CBR12 BINGO: Pandemic (read whatever you want)
When I opened this book, I had in my mind that it would be an easy 4-star review. Sarah Vowell is an entertaining writer, a passionate historian, and an American patriot, so I was excited to read this historical travel journal that has been on my TBR list for years. To sweeten the deal, it also promised glimpses into presidential assassins Charles Guiteau and Leon Czolgosz, who assassinated Presidents Garfield and McKinely, respectively, and who both made appearances in my “Gateway” entry, The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons. And while there is much to love about this book, I fear that I either read it at the wrong time, or Vowell wrote it at the wrong time.
In Assassination Vacation, Vowell records her personal pilgrimage to various locations in the United States that are linked to the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, and William McKinley. Her adventures take her, and the occasional semi-willing friend or relative, from Washington, D.C., to Alaska, to southern Florida in her quest to visit the sites of the tragic yet significant events that led to and resulted from presidential assassinations. The book is filled with fascinating details about these incidents. For example, she learns from a National Park ranger at Ford’s Theater that John Wilkes Booth timed his death shot at Lincoln to coincide with a laugh line in the play in order to drown out the sound of the bullet. Swear to God, until I read that, it never occurred to me that Our American Cousin was a comedy. As Vowell puts it, “It is a comfort of sorts to know that the bullet hit Lincoln mid-guffaw. Considering how the war weighed on him, at least his last conscious moment was a hoot.” Oh, the line in question? “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.”
I seriously have not heard a joke that lame since David Letterman hosted the Oscars.
Booth’s impeccable timing is just one of the many fun details that Vowell shares from her meandering adventure. We learn John Wilkes Booth’s brother Edwin was the greatest Shakespearean actor of the 19th century, that there is a statue erected of him dressed as Hamlet in Gramercy Park in New York, and that he and his brother often fought over politics (Edwin being a Union supporter). We learn that Robert Todd Lincoln is the only member of his immediate family to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, because his wife didn’t want him buried in Springfield beside his shrewish and crazy mother-in-law (take that, Mary Todd!). We learn that when the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated in 1922, the audience was segregated.
In fact, about half the book is devoted to Lincoln’s assassination, which makes sense given his prominence in American history. I was a bit disappointed, though, because I was anticipating learning more about Charles Guiteau and Leon Czolgosz. To be fair, Vowell does provide background on these fellows, especially Guiteau, given that he was a colorful character even by 19th century standards. Clearly mentally unhinged, he shot Garfield so that Chester Arthur could become president and was genuinely surprised that he was not hailed as a hero. In a note to General Sherman that was found at the train station where Garfield was gunned down, the assassin wrote, “His death was a political necessity. . . . I am going to the jail. Please order out your troops and take possession of the jail at once.” Clearly Guiteau had bigger balls than an elephant in musth.
By contrast, Leon Czolgosz was dour, “a sad son of immigrants,” and we never get to really delve into his psyche the way I had hoped. In fact, the most interesting thing about the McKinley assassination was that when the President passed away, then-Vice President Teddy Roosevelt had to be retrieved from a the top of Mount Marcy, the highest point in New York, where he was enjoying a “bully good tramp.”
Pardon me, did someone mention large balls?
So where did this book lose its anticipated 4 stars from me (I’ve settled on 3.5)? Vowell wrote Assassination Vacation in 2005, and she was still very much pissed off by the 2000 American Presidential election. I don’t blame her, but her allusions to that debacle took me out of the history and back to present day, where I most definitely did not want to be. Instead of giving me insight into Czolgosz’s probable mental illness, she draws comparisons between the Spanish-American War and the War in Iraq. At times her humor, while on point, comes off as bitter. For example, at a road stop near the battlefield at Fredericksburg, she sees Confederate flag and American flag merchandise for sale side-by-side and wonders at the contradiction, especially in a time of war. “But I fear that the consumer who buys a Confederate flag coffee cup, which she will then put on her American flag place mat, is the sort of sophisticated thinker who is open-minded enough that she is capable of hating blacks and Arabs at the same time.”
I’m not saying I disagree, but the tone interrupts what is largely a romp through American history. As I suggested in the beginning of this review, the fault may be mine for reading this book at the wrong time. Sitting at home during a pandemic, watching the appalling things happening in the United States today, I can only muster so much disgust for the early 2000’s.