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Assassination Vacation Paperback – February 6, 2006
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Sarah Vowell exposes the glorious conundrums of American history and culture with wit, probity, and an irreverent sense of humor. With Assassination 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.
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For the most part, I think this book is fantastic. I enjoy the enthusiasm Sarah shares with her readers, as her passion for the subject matter is evident. The book covers the assassinations of three of our presidents - James Garfield, William McKinley and a fellow by the name of Lincoln. The first time reading through I was disappointed there was not anything about Kennedy’s assassination, but it works better focusing on the three within a forty-year span like Sarah does (besides, a sequel focusing on the assassination’s during the 1960s would be a must purchase for me). The book primarily focuses on Lincoln’s killing, which makes sense given the spectacle of it and its impact on the United States, as well as Lincoln’s reputation. Garfield and McKinley receive less attention, but the sites of their assassinations are no longer standing and feature lone, deranged gunmen. Charles Guiteau, the killer of Garfield, appears in all his insanity and is something to behold. Readers, especially the uninitiated, will likely relish this section. The coverage of McKinley’s assassination is rather brisk, with more emphasis on his successor than the action itself.
The one ding I have on this book, which lowers it a bit in my eyes, is that the passion exhibited by Vowell covering Lincoln’s assassination fades somewhat on the other two. I am glad she covered the other two, but feel that they were a bit rushed. An entire book focused on Lincoln would have been easy to accomplish and likely attracted more outside attention. Two other books, “Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President” by Candice Millard (about Garfield’s shooting and the aftermath) and “The President and the Assassin: McKinley, Terror, and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century” by Scott Miller (about McKinley, natch), show that Sarah could have dug a little deeper. Perhaps her travelling companions were weirdos and tired of looking at the morbid.
This is a very good book, however, and certainly worth your time. And to answer my earlier question, Garfield's tomb wins. Lincoln's is the most regal, but there is a gothic darkness at Garfield's that you have to experience.
I always preferred taking a history class with an instructor who had a lot of personality. One of my high school history teachers got so into tales of medieval mayhem that he'd dart back and forth between two blackboards, desperately scrambling to find space to scrawl out more information as he told us about the black death. His enthusiasm and wit made the subject come to life for the first time, and not just be a collection of names and dates. Later, when I took a college history class about the Reformation, I encountered a cantankerous and alarmingly elderly professor. Perhaps due to his age, he sat down the whole class and just told us stories, occasionally lobbing acid barbs at the jocks unsuccessfully trying to hide in the back row. It was captivating. He made Reformation England the best soap opera not on television. It was the first time I thought of history as having a narrative, just like a novel but real. People in the past had personalities! Who knew? The following semester I took a class on the Civil War with a professor who could only be described as a bitchy queen, but that man knew his shit and was hilarious. He could have had an amazing TV show: The Bitchy Queen's Guide to History. It would win every single Emmy, and he'd roll his eyes at least once in every acceptance speech.
Those are the people who made history come alive to me. The reason I'm telling you all this is because you can add Sarah Vowell to that list now. She's droll, witty, and totally sarcastic. I love it. "You know you've reached a new plateau of group mediocrity when even a Canadian is alarmed by your lack of individuality." Hilarious. So is this: "Like Lincoln, I would like to believe the ballot is stronger than the bullet. Then again, he said that before he got shot." But she's also crazy informative and ridiculously thorough. She understands history from all angles. She knows all the competing theories. She knows all the events that caused one thing to lead to another and is capable of conveying that information without giving you a migraine.
Best of all, she has an emotional relationship to history. In this book, Vowell explores the assassinations of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley, and during her quest she makes an effort to understand each of them. What kind of men were they? We're not just looking at how they died, we're looking at how they lived. When she visits McKinley's memorial Vowell remarks that she didn't feel any closer to the former president, but when she visits the plaque commemorating the location where he was fatally shot she is surprised to find herself emotionally overwhelmed. She visits the neighborhoods they called home, the locations where they worked, and the museums that house their belongings, all to get a better sense of who they were.
It's not just the presidents who get this treatment, it's also the men responsible for their deaths and others who were affected by them. She visits the location of the barn where John Wilkes Booth was killed after law enforcement caught up with him. She checks in on the Grammercy Park statue of Wilkes' brother Edwin, who was a celebrated actor in New York despite his infamous sibling. She hangs out on the decaying pier in Long Branch where President Garfield was taken to die. She periodically checks in on Robert Todd Lincoln--Abraham's eldest son, who was present at all three assassinations covered in this book. She even takes a jaunt to the Dry Tortugas off Key West (and gets seasick in the process), just to see where Dr. Samuel Mudd--who may or may not have been a conspirator in the Lincoln assassination--was held.
The sense you come away with, beyond the knowledge of the assassinations, is the sense that history is a living organism, continuing to be shaped and molded every second of every day. As a New Yorker, I just so happen to live in one of the cities she frequently mentions. I actually noted each of the locations in case my path ever crosses the historical markers. Best of all was when she mentioned the Fifth Avenue Hotel, where the Republican party of Garfield's day did a lot of its wheeling and dealing. It was located on 5th and 23rd St.--the very same corner I work on. I was almost late for work because I had to run across the street and scout out the location I thought she was talking about (I was right! The building where Eataly is stands there now). I spent my lunch break walking through Madison Square park to find the statues of Chester A. Arthur and Roscoe Conkling that she mentioned. I have a completely new sense of the space I work now--I understand something of the history of my place, what is here now and what was here before, and it's exciting!
That's what is so great about Assassination Vacation--it brought out the history nerd in me, which has been relatively (sadly) dormant ever since I finished reading Tony Horwitz's Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. It actually took me longer to read than it should have because I kept stopping to do internet research for myself to find out more or to see what Vowell is describing for myself. And I cannot wait to pick up another one of her books to do it all again.
PS Please note that the kindle version, rather annoyingly, does not have the illustrations that the print book has. It does have the captions, however, as if mocking you about what you're not seeing.