Sarah Vowell, or, Why I Have Been Absent For Days

7th April 2010

Warning: LONG POST.

Yesterday Sarah Vowell, writer, historian, humorist, superhero’s alter ego (Violet in The Incredibles) flew into Houston, Texas, and I and a colleague picked her up from the airport to trek back to Beaumont, Texas for her lecture that evening.

I will not go into detail about how I was shaking because meeting someone new is uncomfortable for me, and meeting Sarah Vowell, although exciting, is still uncomfortable. I will not go into detail about how I took a wrong turn out of the airport and didn’t realize it for 40 minutes because I was so nervous and so engaged with the conversation….

I’m glad I didn’t go into detail – I feel much less ridiculous. 🙂

What I will share with you is what a delight the last couple of days have been. It’s a curious thing to meet someone you so admire and have them sitting next to you for two hours in a car and to talk as though this isn’t the most awkwardly brutal situation: meeting someone new and sitting next to them in the car for two hours. We went to the Q&A session with students in an Extremist Literature class along with a handful of other students. The questions began with the mundane: If you were stranded on a desert island, what five books and five movies would you bring? Sarah laughingly responded that if you can watch movies, hopefully there is some sort of transmitter there and you can maybe get off the island… but left it at that and played along. Her answer? The Godfather, Groundhog Day, Reds, and Point Break. Groundhog Day because, of course, on a desert island, each day must feel exactly like the last. Books? Moby Dick, which she says she turns to weekly for a paragraph to remind her of her love of the English language. The Great Gatsby, to be totally cliché, she said. Whitaker Chamber’s Witness and Lincoln at Gettysburg. Yes, I know there aren’t five on either list, but she turned the question back around to the student who asked it.

When asked why she is an atheist, she responded that in 9th grade she studied Greek mythology and couldn’t believe how outlandish the stories were and couldn’t fathom people subscribing to such a belief system. Growing up Pentecostal, she then turned to the Bible and the stories there and realized the stories were similarly unbelievable. However, she also said that Jesus’ radical Sermon on the Mount still inspires hope in her, that loving your enemy is one of the most radical ideas and that she wishes that were the face of Christianity today, in a sense.

All in all, the Q&A session was great, and she said it was one of the most encouraging sessions she has ever had with students. She said often she feels that students are afraid to ask questions, or they ask questions they think they “should” ask instead of asking what they really want to know.

Fast forward a couple of hours during which I finally ate a sandwich, let my dog out, changed for the evening, and double checked the reception hall for last-minute details. I picked Sarah up from her hotel, the MCM Elegante, which has a huge stone tablet (but not two) with The Ten Commandments on it. Yes, this is odd. Is this simply another of Beaumont’s laughable quirks? A quick search reveals not. MCM Elegante has hotels in Dallas, Odessa, Abilene, DeSoto, and Albuquerque, New Mexico that all apparently bear such signage. However, Sarah, now living in New York, thought it was quite humorous and actually opened her talk with a discussion of Texas and The Ten Commandments.

When she was introduced and got up to speak, I started shaking like a leaf. Now, you could say this was partially because I had only eaten a sandwich and a bagel all day, or that I was still mortified from driving the wrong direction that morning even though I drive in Houston all the time, but I was plain nervous. I was nervous for her, having felt some kinship on the level that public speaking is not my favorite pastime. I was also nervous that her humor, her perspective, and her distinctive voice (meaning her POV, not her literal voice, although that is distinctive as well) would fall flat. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The first 20 minutes she spoke were pure gold. Her diatribe about The Ten Commandments at the entrance of the hotel was classic:

[It] has a big honkin’ Ten Commandment out in front of it. I’m for not killing people as much as the next girl, but we just don’t do that where I live.

She went on to read from The New York Times op-ed she wrote in 2005 about The Ten Commandments that she printed right before going on stage:

The Supreme Court’s ruling last month upholding the right of the Texas State Capitol to keep a Ten Commandments sculpture – sponsored by that great theologian Cecil B. DeMille to promote his Charlton Heston epic – on its grounds as an historical artifact is arguable from a legal perspective. But to the amateur historian and professional ironist, it’s a delight. Because I’ve been to the Texas State Capitol, and that granite Moses movie ad is on of the least offensive things there.

