Book Review: “Assassination Vacation” by Sarah Vowell

Like Susan Orlean, Sarah Vowell tends to write about subjects that, at first glance, don’t seem all that interesting to the layperson or to one not already obsessed. While Orlean tends to bounce around topics – orchids, Rin Tin Tin, bullfighters, etc. – Vowell remains interested in writing about American history. Saying that it is the closest thing she has to religion, she gleefully travels the country in search of oddball museums, historical burial sites, and every unnoticed plaque.

In Assassination Vacation, she turns her attention to three of the Presidents killed while still in office – Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. She gives just as much time to the assassins as she does the Presidents themselves, managing to fully flesh out the half-remembered stories we know with her humor and insight.

I am only slightly less astonished by the egotism of the assassins, the inflated self-esteem it requires to kill a president than I am astonished by the men who run for president. These are people who have the gall to believe they can fix us – us and our deficit, our fossil fuels, our racism, poverty, our potholes and public schools. The egomania required to be president or presidential assassin makes the two types brothers of sorts. Presidents and presidential assassins are like Las Vegas and Salt Lake City that way. Even though one city is all about sin and the other is all about salvation, they are identical, one-dimensional company towns built up out of the desert by the sheer will of true believers. The assassins and the presidents invite the same basic question: Just who do you think you are?

Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell (cover)She enlists her sister and other friends to drive her around, as she does not have a license, so that she can trace the path of both President and assassin, and naturally spends a lot of time in Washington, DC. Lincoln is her favorite president – she finds him “logical but warm, pragmatic but not without frippery, grand and human all at once” – and his assassination tale takes up more room in the book.

We remember from history class that John Wilkes Booth was the man who shot Lincoln, but it was one of three assassination plots to be carried out that night in 1865. Booth would head to Ford’s Theater (the original collapsed in 1893, but the National Parks Service restored it in 1968), George Atzerodt was to murder Vice President Johnson, and Lewis Powell would go after Secretary of State Seward (he who purchased Alaska on behalf of the US). The idea was to leave the government in chaos and hopefully lead to its meltdown. Atzerodt chickened out, and though Powell badly wounded Seward, he survived.

I’ve seen Powell’s grave. When my sister Amy and I were in Florida taking my nephew Owen to Disney World, we made a side trip to the Geneva Cemetery. The whole reason I wanted to take Owen to Disney World is that I fear that some day he’s going to look through his childhood photo album and wonder why all his vacations with his aunt took place at places like the McKinley Memorial and Wounded Knee. And yet here we are. Powell’s cemetery was just too close to Cinderella’s Castle for me to pass up.

Luckily, her nephew is totally game for these types of excursions. Her sister Amy indulges them.

The Garfield section was interesting because I really didn’t know anything about him other than, you know, someone shot him. This is a view likely shared by most people, outside of presidential historians. “Thankfully, the story of Garfield’s death is more interesting than the story of his life,” Vowell writes. “His pre-presidential bio can be crammed into the following respectable sentence: The last president born in a log cabin, Garfield grew up with his widowed mother in Ohio, eked his way through college, became a college professor who moonlighted as a preacher, married his wife, Lucretia, in 1858, fathered five children, was a Union general in the Civil War, and served the people of Ohio in the House of Representatives from 1863 to 1880.”

So now you know.

During his presidency, his diaries reveal an immense desire to get away from the day-to-day meetings and political hassle. “If there is a recurring theme in Garfield’s diaries it’s this:” Vowell says, “I’d rather be reading.

I find his book addiction endearing, even a little titillating considering he would sneak away from the house and the House to carry on a love affair with Jane Austen.

Garfield was killed by a man named Charles Guiteau, a dude so crazy-pants that even the group-marriage-happy Oneida commune thought he was a bit much. (Side note: yes, the company that now sells teapots and dishes was once all about sharing everything, and that “Self-pleasuring takes you away from the group.” And yet, Guiteau was the one guy who could not get laid there.)

Guiteau used to turn up every day at the White House and beg for the ambassadorship to France. Then he decided that God told him to assassinate Garfield out of “political necessity,” and Guiteau expected to be hailed as a hero. At his trial, he could not understand why admiration did not come his way.

Guiteau shot Garfield in a Washington train station on July 2, 1881, but the President did not die right away. Since DC is a former swamp and rather unbearable to even the healthy people living there in the summer, he was moved to Long Branch, New Jersey. The public was treated to daily reports on his nap habits and how surgeons had to open him back up to “facilitate the escape of pus.” Delightful. He died on September 19, 1881.

