Posted by Carol Shih
Sarah Vowell is obsessed with death, but she makes her characters come alive. Her book, Assassination Vacation, is teeming with living, breathing dead people who ought to be rotting in their graves. I love how Powell approaches these great historical figures in American history. They are not just monuments of justice and glory—they’re people. And they have these straaaange relationships with one another (like Jackie Kennedy’s affair with Warnecke, JFK’s grave-maker).
And when Vowell gets down to describing assassinations, she runs the full mile… and more:
“Powell ran up the stairs with the bleeding Fred on his heels. The two burst into Secretary Seward’s room. Powell sliced at Seward with a Bowie knife. Fanny screamed. Robinson jumped Powell, pulling him off Seward. Powell decided to escape, hitting and slicing at the air willy-nilly.” (p 31)
She puts you RIGHT THERE. In the midst of the action! (Her Lincoln assassination is just as exciting too.) Best of all, there’s a lot of blood. There’s something with the way that Sarah Vowell sets up a scene. She not only paints it for you; she invites you in, really. You’re a guest in this world. For a moment, you’re watching Sec. Seward as he’s lying in bed, and then you’re racing up the stairs with Powell who’s slashing at everybody with his knife.
Is her book historical and informative? Yes, of course. But with her addition of all these extra, random and quirky facts— I don’t think I’ll forget what I’ve read.
Posted by Grace Kohut
I have to say that I loved reading Assassination Vacation. Her style reminded me of how biographies are turning into an art form. I’m currently reading Savage Beauty, a book on the life of Edna St. Vincent Millay, and I was reminded of it when reading Vowell’s work.
Assassination Vacation, however, does something different. She relays an impressive amount of historical information that could otherwise be boring and somehow manages to grasp the reader’s attention and interest. I think she accomplishes this by “setting the stage,” so to speak, in real time. She is an average human going about her life and pursuing her interests. She has friends and family, and a life of her own. She’s a real person with real opinions as well as a vast knowledge of American History.
She also succeeds in making her “subjects” real people: both the heroes and the villains. We learn about their families, their histories, their opinions and pain. “Never before have I felt the meaning of the word crushed” (64). Everything is so real in her novel; it is as if it were happening in the moment.
I also like how she imparts knowledge on us. She not only shares the contents of her research but also what her research (the means and the substance) has taught her. So in essence, she is sharing two different scopes.
*Note: Reread page 50-52 to see a good example of what I mean by different scopes, historical facts (the letter specifically), and bringing it back to real time (the fourteen dollar cab ride)
Posted by: Brea Davenport
I have always loved learning random tidbits of history. Growing up I loved reading my mom’s book called The Odd Index which had lists of really peculiar things. My favorite lists always had to do with history. One that sticks out in my mind was a list of the bizarre similarities between the murders of President Lincoln and President Kennedy. Assassination Vacation is like The Odd Index in that it shows bits of history in a really interesting way. I was already intrigued at learning about our presidents who died at the hands of another human so I knew that the reading wold not be too difficult, however Vowell’s writing style made reading so pleasant the interesting facts were even easier for me to read. She weaves in valid points of history with the story of her journey making the probably average walk through history more of a joyous romp through time.
Along with interesting history facts, she logically provides explanation of what she is doing, but with a good dose of humor to keep the story actually readable. I really enjoyed hearing about her journey as much as I enjoyed learning about our unfortunate assassinated presidents. For example, take her excerpt of when she finds the perfect word to describe her journey of learning about assassinated presidents.
“…It occurred to me that there is a name for travel embarked upon with the agenda of venerating relics: pilgrimage. The medieval pilgrimage routes, in which Christians walked from church to church commune with innards of saints, are the beginnings of the modern tourism industry.”
