Sarah Vowell entertains with humor, history
“It’s a nice church; hopefully I won’t burst into flames,” Sarah Vowell said to a crowd of more than 200 upon taking the Graham Chapel stage Monday night.
Vowell is a New York Times-bestselling author of six nonfiction books on American culture and history, including “The Wordy Shipmates,” an exploration of New England Puritans, and “Assassination Vacation,” which recounts her national road trip to piece together the history behind three presidential assassinations. In her newest book, “Unfamiliar Fishes,” Vowell provides a humorous examination of Hawaiian history.
She also provided the voice of Violet in the film “The Incredibles.”
The Department of American Culture Studies appealed to fund Vowell last spring as a part of the fall Assembly Series.
Benjamin Cooper, a lecturer for the Center for the Humanities, introduced Vowell, asking how she would fill in the Mad Libs blank, “History is ___.”
“I don’t know what history is, but one place that does have an answer is if you—I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about visiting Jamestown, but if you were thinking about it, and you go to their website, their site is historyisfun.org,” Vowell said. “I don’t know if you remember what happened in Jamestown, but so many people died of hunger that it was referred to as ‘the starving time.’”
Vowell’s talk included four readings from her works. These excerpts addressed her awkward encounters at a bed-and-breakfast, her trip to the grounds that once held the free-love-practicing Oneida Community and her lifelong admiration for president Theodore Roosevelt.
One of the excerpts she read was from “Assassination Vacation.”
“I am only slightly less astonished by the egotism of the assassins, the inflated self-esteem it requires to kill a president, than I am astonished by the men who run for president. These are people who have the gall to believe they can fix us—us and our deficit, our fossil fuels, our racism, poverty, our potholes and public schools,” she said. “The egomania required to be president or a presidential assassin makes the two types brothers of sorts.”
“We are doomed to vote for people who are running for president who want to be president,” she added.
After Vowell spoke, listeners were invited to ask her questions. When asked how she became a writer, Vowell described her struggles with the trumpet and interest in art history earlier in life. Neither turned into careers.
“In summary, failure, failure, eh, fall into something,” she said.
Members of the audience enjoyed the talk.
“I thought that she was hilarious. She’s such a character. I really value her perspective. I’m just full from all of her descriptive passages with her personal experience so connected to each,” Sarah Ann Patz, an adjunct member of the performing arts department, said. “In her writing, she drops us into all of the sensory experience, her own memory, her own questions. She’s like a kid on a scavenger hunt, her quest for experience, understanding history through touching it.”
Freshman Emily Feng echoed Patz’s praise.
“I think she is really funny. She has a dry sense of humor that is wonderful. She clearly really likes what she researches. It brings a different feeling to history, a more human feel to it,” Feng said.
Freshman Nicole Williamson lauded Vowell’s books as both entertaining and educational.
“I think it is an interesting perspective on American culture and that it is important for us to read her books, not only because they are funny but because they provide lots of insight,” Williamson said.
Many American Culture Studies class curriculums, including a focus program on memory and memoir, use Vowell’s books.
“In many ways, her work is fundamentally asking questions that are central to our program’s core intellectual mission,” Heidi Kolk, assistant director of American Culture Studies, said.