Sarah Vowell

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Assassination Vacation

Vowell, Sarah

Last Updated: Feb-12-2009
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Investigative Journalism


Obsessed with the history of presidential assassinations and captivated by the power of places and objects to evoke the past, the author writes about her travels to the sites commemorating the lives, illnesses, deaths, and burials of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley and of their murderers. The greatest attention is given to Lincoln.

The context of the killings is presented in atmospheric detail and goes well beyond the individual deaths to the political tensions in which they occurred: slavery, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, partisan manipulation, economic strife. Special attention is given to wounds and body parts and to chattels, pus, and bits of bone.

The quirky research method of inveigling a sister and several long-suffering acquaintances (invariably introduced as “my friend XXX”) to drive the author to her desired destinations generates a counterpoint. Perhaps, the spiciest commentary on her investigations comes from the ever reliable insights of Owen, a four-year-old nephew.

This past is also about the physical objects--guns, tombs, statues, letters, plaques, buildings, furniture, and clothing--that memorialize and are fetishized by their contact with greatness. And it is about the people who care for it in the present--the curators, volunteers, collectors, and writers.

An encounter with the marvelous, stunningly beautiful (but now late) Gretchen Worden, curator of Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum, as she speculates on the future of her own corpse, will be a poignant surprise for those who knew her in person or through her many appearances on the Letterman Show (p. 93-99). As Vowell wrote in her acknowledgements (p. 258): “The world is a little less interesting without her in it.” Indeed.

The result is a highly readable set of interconnected chapters that blends extensive knowledge of American history with a fanatic’s zeal to get at the true story, sense, and emotions, especially those investing objects and places with what is called—"wie es eigenlicht gewesen [ist]"--as it really was.

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