The passage is a mixture of historical fact, explanation of what she is doing, and it’s funny. Assassination Vacation is full of moments like this, moments that have lots of information, but are easy to relate to. I really admire Vowell’s ability to maintain consistency on her subject, but switch from facts to opinion with ease and humor. It is a skill that I hope to acquire so that my writing is fun to read, yet very interesting too.
posted by Dayo Oshilaja
Sarah Vowell simultaneously presents her readers with an esoteric sample of quotes, descriptions and other historical facts while also giving us her un-mitigated opinion. She keeps the story moving at such a brisk pace because she has such a conversational style and is able to effortlessly interweave her humorous and ironic opinions and pertinent historical information. Take the following quotes, which are an excerpt from the paragraph describing John Wilkes Booth. Vowell quotes from a letter written by Booth to the editors of a Washington newspaper which says “This country was formed for the white, not for the black man… And looking upon African slavery from the same standpoint as the noble framers of our constitution I for one, have considered it one of the greatest blessing. (23) Vowell then injects a more light-hearted tone into the paragraph by saying ironically, “So this is whom we’re dealing with –not the raving madman of assassination lore, but a calculating, philosophical racist. This juxtaposition between fact and opinion is continued throughout the book and makes this novel such an enjoyable read despite its highly unusual subject matter.
What I particularly like about her novel is that she tries to provide a comprehensive understanding of her topic by addressing all of the historical factors surrounding a particular event. For example when she is focusing on Booth and President Lincoln, she takes a moment to describe the institution of slavery informing the reader that it was not merely an imported custom but one already native to American shores. (36) Far from detracting from the novel, this side-note allows the reader to gain a better understanding of her subject matter and she does this in a very lively and thought-provoking manner. Vowell’s novel is a good template for how to construct a non-fiction essay that is both personable and factual. I love her seamless transition from historian, to fiction novelist, to blogger and then back again. I also like the fact that she approaches her topic from a wide variety of interesting perspectives. I hope that I can incorporate her seamless transitions from text-based evidence to personal opinion in my own writing.
Posted by Lawson Kurtz
My experience reading the first portion of Vowell’s Assassination Vacation can be summed up as education convincingly disguised as adventure. It’s obvious when reading that Vowell probably knows everything that there is to know about the topic of dead presidents. With this much knowledge, it would be easy to overwhelm the reader with dry, uninteresting facts. Vowell escapes this threat by writing a book that isn’t actually about assassinations. She writes instead about her adventure. Historical research is not the foundation of the book, rather it is used to adds to and explain the motivations for her travels.
Like any good adventure, Vowell’s travels include interesting people, and interesting places, and she expertly uses both as tools to inject historical heft to the piece without the unwanted side-effect of boredom. Her use of places is so obvious that it’s elegance could easily be overlooked. Describing the experience of visiting the physical locations correlating to important historical events relates historical information in a novel and interesting way, and establishes a framework to support her historical contemplation.
Vowell’s use of people is in my opinion more interesting. The most obvious example of this use is her dialogue with knowledgeable individuals such as the ranger at Dry Tortugas, however I most appreciate her use of people that know very little:
Bennett looks at the plaque, then back to me, wondering, ‘This is my surprise? A plaque about Seward?’
He doesn’t say anything for a while, just stands there reading the plaque, shaking his head. (401/3166… sorry, the Kindle version doesn’t have page numbers!)
In this passage, and throughout the book, Vowell approaches certain people with a sort of humorous disbelief that they aren’t just as in love with history as she. She’s certain to correct their ignorance with an impassioned, brief and very interesting summary about the important event they neglect to find interesting. In addition to serving as a natural point of inclusion for large historical summaries, these interactions also serve to solidify the reader’s interest in the story by promoting meta-cognitive comparisons with those silly individuals who fail to see the glory of history.
Posted by Janet Li
Sarah Vowell knows how to flow smoothly from first person to third person. It is the mixture of a history text, travel journal, and personal thoughts that form the interesting premise Vowell sets forth: to travel to important physical landmarks relating to assassinated presidents and their assassinators. I found myself feeling slightly guilty to find something that seems a little morbid and grave—dead presidents —a little funny. I think this is what makes Vowell’s piece work. She presents a subject we would normally think of as somber, and has turned it into in a lighthearted comedy.
