

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