Assassination Vacation Essays


Sarah Vowell exposes the glorious conundrumsof American history and culture with wit, probity, and an irreverent sense of humor. WithAssassination Vacation,she takes us on a road trip like no other -- a journey to the pit stops of American political murder and through the myriad ways they have been used for fun and profit, for political and cultural advantage.From Buffalo to Alaska, Washington to the Dry Tortugas, Vowell visits locations immortalized and influenced by the spilling of politically important blood, reporting as she goes with her trademark blend of wisecracking humor, remarkable honesty, and thought-provoking criticism. We learn about the jinx that was Robert Todd Lincoln (present at the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley) and witness the politicking that went into the making of the Lincoln Memorial. The resulting narrative is much more than an entertaining and informative travelogue -- it is the disturbing and fascinating story of how American death has been manipulated by popular culture, including literature, architecture, sculpture, and -- the author's favorite -- historical tourism. Though the themes of loss and violence are explored and we make detours to see how the Republican Party became the Republican Party, there are all kinds of lighter diversions along the way into the lives of the three presidents and their assassins, including mummies, show tunes, mean-spirited totem poles, and a nineteenth-century biblical sex cult.

Author Notes

Sarah Vowell lives in New York City.

Sarah Vowell was born in Muskogee, Oklahoma on December 27, 1969. She received a B.A. in modern languages and literatures from Montana State University in 1993 and an M.A. in art history from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1996. She has written several nonfiction books including The Wordy Shipmates, Assassination Vacation, Radio On, Unfamiliar Fishes, and Lafayette in the Somewhat United States. She has also written two essay collections entitled The Partly Cloudy Patriot and Take the Cannoli. She was a contributing editor for the radio program This American Life on Public Radio International from 1996-2008. Her work has been published in numerous publications including The Village Voice, Esquire, GQ, Spin, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and the SF Weekly. She was also the voice of Violet in the animated film The Incredibles.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Publisher's Weekly Review

What do you get when a woman who?s obsessed with death and U.S. history goes on vacation? This wacky, weirdly enthralling exploration of the first three presidential assassinations. Vowell (The Partly Cloudy Patriot), a contributor to NPR?s This American Life and the voice of teenage superhero Violet Parr in The Incredibles, takes readers on a pilgrimage of sorts to the sites and monuments that pay homage to Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley, visiting everything from grave sites and simple plaques (like the one in Buffalo that marks the place where McKinley was shot) to places like the National Museum of Health and Medicine, where fragments of Lincoln?s skull are on display. An expert tour guide, Vowell brings into sharp focus not only the figures involved in the assassinations, but the social and political circumstances that led to each?and she does so in the witty, sometimes irreverent manner that her fans have come to expect. Thus, readers learn not only about how Garfield found himself caught between the Stalwarts and the Half-Breeds, bitterly divided factions of the Republican party, but how his assassin, Charles Guiteau, a supporter of the Stalwarts and an occasional member of the Oneida Community, ?was the one guy in a free love commune who could not get laid.? Vowell also draws frequent connections between past events and the present, noting similarities between McKinley?s preemptive war against Cuba and the Philippines and the current war in Iraq. This is history at its most morbid and most fascinating and, fortunately, one needn?t share Vowell?s interest in the macabre to thoroughly enjoy this unusual tour. (Apr.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

Library Journal Review

Vowell visits assassination sites throughout the country to consider how political violence gets manipulated. With a 13-city tour including some of the stops along her way? (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

School Library Journal Review

Adult/High School-Vowell has a perspective on American history that is definitely funny. She visits museums, historic sites, statues, libraries, anything remotely relevant to successful presidential assassins, and a few of those not so successful. This is an amusing way to learn history, but it is also an unusual look at the interconnectedness of things. Robert Todd Lincoln, "a.k.a. Jinxy McDeath," was present, or nearly so, at three assassinations-his father's, Garfield's, and McKinley's. To understand Garfield's assassin, the author spends time at the Oneida Colony in upstate New York, a religious commune that preached a combination of free love and the second coming, and connects it with Jonathan Edwards. She tracks the Lincoln conspirators through the process of plot and escape to hanging and imprisonment, even describing Dr. Mudd's enormous contribution when the plague hit the prison island of Dry Tortuga. Garfield's assassin was deeply involved in the redirection of the Republican Party after the Civil War, and McKinley's was an anarchist following, he thought, the tenets of Emma Goldman. There are family anecdotes and real scholarship in this quirky road trip. Teens will get an interesting view of one aspect of American history while picking up odd bits of information about a whole lot more. There is much to enjoy in this discursive yet somehow cohesive book.-Susan H. Woodcock, Fairfax County Public Library, VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Copyright (c) 2005 by Sarah Vowell Excerpted from Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

ASSASSINATION VACATION By Sarah Vowell. 258 pp. Simon & Schuster. $21.