To wit: there are two creepy monuments dedicated to the Confederacy, one of which features hand-carved testimonials from Jeff Davis and Robert E. Lee lauding rebel soldiers responsible for the Gettysburg deaths Lincoln would hope were not in vain.

Then there’s the memorial festooned with a man gripping a muzzle-loader to honor the Heroes of the Alamo, the men who died trying to steal Tejas from the Mexicans, who had taken it from Spain, which had grabbed it from the Indians in the first place. If I remember correctly, not stealing is one of your Top Ten Ten Commandments.

I am picking on Texas and its State Capitol only because of the specifics of this Supreme Court ruling. The fact is, any state government in the U.S. is going to look a little phony tacking up Mosaic Law on its lawn next to statues of whatever Puritans or Hawaiian-queen-kidnappers are responsible for any given state’s eventual statehood. Maybe phony is not the right word. Maybe the right word is sad.

Go read the whole thing. She does a really excellent job of weaving in these sorts of criticisms while letting her reader or audience know that it’s not just about one particular time period or region or historical figure. As she says,

People have always been as greedy, corrupt and beholden to their genitalia as they are today, and I find that comforting.

After she weaved through a work-in-progress about the aforementioned Hawaiian queen kidnapping, various humorous historical accounts and a section of her latest book The Wordy Shipmates, the only book to ever make me laugh out loud about the Puritans and the Pilgrims, Vowell took a couple questions from the audience. I will take this time to tell you, dear reader, that I have seen many authors speak in the last ten years. Yet I always see the same types of audience members asking questions. Some are nervous and lose the nerve to even speak. Others are nervous, and their nerves show when they ask often-incoherent questions. Others are confident, stand up, and ask an asinine question about whether the writer uses a laptop/typewriter/handwritten notes. These are all mostly endearing. Then there are my least-favorite questioners: Those who already know the answer to the question they are about to ask and who then ask it smugly and continue to heckle the speaker.

One such idiot behind me did just that. He’s not a student and was very obviously drunk or high or who knows what and asked her a question about state’s rights. Fine. However, he then qualified it by saying, “Do you think state’s rights are any less important than they were in 1776?” She begins to respond, and he says, “What about in a republic?” And so on and so forth. Annoying. Finally, she shut him down, and one of my students asked a question.

He said that as a student studying history, he finds so much of it to be dark and depressing and wondered how Vowell could find such humor in history. I thought it was a great question. She answered that sometimes it’s those odd little moments, like when she came across a cartographer – Charles Preuss – with the Fremont Expedition who was a depressing little figure. She found his diaries, long out of print, and felt a connection with someone whose passion, mapmaking, forced him to do something he hated – exploring. Or the time she went to Fort Jefferson, south of Key West, where Dr. Mudd, accused of being a co-conspirator in Lincoln’s assassination, was imprisoned. After throwing up from seasickness on a boat for three hours on the way there, she watched as a man asked the ranger if he could play Dr. Mudd’s piano. The man sat down and began to play a terrible version of “Lean on Me.” She says that, of course, knowing as she does that John Wilkes Booth went to Dr. Mudd to have a broken leg set while on the run, he most likely did have to lean on Dr. Mudd. As she tells it, she begins laughing herself. It was infectious and charming.

The reception, book sale and book signing were all a success, but more than any of that, it was really nice to just have those little conversations, not on the record and not for an audience – or at least not a large audience. It was nice to know she really likes detective novels. We laughed about Cam and Mitchell on Modern Family. Today, on the way out of town, she gave me a list of recommendations for several detective series after I had given her some yesterday afternoon.

I think it was a success and that people enjoyed it. I had an email from a student basically saying he was offended because she disparaged (no, he didn’t use that word) his state, heritage, and religion. I’m sure there are those who didn’t like her blunt view of history and stark expression of that view, but I thoroughly enjoyed it and am curious as to what my other students thought. Once I have photos and any follow up, I’ll post again.

Until then, has anyone in the blogosphere read any of Sarah Vowell’s works? What did you think? Are you a history buff?

  • How exciting! I haven’t read any of her books, yet, but I know quite a few people who love them. How wonderful that you got to meet her and actually talk more than just the regular meet & greet with an author.