McKinley’s abbreviated term comes at the turn of the century, around the time of the Spanish-American War. Seeing the spot where he was shot involves another road trip with Amy and Owen, where they nearly miss the plaque that reads: “In the Pan-American Temple of Music which covered this spot President McKinley was fatally shot Sept. 6, 1901.”

The Pan-American Exposition was a bit of “hemispheric PR” designed to promote trade between the United States, Canada, and Latin America. The Spanish-American War had begun under, shall we say, dubious circumstances.

The Cuban people suffered at the hands of the Spanish in the 1890s, especially those who were rounded up into concentration camps. American newspapers, especially Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal, sensationalized Spanish atrocities, stirring up an idealistic fad for Cuba libre among the American people. The clincher, the hard proof of Spanish evildoing was one of those acts that, in retrospect, might not have happened at all. Historians still disagree. On February 15, 1898, the American battleship the Maine exploded in Havana Harbor, killing around 260 men. Remember the Maine? War boosters like Hearst accused the Spanish of bombing the ship and shrieked for a declaration of war. In fact, the evidence was inconclusive then and remains so today. Some historians believe it may have been a freak accident, a coal fire that ignited explosives on board the ship.

“Then, as now,” Vowell goes on to say, “optional wars are fought because there are people in the government who really, really want to fight them.”  The Maine led to war which led to possibly controlling the sugar trade business (First you get the sugar, then you get the power, after all).

Gee, I have no idea what yellow cake uranium and the oil trade have to do with this… -cough-

Then, the Philippines got involved, for they had been fighting the Spanish for years. Of course, these being non-white, non-Americans, of course they couldn’t be left to govern themselves! Oh, no, no!

So, tell me if this sounds modernly familiar:

I went down on my knees and prayed to Almighty God for light and guidance more than one might. And one night late it came to me this way – I don’t know how it was, but it came… that we could not leave them to themselves – they were unfit for self-government – and they would soon have anarchy and misrule over there worse than Spain’s was… that there was nothing left to do but take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and Christianize them [“¦]
– McKinley

And we never had a president who thought God told him to invade another country again. Oh. Wait.

(PS: They water-boarded Filipino rebels too.)

There’s a lot more that’s depressingly similar to the past decade, but this review is long enough.

Leon Czolgosz (pronounced “shol-gosh”) was an anarchist who’d recently suffered some sort of mental breakdown. He was trying to impress a woman named Emma Goldman, whose speeches were full of phrases like “the galling yoke of the government.” He too thought he’d be received as a hero, after killing the President, but the people involved in the anarchist movement at first thought he was a narc and didn’t want anything to do with him. McKinley’s death made Teddy Roosevelt president, the man who created the National Parks system that so assisted Vowell on her journey.

Sarah Vowell is rather good at pointing out the cyclical nature of history and politics, as well as just how interconnected everything is. At one point, she connects the TV show The OC with Oneida Community, and she closes the book with a chapter dedicated to Robert Todd Lincoln – the man present at all three of these presidential attacks.

Abraham Lincoln’s son – “a.k.a. Jinxy McDeath” – Robert attended his father’s deathbed, of course, but he was also present at Garfield’s assassination, as he worked for the government at that time. The McKinley connection is not quite so close, but he did arrive in Buffalo – the site of McKinley’s death – mere moments before shots rang out. These coincidences reportedly haunted him, but he lived long enough to see the Lincoln Memorial dedication in 1922.

I know that I’ve basically turned a book review into a condensed history lesson, but Vowell has a tendency to make me care almost as much as she does. Obsessive people are my people, after all. (In fact, I can relate her story about Peter Gallagher’s eyebrows in The OC and the Oneida free-lovers to the Gallagher in my life, Noel – Mischa Barton is in his latest video, “Everybody’s on the Run.”) For all the information I’ve crammed in here, I’ve left a lot out. If you find any of this even remotely interesting, I certainly recommend reading the entire book, and while you’re at it, picking up Vowell’s others. I’ve read almost all of them, and her thoroughness and enthusiasm for her subjects is inspiring.

By Sara Habein

Sara Habein is the author of Infinite Disposable, a collection of microfiction, and her work has appeared on The Rumpus, Pajiba and Word Riot, among others. Her book reviews and other commentary appear at Glorified Love Letters, and she is the co-manager of Electric City Creative.

5 replies on “Book Review: “Assassination Vacation” by Sarah Vowell”

I love Sarah Vowell! I’m a history buff to begin with and I always learn from her books. I just want to throw in a plug for the audio versions.. Some people hate audiobooks, I know, but she narrates her own and there are usually famous guest voices. Jon Stewart plays James Garfield and Conan O’Brien plays Robert Todd Lincoln in the audio for Assassination Vacation.

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