Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Book Review: Assassination Vacation

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Assassination Vacation

Author: Sarah Vowell

Date: 2005

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

ISBN: 978-0-7432-6004-6

Length: 258 pages

Quote: “‘I went to…Assassins…the Stephen Sondheim musical in which a bunch of presidential assassins and would-be assassins sing songs about how much better their lives would be if they could gun down a president.’…Now,a  person with sharper social skills than I might have noticed that, as these folks ate their freshly baked blueberry muffins…they probably didn’t want to think about presidential gunshot wounds.”

Nevertheless, the success of what has to have been the worst idea for a musical in human history gave Vowell the funding to travel to sites involved in the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley, and write about them. The idea of a musical about famous murders from different periods in history makes me a bit queasy; I can deal with the idea, though, of a lovably eccentric writer studying the history of famous murders. Simon & Schuster gambled that a lot of other readers would, too. I’ll admit I’d probably enjoy reading Vowell’s travel stories more if they’d been organized around a more appealing theme, but the histories of famous inventions, famous businesses, famous battles, have been done. And Vowell does have that “Wednesday Addams” image thing going on, although it’s never completely dominated her life and writing and many Washington Post readers like her better when she lets it drop. (You know, the nice, likable aunt who just happens to list terror, horror, and gross-outs among the things she most enjoys sharing with her nephews…) And, after all, the three assassinations took place within a budget-friendly distance from the city for whose main newspaper Vowell works, a newspaper that aaalways promotes historical tourism…

So off she leads us on, among other places, a visit to Hildene, home of Robert Todd Lincoln, who—after burying his father—“was only a few feet away when James A. Garfield was shot…in 1881” and “[i]n 1901…arrived in Buffalo mere moments after William McKinley fell. Robert Todd Lincoln’s status as a presidential death magnet weighed on him…when he was asked to attend some White House function, he grumbled, ‘If only they knew, they wouldn’t want me there.’” Her conclusion:
“It’s impossible not to compare him with his father: Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves; Robert Todd Lincoln bought a nice ski lodge.”

(Robert Todd Lincoln's life may once have been saved by John Wilkes Booth's brother Edwin, as Dan Lewis told us a few weeks ago: 

There are side excursions to sites associated with other historic crimes. At the hotel “where Hinckley shot Reagan in 1981…I feel reverent, though not so much about Reagan.” In full “Wednesday” aspect, Vowell resents “the cheery way [Reagan] yukked it up during his recovery. Not that I blame him…the one time I came to in an ambulance (following a bike accident…)[t]he medic asked me who the president was and I answered, ‘George Bush, but I didn’t vote for him.’ It pains me that like Reagan, faced with the profundity of death my first conscious impulse was to act…smart-alecky.”

Vowell also visits the grave of Edgar Allan Poe, who she thinks has much in common with John Wilkes booth. “Besides the fact that they looked alike with their dark hair, dark eyes, and dark moustaches, they were both the sons of actors…Poe died—of what root cause, no one knows for sure…slumped over in a polling place, probably because he had been hired as a ‘repeater,’ i.e…paid to go from one poll to another voting again and again. In other words, both Booth and Poe died thwarting the will of the electorate.”Then there’s a visit to a museum that displays preserved remains of assassins and victims, including fragments of the bodies of Booth and Charles Guiteau. There’s a sculpture, one of many, of Lincoln’s hands: “the right hand is larger than the left…Lincoln’s right hand was swollen from all the congratulatory shaking.” 

A visit to Garfield’s home reveals him to be an obsessive bookworm who slipped away from various obligations to curl up with a good book. Guiteau, on the other hand, belonged to a commune that had a formal rule that paired young men with older women, for birth control purposes; all the members supposedly lived in a state of spiritual love so all-embracing that physical embraces were just a way to relax, except for Guiteau, who was nicknamed “Charles Gitout” because none of the older women wanted to relax with him. There’s a verse from a Garfield campaign song warning that failing to elect the Republican (Garfield) would revive the Confederacy (“The nation’s flag will lose its stars…and we’ll all wear gray”; note the absence of any concern about the ex-slaves, which, in fact, almost no Northerners actually felt before, during, or after the War). An even more ridiculous song, or poem, was recited by Guiteau before his death (“I am going to the Lord. I saved my party and my land”). 

Vowell’s comments on the Washington Monument are bids for attention from “goth” types. So are her comments on the less famous Garfield Monument, in which, grotesquely, images of Garfield at different ages appear together, making the President “appear like a dirty old man…about to take his pick of street hustlers” as he looks down on his younger selves. (President Grant, by contrast, she allows is “blatantly hetero.”) At Niagara Falls, she observes that the Canadian side offers a “better view” that “was denied President McKinley…he was very careful not to walk too far across the bridge into Canada because no sitting American president had ever left the country.”

Vowell raises the question of how much Emma Goldman really did, in real life, influence Leon Czolgosz (“Shol-gosh”) to murder McKinley. In the musical, she’s told us, they had a love affair. In reality, Goldman may or may not have been a virgin, physically, after a brief marriage, when she fell in love with someone called Berkman, and describes Czolgosz as a fanboy who asked her to recommend books he could read. Goldman did say, and write, things that encouraged violence—until her fan shot the President, after which she wrote some discouragements of further violence. She was jailed, and later deported, for the generally seditious tendency of her life and writing. People wanted to believe she was a co-conspirator, if not even closer than that, to Czolgosz. Both he and she always denied that.

At least Vice-President Theodore Roosevelt behaved as if he’d been coached to regard his promotion to President as “the worst of all news”; when notified that McKinley was dying, he “sat back down and finished his lunch.” Vowell tours what is still marked as the “ROUGH ROAD” TR and a driver descended in a horse-drawn buggy, in the dead of the night, to get TR back to Washington to assume his presidential duties. By way of lights, “There was one lantern, and Roosevelt was holding it.” Nevertheless, Roosevelt would later be shot by a troubled soul who claimed that McKinley had told him “Avenge my death” in a dream; the bullet bounced off the contents of TR’s pockets, allowing him to crow that “It takes more than one bullet to kill a Bull Moose.”

If you enjoy this kind of wacky tour of the sidelights of history, read Assassination Vacation; it contains many more of them. It is, to the fullest extent its morbid subject matter allows, a fun read. (I’ve not even mentioned the totem poles.)  

Copies may be purchased, from either address at the very bottom of this screen, for $5 per book + $5 per package. Browsing around on Amazon may turn up a cheaper price, but if you buy it here I'll send $1 per book to Vowell or a charity of her choice. Also, you can fit a few more books into the package for the same $5 shipping fee.