Saturday, December 10, 2005

Assassination Vacation

Sarah Vowell

Reading S. Vowell for me brings up a range of emotions from feverish laughter to horrific despair and jealousy. The funniest part of Assassination Vacation is the preface, in which Vowell describes her reluctant breakfast at a B&B—something I can so relate to. She explains, “I understand why other people would want to stay in B&Bs. They’re pretty. They’re personal. They’re ‘quaint,’ a polite way of saying, ‘no TV’” (2).

Her writing is so good and so detailed, descriptive of places and historical events—particularly when I think of how young she is, fourteen I think, I fall into a terrible despair and want to kill her in the same way she describes wanting to kill G. Bush…well, even less so, really, because I don’t even really hate her. I just hate myself for not being as fabulously successful as her. This book is great, and she is greater.

The premise of the book is that she has had a lifelong fascination with the assassins of the four U.S. presidents who have been killed on duty. So, she takes us on her pilgrimages to the places where she goes to learn more about the places and relics surrounding the assassins. I was especially interested in the book because of its sense-of-place/travelogue aspects. It was interesting to me in form because she wrote this for a wide, commercial audience, clearly, rather than a scholarly audience—evident from her lack of footnotes or bibliography. The only credit she gives to sources is in her preface, where she discusses some of her main historical sources (like, for example in researching McKinley’s assassination, Vowell discussed Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower, which she called a “great history of European and American events leading up to World War I” (7) mentioning a chapter on anarchism that was especially helpful).

I expected to be able to use more of her work to help me define place, but what I found instead was some interesting information in the chapter on Lincoln. First of all, it will probably help the reader to know that I never studied American history at a very high level—say beyond primary school. I think I must have taken a semester in high school, but let’s just call that a blur. Otherwise, I went to school in Latin America, where we studied Latin American history. So I never really knew more than the superficial details of Lincoln’s assassination—especially the ones Vowell discusses in this chapter. I viewed this chapter in history through hindsight, thinking Lincoln was a popular president, so imagine my surprise to read Vowell’s statement, that she was “amazed Lincoln got to live as long as he did” (28). Indeed, apparently detectives had foiled at other assassination attempts before the successful one, and throughout his term, “Lincoln kept a desk drawer full of death threats” (28).

But putting my historical education aside, I found some of the historical information about Maryland as a place was very interesting, and as I read along, I began to think about the information as a foundation for the dissertation chapter on John Waters.

What I found in the chapter will help me to define Maryland as distinctly Southern.

She says, “While technically Maryland remained in the Union during the Civil War, it was the border state, a schizophrenic no-man’s land with the North at its door and the South in its heart” (56). She goes on to discuss the lyrics of the state song, “ Maryland, My Maryland,’ the song says, ‘spurns the Northern scum!’ The song also calls for seceding from the Union, to stand by its sister state Virginia” (56).

That’s enough for tonight—but I strongly recommend the book for a great, entertaining read!

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