Sarah Vowell Brings American History to Lisner


If you were in the vicinity of the George Washington University campus, you had a daunting choice of entertainment last night. For most people, they watched legendary performer Bob Dyland performed at the Charles E Smith Center. For the history buffs like me, we got to sit comfortably for two hours as we hear the docent tones and intellectual quips of author Sarah Vowell at the Lisner Auditorium. A thousand apologies to Mr. Dylan, but American History wins over folk rock any day of the week.

Vowell has the unique way of connecting the American past and present in her readings to a packed house. She started off the evening by reading a chapter called The Strenuous Life from her book, The Partly Cloudy Patriot. She stated that her dad told of the former statesman was “brave, tough hunter and soldier was born a wheezing New York City four-eyes.” The audience laughed that little anecdote. You can already tell how the rest of the evening was going to be, a unique take on American history told in the eyes of our smart best friend. 

Throughout the evening, Vowell offered personal accounts of everything from former Presidents as well as thoughts of her home town of Medora, ND which the state had a proposal to change their name from North Dakota to Dakota in order to stray from this “frigid less, treeless prairie.” Sarah went on to talk about Gettysburg, the Florida Keys vacation from hell, Hawaiian vocabulary, pop music and John Charles Frémont. From her book Assassination Vacation excerpt, she said Abraham Lincoln that he was an American Jesus that he a lot of Mayor Daley in him. During of her breaks, she spoke to the audience that she will stick with the Presidents since being in DC brings it out of her. Speaking of Washington, DC, she has noticed that “Americans are supposed to hate DC but Washingtonians?” in which the audience gave a hearty chuckle mixed with applause. You have to be a true Washingtonian to appreciate that quip.

Vowell’s readings are both informative and humorous. Its authors like Vowell that make American history easier to digest and digress.  We learned the story of a mapmaker Charles Preuss who charted the Western Territories with two legendary explorers, John Charles Fremont and Kit Carson. While Preuss’s maps opened the doors to the settlement of the Western Frontier, he kept a diary detailing the experience as being the worst moments of his life. 

In the end of the Q&A session, audience members asked questions about her love for the Man in Black, Johnny Cash. Vowell joked that she liked the temper of his voice, the trumpet arraignment of his music among other things. In all seriousness, she tells of a story of when she heard his version of Aloha Oe while in Hawaii, she compared it to Nearer My God to Thee. We discovered during the Q&A that the only book that was published outside the US thus far was Assassination Vacation in Israel. She likes the National Parks and list Yellowstone, Bryce Canyon, Haleakala, and the northern rim of the Grand Canyon among her favorites.

Overall, after hearing her readings last night, I wished that Sarah Vowell could have been my history teacher. She would keep me entertained and informed at the same time. When asked by an audience member “What’s next?” to which the author stated simply “I don’t know.” Talk about ending the evening on a high note. Sarah’s next book Unfamiliar Fishes, which focuses on the history of 19th Century Hawaii, will be published in March 22, 2011.

TRR Exclusive by Dean Rogers

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