Sarah Vowell's latest book is about Marquis de Lafayette, everyone’s favorite fighting Frenchman.EXPAND
Sarah Vowell's latest book is about Marquis de Lafayette, everyone’s favorite fighting Frenchman.
Owen Brooker

Sarah Vowell on the Paradoxes of American History

Sarah Vowell is trying to figure out what she will discuss when she and friend and fellow writer Daniel Handler visit Mesa Arts Center on November 16.

The author begins to improvise a lengthy list.

Maybe she'll bring up his “smutty, dirty novel” All The Dirty Parts or the series of popular children’s books A Series Of Unfortunate Events that he wrote under the pen name Lemony Snicket.

There's also the duo's mutual love of melons.

“We both like a proper ripe cantaloupe, but we are in agreement that they are hard to find in the world, specifically in hotel room service breakfasts,” Vowell says. “Because we are both on the road so much, we are constantly served these raw pieces of cantaloupe and email each other about it. Sometimes there are photos.”

Handler might also discuss how Vowell made the transition from music writer to radio reporter to the voice of Violet Paar on the hit Disney/Pixar film The Incredibles.

However, when the pair come to Arizona, the main topic of conversation likely will be Vowell's latest bestseller, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States. The book follows Marquis de Lafayette’s journey from teenage French nobleman to a general in George Washington’s army during the Revolutionary War. Vowell, a former contributor to the public radio program This American Life, penned the book as a continuation in her series about the paradoxes of American history. The exploration started with Assassination Vacation, a hybrid of history and travel writing that humorously chronicled her journey to the graves of the presidents of the United States who had been murdered in office.

Phoenix New Times talked with Vowell by phone from her home in Montana about life in the West, how religion and our country’s past are connected, and why our historical figures will always be flawed. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

New Times: I met you in Chicago in 2005 while you were touring in support of your book Assassination Vacation and we briefly talked about music. Did you know back then you were going to pivot to writing books about history and heritage tourism?
Sarah Vowell: Probably. When I started doing it, that was pretty much all I wanted to do. I still write other things, but I felt like that was something that I could really do.

The way I write about history involves not just reading, going to archives, and looking at documents. I also go to the sites and talk to people who are still alive. I always want the books to have a sense of place. Some of that comes from my background of moving around a lot. I am not immune to irony, which is helpful when writing about American history.

I feel like I constantly meet people who are so fascinated by their [country's] own history and want to know more but maybe they aren’t going to sift through a 700-page doorstop in which every single aspect of a subject is covered. They might like more shenanigans.

Sometimes I feel like having a healthy skepticism of masculinity offers another perspective on violence. My last book was on Lafayette. I have a soft spot for him, and I feel like that is apparent in the book, but a lot of the [other] books write about him like he’s a knight. That is a valid perspective, but I don’t care about that stuff. I’m not a 12-year-old boy. I don’t need someone to be a mythological creature. I just want to talk about human beings making the decisions that human beings make. I write about them the same way I write about myself.

I like how in Lafayette In The Somewhat United States you seem to paint him as a music fan waiting by the stage door to meet Washington and getting wrapped up in the tour that was the Revolutionary War.
I would say he was more of a documentary filmmaker, like Albert Maysles or something. There is actually a lot of just slogging. It’s not all hanging out at the stage door. There’s a lot of being on the bus and the day-to-day.

With Washington, the misery and degradation that he endured for eight years is a big part of his story. He had the biggest flaw there can be in American history. He owned slaves.

I see [these historical figures'] flaws. I also see what is great about them, but there is starting to be this tendency amongst young people where they feel this need to have their historical figures share all of their values. First of all, that is never going to happen. Second of all, one finds when they get older they find out about all of their personal failings.

For instance, I was talking to students at MIT earlier this month about Washington and his commitment to the Bill of Rights. He wrote this beautiful letter to a synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, saying to these Jews that toleration will never be spoken of. He meant that tolerance is not an issue anymore because it implies that a dominant group puts up with a lesser group. Under the Bill of Rights, everyone is equal. All religions are equal. It was an astounding position to take in the 18th century.

One student was very uncomfortable. I am still haunted by it. She started crying. She said it was too painful to think kindly of this slave owner. It threw me for a loop. I spent the next 20 minutes talking at her about all these historical issues where you have to deal with flawed individuals because everybody is. She could not think of someone as two things without tearing up. I don’t know what to do about that other than keep talking and writing. There are some uses for these historical figures [that do not involve] dismantling them.

You wrote that you saw the history of the United States not so much as wars but as arguments. You have a discussion with some Quakers about that point of view. They have a complicated history with the Revolutionary War. I grew up Mormon, which also has a complex history. Do people’s relationship with their spiritual beliefs cloud their historical views?
Totally. As I’m sure you know, each faith can be as varied as its members. The Quakers are great examples because they are not a monolithic group. A classic Quaker belief is nonviolence, but some fought in the war. Some were nonviolent, sided with the British. Some were nonviolent, sided with the patriots.

The beauty of this country derives from the First Amendment and freedom of speech, and even before that with the Declaration of Independence and “the pursuit of happiness.” The idea sounds good, but what if your pursuit of happiness conflicts with mine?

I have allergies to pet dander but there are more dogs on planes because of service animals, which is fine and is its own issue. I can tell it really makes people happy to have their pets. I don’t say anything, but if I get seated next to one I have to try to move because it’s uncomfortable. At the very least, I am going to have to scrounge through my bag to look for more allergy medication. Even though they are very happy, I suffer. I put up with it, but their pursuit of happiness has an impact on mine.

It is so interesting that it is this fundamental value but it sets us up to be this nation in conflict. I think we beat ourselves up all the time about what a bunch of bickerers we are. Our government is inefficient but it was designed to be that way by guys who were terrified of totalitarianism. The fact we are allowed to both believe what we want and say what we think shows that the Founding Fathers did not predict things would turn out this way.

Other people’s pursuits of happiness get on our nerves. Some people say some very repugnant things, but to me, the alternative is worse to contemplate. I’ve been to some countries where if you have a controversial question you want to ask your guide in public you have to whisper or wait until later. I’ve had guides in totalitarian countries tell me that my questions make them uncomfortable.

I feel like people sometimes forget there are three branches of government to protect us.
I can imagine it is an interesting time to be in Arizona right now.

I grew up in the Midwest. I have never lived in a state so red it doesn’t observe daylight saving time.
You don’t want the government telling you what time it is. [laughs]

Western states really do have a certain character, don’t they? We have a speed limit in Montana now. There was a period when I was growing up where they just got rid of it. I don’t think that worked out too well. People in the West really do have this rebarbative quality that mostly I really like. It is different out here.

Sarah Vowell and Daniel Handler are scheduled to appear on Thursday, November 16, at Ikeda Theater at Mesa Arts Center, 1 East Main Street. Tickets are $25 to $45. For more information, visit the Mesa Arts Center website.

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