SARAH VOWELL IS a social commentator and author of unconventional books on American history, including Assassination Vacation (a travelogue of political violence in America), The Wordy Shipmates (limning the travails of New England’s Puritans) and, most recently, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States (an explanation of how a young French aristocrat came to play a significant role in the American Revolution). The Oklahoma native has also been a contributor to the public radio program This American Life.
Your background is in language and art history, and your first book was about the experience of listening to the radio for a year. Why write about American history?
I’m no math whiz but isn’t history half of art history? Try describing Guernica without getting into what happened in Guernica. Come to think of it, my books do have an inordinate amount of statuary. Professionally, I dabbled in various topics and formats my first decade as a writer by necessity to pay the bills. Luckily, I fell in love with historical research and writing right around the time I realized I was a terrible reporter because I don’t like to pry. I’m really not so good with the living. But a refrigerated archive full of brittle missionary letters? I’m home.
You’ve been praised and criticized for your approach. Are you trying to make history fun?
Not necessarily, or at least not always, considering history includes the Black Death and Wounded Knee.
Does your serious research get overlooked amid the talk about your breezy style?
I am sort of confused by this, what with my books being full of wars, Indian massacres, racism, murder, epidemics, handwringing about imperialism in general and how the Native Hawaiians lost control of their country in particular. Then I realized most people don’t actually read the books. They just know me for joshing around about them for five minutes every now and then on The Daily Show. I remember once showing up to do a reading at the Brooklyn Public Library and the poster for my talk had my picture and my name followed by the title “Funny Women.” I was there to talk about my book on the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony! Which isn’t a total drag, but I wouldn’t call Puritan Massachusetts entirely hardy-har-har. There was this whole haunting section on the Boston woman who was so driven mad by the theology of predestination she threw her baby down a well so that she could know for sure she wasn’t a member of the Elect and was definitely going to hell. I guess, though, that there are worse things than strangers thinking I’m more pleasant than I actually am.
Is there research you’re particularly proud of?
When I was researching the aftermath of the Lincoln assassination I braved a boat to Dry Tortugas during hurricane season to see the prison fort where a couple of the conspirators were locked up. Everyone else on the boat was going there to snorkel. I get seasick. Maybe I should italicize that and add an adjective: I get exceedingly seasick. I vomited for three hours there, spent a couple of hours chatting up a park ranger and I vomited for three hours all the way back to Key West. I did feel like a little champ for braving that day. I like telling that story to college students who are fed a bunch of romantic claptrap about finding their bliss. I want them to know that even if they’re lucky to get a job they like, that job will require performing a lot of tasks they will not like in any way whatsoever, so they should start steeling themselves.
Have you gotten any negative reactions from scholars who deem your books too glib?
I don’t read my reviews. I do die inside when readers at book signings say they do not read history books but they like to read mine. Who brags about a lack of intellectual curiosity? It’s nice if someone reads my book about Puritans, but I would hope they would also crack open John Winthrop and William Bradford’s primary accounts, Anne Bradstreet’s poems, Edmund Morgan and Perry Miller’s scholarly works and—only if they are very, very patient—the letters of Roger Williams.
Did you like history class?
I always found textbooks pretty ineffective. I was the sort of high school student who skipped school to hang out at the public library. I’ve only ever learned things through experience, reading real books or talking to old people. I did help my sister with my nephew’s eighth grade American history curriculum because she was homeschooling him that year. When we did a unit on immigration he read Vilhelm Moberg’s novels about Swedish immigrants to the United States. He interviewed his grandmother about her family history and the whole family took DNA tests, which, like all fruitful educational endeavors, only asked more questions than were answered. As part of the unit on the Revolution, he and his mom came with me while I was researching the Lafayette book to Monticello, Colonial Williamsburg and Yorktown. We also stopped at Jamestown and the homes of Madison and Monroe. He learned enough that he started saying things at dinner like, “I’ve decided that my favorite general is Nathanael Greene.” He’s a theater guy so at Colonial Williamsburg I rented him a costume and bought him a tri-cornered hat and he tried to blend in with the reenactors.
Of the early American topics you’ve written about, which do you find most fascinating?
Ours is such a disconcertingly visual culture I do love the resolute literary bent of the New England Puritans. They cared about words and learning and books (admittedly mostly one book) more than just about anything. They built Harvard because they were used to Cambridge-trained theologians interpreting the word of their god and they wanted their New World clergymen to know Latin, Hebrew and Greek. It’s this legacy that led one of their descendants to include a section on “the encouragement of literature” in the constitution for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
What’s your take on the concept of “American exceptionalism”?
Whether one believes that America is a destined force for good or a deluded bully harming the world (or, at times, both), I think we can all agree that our purported exceptionalism does not apply to public transportation. Anyone who thinks the United States is the greatest nation on earth has never changed planes at LaGuardia.
Originally published in the February 2016 issue of American History magazine.