What a Way To Go

A lot of forgotten men get brought up in this book, and reading does instill a feeling that is small and pleasant (though if a buzz is what you’re after, you’re more apt to be successful just by overdoing the Robitussin a bit.) Vowell, who is a contributing editor to public radio’s “This American Life,” has written for McSweeney‘s and other publications, and supplied the voice of teenage superhero Violet Parr in Pixar’s The Incredibles, is a good companion for a journey of this sort.

She neither apologizes nor justifies this odd interest of hers, can from time to time turn a phrase (the McKinley National Monument in Ohio looks like “a gray granite nipple on a fresh green breast of grass”) and has a nice sense of humor both about herself and the scenes she encounters. At one point Vowell notes that John Wilkes Booth’s fame as an actor enabled him to move freely between the North and South, an ability that the Confederate Secret Service was able to exploit. “There is a lesson here for the terrorists of the world: If they really want to get ahead, they should put less energy into training illiterate 10-year-olds how to fire Kalashnikovs and start recruiting celebrities like George Clooney. I bet nobody’s inspected that man’s luggage since the second season of ‘ER.'”

Vowell is very well-read on these murders and displays a knowledge of the surroundings and supporting players that marks the true fan. More importantly, she has pretty good taste, and one senses her taking almost personal pride and satisfaction in her selection and presentation of certain anecdotes, as though she had brought them out just for you. I was delighted to see that amid a sea of Lincoln arcana, Vowell chooses to devote the better part of a page to the last line in “Our American Cousin” that was delivered just before Booth pulled the trigger. A character called Lord Dundreary, having been accused by a Mrs. Mountchessington of “not being used to the manners of good society,” replies, “Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Wal, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal–you sockdologizing old man-trap.” Booth waited for the roar of laughter that followed this line to cover the report of his gun. This piece of minutia has long held me in fascination, though I can’t say why. “Sockdologizing,” by the way, means manipulative.

Vowell’s taste is more suspect when she hits the road and visits many historical and many, many more merely tangentially historical locales. Though her enthusiasm usually suffices to carry us through these visits (and she is enthusiastic; at one point she says, I believe in utter seriousness, that her fantasy is to become a docent), her efforts to evoke some larger vibe from them often fall short.

Visiting the site of Booth’s death, she uncovers, in the book’s single most disturbing scene, a makeshift memorial to him, constructed by some current admirer. Afterwards, though, we visit a schlocky souvenir shop where the proximity of knickknacks bearing Confederate flags to knickknacks bearing American flags is something she tries to elevate into a moment of profundity. She fails. Nor does she attain real depth when, at the Florida fortress where a Lincoln assassination conspirator was imprisoned, she gazes off towards Guantanamo and thinks about the Taliban detained there. Nor does she attain it when she’s in Buffalo thinking about the way the city was lit up for McKinley’s visit to the Pan American Exposition, “and all that beauty was made possible because George Westinghouse of Buffalo harnessed Niagara Falls into his alternating current, the same current that would soon be used to fry Leon Czolgosz in the electric chair.” It takes a writer of some considerable deftness to keep such observations from sounding melodramatic; Ms. Vowell is not yet that writer.

Part of the problem is that she hunts for profundity as though her interest in these moments and her visits to these places has to be validated by finding something LARGER. For example, Vowell is surprised that when she visits Lincoln’s law office in Springfield, she doesn’t get any charge from visiting a place she’s obviously looked forward to visiting for quite some time. “I can’t quite put my finger on why I’m not feeling anything. I came here to get closer to Lincoln. So why is it that I feel closer to him sitting on my couch reading my paperback copy of his Selected Speeches and Writings than I do here…staring at the actual couch where he read his beloved newspapers and Shakespeare?” Well, maybe because his spirit lives in those speeches, while only his ass lived on that couch.

There are several curious omissions in the book. First, Vowell doesn’t deal with the Kennedy assassination, a moment significantly more important than Garfield’s and McKinley’s. Perhaps visiting all the sites connected to the various competing conspiracy theories would have ripped a hole in her travel budget of the size that sank the Lusitania.

Second, Vowell mentions but does not delve into an interesting coincidence in the Garfield and McKinley killings, which is that each man lingered for some time after being shot. McKinley lasted eight days, which included an improvement which caused everyone to think he was on the road to recovery. Garfield lasted an astonishing two and a half months. In this CSI-infested era, I for one was deeply disappointed that Vowell didn’t explore the wounds, the after-effects, and the various treatments that what were no doubt the best medical minds available perpetrated on these chief executives.

Finally, I’m sorry Vowell never examines the source of her morbid interests. In one of her funnier passages, she acknowledges that her deep fascination with death has long placed her outside the mainstream (classmates nicknamed her Wednesday, after the daughter of Gomez and Morticia Addams.) She’s not obliged to explain anything, of course, but after spending a couple hundred pages with her as she pursues these heinous crimes and terrible tragedies to the hitherest hither and the yonderest yon, the question really asks itself. The closest she comes is to say without elaboration that “these creepy historical flukes offer momentary relief from the oppression of chaos…. They give order to the universe.”

No. Sarah Vowell, with her clever mind, gives order to the universe, although only on about the same level that the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game does. A feeling small and pleasant results.

Washington Monthly - Donate today and your gift will be doubled!

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Jamie Malanowski

Jamie Malanowski is a writer and editor. He has been an editor at Time, Esquire and most recently Playboy, where he was Managing Editor.