Monday, April 28, 2008

Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell

In Assassination Vacation, Sarah Vowell lets you tag along with her as she traipses across the United States, experiencing the various places connected with the assassination of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. There is really nothing to connect these three murders, except for the fact that Robert Todd Linlcon was in close proximity to all three men when they were killed -- prompting Vowell to saddle him with nicknames, such as Jinxy McDeath and Robert "tod" Lincoln. (Tod is the German word for death.) I guess maybe the reason that Vowell chose to group these three murders together is that they were the first three presidential assassinations, but I'm not sure. What I am sure of is that I love Sarah Vowell's writing. She is like a historically minded David Sedaris.

I read Manhunt a couple of years ago, so a lot of the interesting, relatively-unknown facts that Vowell presented about Lincoln's assassination were not new to me. However, the section about James Garfield was full of stuff that I had never heard. Really interesting stuff. For instance, Garfield's assassin, Charles Guiteau, was most likely criminally insane. To start with, he claimed that God told him to kill the president. His trial was like a circus, with Guiteau repeatedly interrupting everyone from the prosecutor, to the judge, to his own attorney. At one point he stated, "No one wants to shoot or hang me save a few cranks, who are so ignorant they can hardly read or write. High-toned people are saying, 'Well, if the Lord did it, let it go.'" You gotta admit, it's a strong defense.

Four days before his execution, Guiteau wrote a bizarre little play, in which God Almighty damns to hell those who sided against Guiteau. When God asks President Arthur why he did not pardon Guiteau, Arthur says that he thought that a pardon would cost him the presidential nomination in 1884. God's response: "No excuse, you ingrate! Go to hell. Heat up Mr. Devil!" Guiteau was also part of Oneida, some weird, religious, free love commune in upstate New York for a number of years -- now simply known for its dinnerware. Nearly everything about Guiteau was humorously bizarre. As Vowell says, "Except for the dead-serious details of his assassinating President Garfield and being in all likelihood clinically insane, Charles Guiteau might be the funniest man in American History."

Assassination Vacation is equal parts travelogue and history lesson. Vowell has a good grasp on American history, and an equally strong grasp on humor. She provides a unique perspective on a wide variety of events, as she invites you to accompany her on these trips that she takes with accommodating friends and family members. A great book.

7 comments:

Nihil Novum said...

You had me at "Heat up, Devil!"

Anonymous said...

i came across your place when i was searching for pictures for Peter Pan !

i am impressed by your writing

:)*

Carlton said...

I assume the * represents drooling because I am hot.

Nihil Novum said...

Spider crawling into mouth.

Christopher said...

Particularly hideous chin mole.

Lynne said...

I just finished listening to this book today. (I spend 1.5-2 hrs. commuting each day, so books on CD are a must). It was read by Sarah Vowell with others supplying the voices of the dead presidents and other characters such as Stephen King as President Lincoln and Jon Stewart as Preident Garfield. I am a huge fan of Sarah Vowell, having first heard her read her work on This American Life. Her love of American history and her sense of humor are a great combination.

Carol said...

Yeah, I know about your personal assassins and I am the step daughter of one. So if you think you can outsmart me in turning you all in then pleas be my guest.