First off, Ramadan Mubarak to everyone observing. I hope a tankard of water and hearty home meal awaits you at sundown.
Now back to the Sarah Vowell express. Vowell is a long-standing member of the Author, Why Won’t You Be My Best Friend? club. This means I’d rather tag along on one of her meandering walks through the city than visit Machu Picchu. No, that’s not true. But I’d definitely rather be seated beside her on the plane to Peru than any other stranger on board. My love goes that deep.
Today we’re stopping at Assassination Vacation, a book that came out a few years ago. This one’s a perfect read for the subway or anytime you’re in the mood for snappy stimulation, tirelessly steeped in history.
This is a collection of historical essays/ travel stories centered around our author, a woman on a road trippy pilgrimage to visit the scenes of three presidential assassinations. Her plan is to walk the paths where you could see stains of presidential blood, if they were never cleaned up. Sounds morbid, but Vowell’s dry humor and appetite for oddities makes this book read less grim and more visit to a makeshift fun house with your history teacher
In visiting relics – bullets, bloody collar and brain fragments – these moments logged in history books become real, messy things that happened to people. One of my favorite passages comes early on. It’s an excerpt of a letter written to the mother of one of the doctors who attended Lincoln after. He describes what it was like to pull the bullet from his president’s brain. How it made the “vital spark” …
whose absence of presence makes all the immeasurable difference between an inert mass of matter owing obedience to no laws but those governing the physical and chemical forces of the universe, and on the other hand, a living brain by whose silent, subtle machinery a world may be ruled.
Vowell draws cinematic connections between events and the people around them. For instance, John Wilkes Booth’s brother Edwin Booth, an actor with the same tainted name, turned his Manhattan house on Gramercy into the Players Club and built the Booth Theatre. On a train platform, Edwin saved the life of Robert Todd Lincoln, the son of the president his brother assassinated.
The Lincoln chapter will ring a number of bells because he’s one of the most thoroughly documented and studied presidents. However, the curious blur that is President Garfield’s memory could probably use some definition. Shot July 2, 1882 in D.C. and “helped” by physicians with dirty hands and unsanitary instruments, Garfield suffered for two months in Long Branch, New Jersey before succumbing to infection. While no doubt insinuated by Charles Guiteau’s bullets, it’s likely the president would’ve survived the event had doctors known about these things called germs.
There’s a long tangent in Garfield’s chapter about Vowell’s sexy teapot. It came from the Oneida commune where the assassin Guiteau lived and drove his fellow naked people nuts for five years before first harassing Garfield to make him an ambassador, and second going gun shopping. Note that this was a time when ordinary people could go to the White House and ask the President for a job. Context aside, I have to envy that time. We peasants have to make quite the spectacle of ourselves these days to be heard. Or I suppose we could simply pick up our phones and make contact via the NSA. But I digress.
One similarity between the three stands out: Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley all had great last days or nights. Lincoln was shot at a laugh line. Garfield after a nice walk. Even Martin Luther King Jr. had a pillow fight the night before.
Written during the Bush administration, Vowell draws parallels between past and then-current government failures. Apparently McKinley’s money man was one of Karl Rove’s heroes. This guy (whose name I didn’t write down) used the media to saturate the public with unsupported accusations that Spain was responsible for the explosion of the USS Maine. As I’m sure you recall, Rove applied similar PR tactics with his infamous weapons of mass destruction campaign. Both were mere excuses to go to war.
What if…all three branches of government were more courageous and sympathetic and made more sense and aspired and again aspired?
Vowell doesn’t address why she chose not to write about JFK. She doesn’t even acknowledge this fourth assassination. It’s well known territory, but so is the Lincoln assassination. I was a surprised and a bit disappointed at the omission, but overall this is a fascinating book well worth a read.