Last month Your Humble Narrator's university had the privilege of hosting Sarah Vowell, NPR essayist and voice of Violet Incredible. Ms. Vowell gave a talk on her new book, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, which I am reading in an audiobooks edition because it's hard to beat Patton Oswald as the voice of Thomas Jefferson.* Before her public appearance, Vowell was kind enough to meet with a dozen history students and faculty and talk about her work, specifically her research techniques (site visits, lots of reading, lots of notecards) and the themes, like family and memory and democratic debate, with which she regularly engages. In response to a question from YHN, Vowell attributed the shortage of women in the history bestseller lists to publishers' marketing of histories to “Republican dads” and focus on “serious,” male topics. She found this amusing, because “there is nothing funnier than a self-important man.” Probably so.
Perhaps the most memorable moment of Vowell's visit (for me, anyway) came at the reception before her talk, when one of my colleagues' sons asked her advice for a school paper on James Buchanan. Vowell had nothing specific to offer about Buchanan, but did share a general suggestion: try to find something about your subject, even if s/he is an obscure politician or president, that makes him/her appealing to you. Recalling her research for Assassination Vacation, Vowell described plowing through James Garfield's dreary memoirs, choc-a-block with mundane details of a legislator's life, and seeing that he only “came alive” when he wrote about the novels he read for pleasure. Thinking of the future president sneaking off to the Library of Congress to read Jane Austen made him appealing to Ms. Vowell, and I daresay to all of us who heard her account. Since Garfield's presidency was cut short by an assassin's bullet, and he spent much of it dying on a sick bed while doctors futilely tried to save him, one can't know much about the twentieth president except by studying his pre-presidential life. It is affecting to think of him reading novels in secret, or “writ[ing] Greek with one hand while writing Latin with the other,”** and to imagine Garfield doing so from the White House, if only he had avoided his encounter with Charles Guiteau.
* Although Fred Armison, as the voice of Lafayette's teen-aged wife, comes close.
** From Joe Queenan's Imperial Caddy (1992), 117.