Not long ago, I made the mistake of thinking there was something new-ish under the sun. The occasion was the protracted, nearly concurrent death watches for Terri Schiavo and Pope John Paul II, during which the news media felt compelled to highlight every detail of physical decay, no matter how intimate. Terri Schiavo has just received a morphine suppository! The Pope is being fed through his nose! I don't mean to sound lofty or scornful; I was glued to the tube, too. But for the dying, this gruesome play-by-play seemed a horrible violation, and also a uniquely contemporary one -- yet another symptom of a culture with serious boundary issues.

Then I read Sarah Vowell's "Assassination Vacation," a learned, engagingly discursive, funny, sometimes even jolly ramble -- literally -- through the landscape of American presidential assassinations. Vowell, a journalist and essayist in the McSweeney's orbit, reminds us that after James A. Garfield was shot in the back on July 2, 1881 (the 20th president was boarding a train in Washington, bound for a New England vacation after only four months in office -- how George W. Bush-like), he lingered on for two and a half months before finally succumbing, and that during this protracted farewell, the citizenry was just as riveted by the president's fluctuating condition as we would be today. Crowds gathered at newspaper and telegraph offices to await the icky medical bulletins emanating from what turned out to be Garfield's deathbed. One day, for instance, the world learned he had had a "free discharge of healthy-looking pus." And after he finally left this mortal coil, the poor man suffered one last invasion of privacy: his spine, removed during autopsy, was passed around to jurors during the trial of his assassin, a delusional man who had been haunting the White House and the State Department in hopes of being named ambassador to France. To what evidentiary purpose Garfield's spine ended up in jurors' hands, Vowell does not say -- even in death, most politicians would be mortified to have their backbones examined -- but the incident does serve as proof that when it comes to ghoulishness, you'll rarely outdo the 19th century, and this despite its lack of 24-hour cable news networks and their attendant programming needs.

"Assassination Vacation" revels in such small epiphanies. Having made the commercially courageous decision to avoid the catnip that is the Kennedy name, Vowell restricts her gaze to America's first three presidential murders: those of Abraham Lincoln, Garfield and William McKinley. Mixing travelogue, history, personal essay and social criticism, she follows the loose formula perfected in two previous collections of magazine pieces and adapted versions of her appearances on public radio's "This American Life," where she is a regular. (She has entertained an even larger audience as the voice of Violet, the sulky teenage daughter in "The Incredibles.")

Here, displaying heroic obsessiveness, she dedicates herself to visiting virtually every historical site associated with the three assassinations no matter how tangential, roaming as far afield as the Dry Tortugas, 70 miles off Key West, where four of the conspirators in Lincoln's shooting were locked up. And then it's off to Mount Marcy in the Adirondacks, which is where, in 1901, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt had been enjoying a "bully good tramp" through the woods when he learned that McKinley, gut-shot by a gloomy anarchist, was near death and that he, Roosevelt, would soon be president. Never at a loss for a bus ticket or a friend willing to drive her to a weed-choked cemetery, Vowell shows herself to be a connoisseur of half-hidden historical plaques, recreated sitting rooms and docents in hoop skirts. She suffers for her quest. "Going to Ford's Theater to watch the play," she notes, "is like going to Hooters for the food."

Vowell attributes what she calls "this whole morbid assassination death trip" to, in part, her anger at the current president and his policies, particularly the war in Iraq -- to which she draws a parallel with McKinley's elective attack on Spain. (This isn't just a lefty reflex: Karl Rove is also said to be fond of McKinley-Bush parallels.) Her "simmering rage" at the president alarms her:

"If I can summon this much bitterness toward a presidential human being, I can sort of, kind of see how this amount of bile or more, teaming up with disappointment, unemployment, delusions of grandeur and mental illness, could prompt a crazier narcissistic creep to buy one of this country's widely available handguns. Not that I, I repeat, condone that. Like Lincoln, I would like to believe the ballot is stronger than the bullet. Then again, he said that before he got shot."

Readers who aren't offended by the preceding passage will find much to engage them. Vowell makes an excellent traveling companion, what with her rare combination of erudition and cheek. Structurally peripatetic, "Assassination Vacation" is like a real vacation in that its lack of a rigorous itinerary, its willingness to wander hither and yon as Vowell's interest is piqued, can be refreshing -- if you are not the sort of person who absolutely insists on arriving at the B & B in time for the lovely tea service. As you may have guessed, this book is an often astounding compendium of forgotten history and trivia, to the extent that those are two different things. We learn, for instance, that the canny thespian John Wilkes Booth, stalking Lincoln that fateful April evening at Ford's Theater, waited for a surefire laugh line to cover his shot; and that the line, a rejoinder in which a female character is dismissed as a "sockdologizing old man trap," hasn't aged all that well. Still, as Vowell writes, "it is a comfort of sorts to know that the bullet hit Lincoln mid-guffaw. . . . At least his last conscious moment was a hoot."

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