Thursday, November 18, 2010
The first thing one might notice about Sarah Vowell is her voice. It’s set – despite her age of 41 – at the slightly lispy register of a bored, underwhelmed middle-school girl. That voice was cast just right as the teenage character of Violet in the animated movie The Incredibles. But listeners of Public Radio International’s This American Life, which Vowell has contributed to for a dozen years – and viewers of the many talk shows she’s appeared on – will associate that voice not with adolescent superhero angst but with a steady torrent of smart, engaged and progressive stories and insights into American history, culture and politics.
Her last book, The Wordy Shipmates, revisits the New England Puritans’ arrival in and effect on the New World that would become America, with a climax hinging on a 1630 sermon by John Winthrop and Calvinist minister Roger Williams. It may not seem the subject matter that makes you want to leap out of your chair and rush on over to the Sunset Center for her talk this Friday, but she’s figured out a formula to make history cagey and fun. She came up with it, ironically, through TV appearances.
“Letterman is a kind of idol of mine,” she says from her apartment in New York. “Jon Stewart is maybe the quickest thinker I’ve ever met. But the second time I went on the Conan [O’Brien] show, I had just been to Gettysburg, and Conan loves Lincoln. We talked about President Garfield and Puritans and it was really fun and funny. [Comedians] can make jokes that weirdly get at the truth.”
Prior to the release of Shipmates, at a March 2007 appearance at Seattle’s Moore Theatre, she talked about its contents.
“There’s actually a surprising number of sitcoms that have done episodes set in 17th century New England, even though 17th century New England is all situation and no comedy… .These were people with the farming skills of Mr. Magoo.”
There it is: History, culture and comedy, together conspiring in an entertaining analysis of America, which is not how Vowell was, herself, taught history.
“When I learned history, it was more propaganda,” she says. “It was America’s march through world history to… victory. I started school a few months after the last helicopters were leaving Saigon. It served me a little because I still believe all of those things, but I’m more aware of the footnotes.”
“A lot of the history of the Constitution is about the Constitution failing and how those failures were rectified; the Voting Rights Act of 1964.”
She says history was breathed to life for her in the “chatty, almost gossipy” way her father and grandfather in her native Oklahoma discussed it, as well as through the integration of Native Americans into Oklahoma society since the Trail of Tears (although Vowell, herself part Cherokee, uses the term “Indians,” saying that “‘Native American’ seems like something uppity white people will say to not sound racist.”)
Ten years ago, Vowell visited the the site of Lincoln’s famous Civil War speech on its 137th anniversary, which she chronicles in her 2002 book The Partly Cloudy Patriot.
“I guess Gettysburg is a pilgrimage,” she writes. “And, like all pilgrims, I’m a mess. You don’t cross state lines to attend the 137th anniversary of anything unless something’s missing in your life.”
Later, she describes Lincoln’s hallowed reputation: “Even though we think of him as the American Jesus, he had a little Mayor Daley in him too.”
She makes those connections in her constant travels. “What I love about my job is that I get to see a lot of the country all the time,” she says. “It constantly reinforces my interest in America.”
This Carmel visit for Vowell is not part of a formal tour to promote anything in particular; her next book, about the history of Hawaii in 1898, isn’t due out until next spring. She’s just here to lay some smart laughs on her audience of book lovers:
“I’m talking to you from my living room, staring at my bookshelf and thinking about all these novels I’ve read. Catcher in the Rye. I can look out my window and see the actual Statue of Liberty and the Flatiron Building from another window and that’s my life now, and that book is one of the first times this place came alive for me.”
Although she hasn’t compiled a formal strategy for her talk, which will be followed by a Q&A and book signing, fodder abounds. Nov. 17 marked This American Life’s 15-year anniversary, and Nov. 19, the night of Vowell’s talk, is the 147th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address.
SARAH VOWELL speaks 8pm Friday, Nov. 19, at the Sunset Center, San Carlos between Eighth and Ninth, Carmel. $48, $59, $68. 620-2048, www.sunsetcenter.org