She is able to present the material in an uplifting way by connecting her in-depth research on the topic and making it personal somehow. I hope to employ more research and fieldwork in my writings so that I can grow as a writer. Many times, she asks questions about the key figures in history as if they were key characters in her own life. For instance, she asks one such question: “I cannot decide who I resent more, Dr. Mudd or Jimmy Buffet, as I vomit into a paper bag on a boat in the Florida Straights.” This ordinary environment, her in a boat, makes the topic seem like an everyday thought. Another such example, in which she utilizes many times, is that she will bring forth a quote, from a person or a book, and then tack on her own thoughts. For instance, right after a quote from Timothy Douglas, the Assassins director, she states: “That crafty explanation slaps me in the forehead with all the force of ‘duh’.” With such witty responses, it is difficult to not laugh even if the subject is on the theme of violence and murder.
A quote from Chapter One that does a good job of illustrating Vowell’s use of in-depth research in conjunction with her own personal twist:
“The contents of John Wilkes Booth’s pockets also get the glass treatment. At Ford’s Theatre, I looked at the five photographs of women in the womanizing Booth’s pockets when he died, and I couldn’t help but believe that I picked up insight into his character, that he wasn’t just a presidential killer, he was a lady-killer too.“
Posted by Zeewan Lee
I don’t know about you, but when it comes to me, it’s all about details. I pay attention to even the most minor details provided in a book – whether it’s nonfiction or fiction – because I believe I can truly be inside the author’s mind via focusing on little details the author decided to focus on and mention in his story. I enjoyed reading Assassination Vacation, because Vowell’s book is inundated with details, but in a positive way. Her extensive research on the backgrounds and history relevant to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln really shines in little details she throws in here and there:
“The Library of Congress has a whole display case of items in Lincoln’s pockets when he died…. The items take on a strange significance. Those are the glasses he must have worn to read his beloved Shakespeare. He must have used the pocketknife to carve the apple he liked to eat for lunch” (25).
“After Booth shot Lincoln and stabbed Henry Rathbone, Booth’s spur caught on the flag as he jumped to the stage. The fall damaged Booth’s leg but not his flair for drama. ‘Sic simper tyrannis!’ he shouted” (52).
“Booth was there in Charles Town, Virginia, witnessing Brown hang… Like some teenage heavy metal fan worming his way backstage at a Metallica concert, Booth the John Brown fan charmed himself into the Gray’s company, bought a uniform, all so he could see his hero breathe his last” (82).
While I cannot take you to every part of the book where I admired Vowell’s keen attention to details, I believe the three parts of the book I have quoted above are more than enough to show to what extent Vowell made use of research. In the first quotation, what mesmerized me was Vowell’s caring enough about her subject of the chapter, Abraham Lincoln, to find out what he liked to do in his free time. Knowing Lincoln’s love for Shakespeare and apple, Vowell could make her descriptions of the items found in Lincoln’s pocket more vivid and realistic.
In the second quotation, I can really sense Booth’s frenzy – delirium? patriotism? – not because of the famous words he muttered – “Sic simper tyrannis!” – but because of Vowell’s narrative that penetrates into the moment and captures every bit of it, even Booth’s leg that was injured from the fall. Just as in the two previous quotations I talked about, Vowell in the last passage narrates not only Booth’s witnessing John Brown’s hang that is relevant and significant to the overall story, but also Booth’s charming into Gray’s company and buying a uniform. With these delicate details in place, the history Vowell presents to me comes alive, and I feel I am truly with Vowell in her journey through the landscape of American presidential assassinations.
Posted by Margrette Kuhrt
Vowell does a wonderful job of making you feel like you’re just her buddy tagging along on her trip rather than a soon-to-be learned scholar of presidential assassins. She uses a lot of conversational language to create this effect. Her casual tone, coupled with myriad personal asides and stories made me way more interested in her topic than I thought I would be- this was such a quick read- and, not being rather morbidly fascinated by assassinations as she is, I nevertheless found myself quite intrigued by all of her accounts.
I am a proud Virginian, so my interest was immediately peaked when her discussion turned to my state, as that is where John Wilkes Booth was killed.
“Which brings me to the creepiest thing about Booth’s death spot- the sign. 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.” (88)
This passage stands out to me as an effective way of livening up her topic and keeping it from being cut and dry (or worse, too gloomy or grim) research because the way she starts it- “the creepiest thing”- is so human and natural that you nod along with her (nodding to yourself of course, for you are only reading her account, regardless of how much it feels like she is looking you in the eye and conversing with you).
