Assassination treks


Smart, sassy, amusing, sharp-edged and unexpectedly serious, Sarah Vowell is talking about her favorite president, Abraham Lincoln, and his memorial on the Mall in Washington.

On the phone, her distinctive high-pitched voice makes her sound like a somewhat uneasy Midwestern schoolteacher who might turn up for dinner at Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie.

Public radio listeners will recognize that voice -- and her attitude -- instantly. She's been a regular on This American Life for nine years. She's written about 80 columns for online mag Salon. She's the voice of Violet Parr, the teenaged super hero in The Incredibles. She subbed for columnist Maureen Dowd in The New York Times this summer.

And she's coming to town to talk about her fourth book, Assassination Vacation, tonight at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

She says she won't to be too serious.

"Usually when I do a reading, and people are sitting there staring at me, I talk about ideas, I guess, but I try to keep it light. I do like the events to be fun. I try to read the funnier bits. I see it as an entertainment."

Her travelogue through the assassinations of Lincoln, James Garfield and William McKinley is unfailingly interesting, frequently amusing and occasionally mordantly sardonic.

Her style is pleasantly digressive. She works political polemic, personal memoir, and art and architectural criticism into her anatomy of assassinations. She grew up in Oklahoma and Montana, but she earned an art-history degree at the Art Institute of Chicago.

She's an extraordinary researcher who leaves no book unread or trail untrod.

"I read the four volumes of James Garfield's diaries. I really think the reader should thank me," she says. "Yeah, I'll slog through anything if I can get something juicy out of it. I read Garfield's diaries, so you don't have to."

But she didn't get anything juicy. "Maybe a paragraph," she says, out of all four volumes.

She's certainly walked the walk of her dead presidents and their assassins. She's traveled from Buffalo, where McKinley was shot, to Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas off Florida, where Dr. Samuel Mudd, the Maryland doctor who treated John Wilkes Booth's broken leg, was imprisoned. Our intrepid researcher got seasick going to the island and on the return trip, too.

She's spent a fair amount of time in Maryland, following the escape route Booth took after the Lincoln assassination and searching for his grave in Green Mount Cemetery. She writes in Assassination Vacation about her distaste for the state anthem, "Maryland, My Maryland."

"Yeah," she sighs. "Maybe we can all sing it together and call for Lincoln's assassination. What is it? `The despot's heel ... ?' "

She reveres Lincoln.

"I love thinking about Lincoln," she says, "not just the grandeur of his words or the inspiration of his story, the thing I love the most about him is just that he gets stuff done. He is just the perfect president at the perfect time. ...

"I'm very interested in how he changed and especially in regards to slavery," she says. "There were much more radical abolitionists than him."

She goes on to talk about the Gettysburg Address.

"One thing I like about the Gettysburg speech [is that] he decides what the war he's in the middle of is going to mean. He decided, OK, let's get rid of [slavery] altogether, and he does it."

She thinks the memorial on the Mall is a banal Greco-Roman cliche. But she suggests the banality of the building enhances the greatness of the words carved into the walls.

"Especially the Second Inaugural Address," she says. "You know it's maybe the greatest American political speech. It's so full of his personality. ... And the call for reconciliation at the end is just so magnanimous and tough at the same time. The idea of having his words chiseled on that wall is the best thing they could have done.

"I'm a word person," she says, completely unnecessarily.

Sarah Vowell appears at the Brown Center at Maryland Institute College of Art, 1301 Mount Royal Ave., at 7:30 tonight. Reserved seats are $50 and include a pre-event reception at 6 p.m. Event-only tickets with open seating are $20 for WYPR members and students with ID and $30 for nonmembers. A book signing will follow.

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