    • It really was cool! I’ve met other writers but haven’t really spent time around any, so it was cool. Plus, my students got a real kick asking me what she was like after they had seen her in action.

      Sent from my iPhone

  • Michelle

    I just finished a 6 week study with my GT class on the Holocaust and am currently devouring anything on the subject. My 6th graders read The Boy Who Dared, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Someone Named Eva, and Number the Stars. Your post has encouraged me to read The Book Thief, which I have seen countless times in Barnes and Noble. Yesterday, I had a Holocaust Liberator come and speak to my class. He showed the Nazi armband and medal he ripped off a Nazi officer. It was incredible! Keep up the great lessons!

    • Wow. That’s incredible. You really ought to watch a documentary called Paper Clips. Netflix recommended it to me months ago, and I was curious and just loved it. I would highly recommend it.

      I’ve read almost all the ones you list. The Holocaust is so fascinating to me, particularly in light of the strange phenomenon of Holocaust deniers.

      I highly recommend The Book Thief. You will not regret it. It’s one of my top reads of all time.

  • Michelle

    Okay, I realized I just posted on the wrong post, but I don’t see a delete button. Oh well!

  • James Hall

    Thanks for the fun, intimate sharing of your time with Ms. Vowell. I’ve loved her appearances on “The Daily Show,” have read a couple of her books, and then listened to the audio version of “Assassination Vacation” just to be able to go on the trip “with” her. She’s a jewel! She’s also brave doing her spiel in the deep south with all the pro-confederate feelings on display these days.

    Good luck to you and your students – they’re lucky to have you.

    • Thanks so much for the kind comment. She was absolutely fantastic and yes, very brave for speaking her mind. I wish more of us were able to do that so well.

      I apologize because looking back, my write-up is a bit incoherent, but I really wanted to get my thoughts down before I began to forget. It was such a great experience.

  • marisa

    I have read 3 of her books. I wasn’t that interested in the details of history until I read the wordy shipmates. i so loved it, that i soon read the partly cloudy patriot, followed by assassination vacation. i heard sarah on this american life. she as amazingly talented and i am super jealous that you got to drive her from the airport and have a long conversation.

    • Well, I love history, but I’ve never enjoyed reading about history until I got to The Wordy Shipmates. It’s fabulous. I’m thinking about adding it to my American Literature syllabus.

      And yeah, it was cool – but don’t be jealous of my 40-minute detour in the wrong direction. It was painful. 🙂

  • Rob

    Just wanted to chime in with a thank you for such a genuine account of the time you spent with Sarah Vowell.
    And, however painful, I’m still jealous of your 40 minute detour!

    • Well, thank you – for commenting, not for being jealous. 🙂

      And, believe me, I know how incredibly lucky I was, but phew! Sweaty palms…

      • Rob

        You said you never enjoyed reading about history until The Wordy Shipmates, is that your favorite Sarah Vowell book?

        • I simply meant that I don’t enjoy reading textbook history (ugh), but history itself fascinates me. Her books are so different, and you can tell she strives to find those little tidbits that make it even more interesting. Several are in the form of essays, whereas, The Wordy Shipmates is a more cohesive work – in terms of linear formatting. However, I really, really enjoy her personal essays, too. The Partly Cloudy Patriot is funny and interesting. I am just now reading Assassination Vacation, and it’s really genius. I haven’t read Radio On.

  • Lee

    Thanks for sharing this story. I’m a long-time Sarah Vowell fan, and I could really understand what you were feeling the whole way through the story.

    I like detective novels too and I’m curious — what books did she recommend?

  • Hannah

    I have read Take the Cannoli, The Partly Cloudy Patriot, The Wordy Shipmates, and have done a back and forth read-aloud of part of Assassination Vacation with my older sister (this was my introduction to Vowell). I heard her speak several years ago, while she was still working on The Wordy Shipmates, and I found her absolutely charming. She’s my hero, and while I’m not quite as zealous on the subject of history, I would like to write narrative nonfiction someday. Her writing is the main reason I reclaimed my desire to be a writer.

    • Good for you! Writers like her make me want to know way more about history than I already do. Love that ability in a writer.