The other stand-out part of this passage to me was that she shares her feelings even though they aren’t politically correct “it is unfair of me to say so…” Thus instead of sounding stuffy, nonpartisan, and infuriatingly impartial (as those overtly sensitive types usually come off), she sounds like an informed, passionate friend, someone who has interesting theories worth listening to and considering. Vowell is able to accomplish all of this even as she shares a simple bit of text-based research and she does a remarkable job.
Posted by Andrew Brown
Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation brought the idea of creative nonfiction to life for me. Before reading Vowell it seemed to me that there were basically two types of creative nonfiction: memoir and interviews. Basically I felt constrained to write something either from my own memory, or to conduct some type of interview and write “creatively” about it. Professor Harris confused me a bit the last two weeks with his instructions to look for more documentation and do more research because I didn’t understand how documentation should fit in with a piece about my own life. Vowell helped me understand this.
Throughout Assassination Vacation Vowell interweaves personal anecdotes about her experiences researching the book with the actual quotes and bits of information she set out to collect. This style sounds odd, but Vowell executes the technique remarkably well. Her personal comments and quips not only bring liveliness and humor to incredibly morbid topic, they actually shed new light on some aspects of the history.
One of my favorite passages is Vowell’s description of trying to find Dr. Samuel Mudd’s house. Vowell writes:
“About ninety minutes into the roughly ten-mile drive from the restaurant to the Dr. Samuel A. Mudd House, I become convinced of Mudd’s guilt. Klam and I, armed with one road atlas, two historical maps of John Wilkes Booth’s route, an old article from the Washington Post travel section, directions from various locals gassing up their cars, and six printouts from MapQuest.com, are lost for two hours. Mudd’s house in rural Maryland is so hard to find, even in the daylight, even with a lap full of maps, that I don’t see how Booth and Herold, who were horseback riding under the influence of whisky they acquired at the Surratt Tavern, could have found Mudd’s house in the middle of the night if they didn’t know exactly where they were going, and whom they could trust.”
In that passage she brings the journey of John Wilkes Booth to life in a way that you would never to be able to in traditional historical literature. The house wasn’t simply hard to find or out of the way; it was impossible to find with an atlas, two maps, a newspaper article, help from locals, and MapQuest! I hope to use some of Vowell’s techniques to bring my writing to life.
Posted By: Rachel Revelle
Sarah Vowell captures my attention more than I ever thought would be possible in a meticulously detailed historical account of presidential assassins! I was able to identify a multitude of writing techniques that come through, and when you are aware of them, should not be very difficult employ. Sarcasm, irony, and self-deprecation are good places to start, as these are constantly evident in Vowell’s work. Personal side notes are usually easy to write, as we enjoy talking about ourselves, and they also keep the reader engaged amidst a heavier topic.
She also constantly and seamlessly incorporates text and person based documentation. The result is an account of history from so many different voices that it is hard to imagine the story becoming boring. One particular usage I found fascinating was that of personal letters and journal entries. These are certainly texts that can be examined, but particularly from a past age when the people can no longer speak for themselves, these texts also have the affect of person-based research. In describing the “Bleeding Kansas” incident, it is the letter of Edward Fitch’s widow that makes the situation familiar and intimate, instead of distanced by the passage of time. She says, in a voice we can all imagine:
My dear father and mother, I have been trying to summon strength to write to all the particulars of this sad, sad day… which has wrecked all my happiness. Never before did I feel the meaning of the word crushed” (63-64).
This hardened voice attempting to cope with tragedy is then amplified brought home to us by one of Vowell’s skilled insertions of modern-day counterparts to the historical events. Using the same language, she relates that the men bombing the World Trade Center “taught [her] the meaning of the word crushed” (64). She recalls in the reader the emotions felt in a crisis we remember, which propels us back to a more conscious view of the past.
I am not sure whether I consider a letter or journal entry text or person based documentation, or whether a clear distinction is necessary. These resources add facts in a poignant voice. They are personal experience, as laid out in a written text, which can then be used by a writer to hopefully add another layer or angle of truth.