This past week, I read Sarah Vowell's delightful chronicle of her pilgrimages to the sites connected to the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley. Vowell is a character actress, radio host on NPR's "This American Life," and amateur historian who recently came out with a book about the Massachussetts Bay Colony called The Wordy Shipmates.
I could not bring myself to start with her most recent book, though, and instead opted for 2005's Assassination Vacation--both because my library did not yet have its copy of TWS, and because I liked the quirky premise of the older book more.
William McKinley, skilled politician and yet feeble leader that he was, has been near to my heart this past year as I researched and wrote my screenplay, REMEMBER THE MAINE, concerning the start of the Spanish-American War, and I particularly relished that section of the book.
The other two sections concern the people, places and coincidences associated with the assassinations of our 16th and 18th presidents. Though I loved the historical details Vowell was able to uncover by journeying as far as the Dry Tortugas in Florida, and as close as around the corner from where she lives to Gramercy Park in New York, two particular passages struck my fancy the most.
The first is on page 105 of my edition. Speaking of her tour of the Illinois State House in Springfield, and then of Lincoln's house later on, Vowell says, "I am invariably the odd man out on tours like this. The only people who take them are kids who are forced to endure them and elderly retirees. I am always either the oldest person on a tour, or the youngest. I prefer to be the youngest if only because usually that means I’m the prettiest by default."
I couldn't help but chuckle since, dork that I am, I have had similar experiences all throughout my travels. I am always taking tours of historical sites, cathedrals, museums, opera houses, graveyards, wineries, resorts, fish markets, factories--basically I'm a tour junkie. Anything you can take a tour of...I'll take it. And I don't mind admitting it. I want to be as well informed as possible, and you can't find a more attentive listener, so you know what, I'll say it: I love tours! Unfortunately, I'm usually the only 20-something on these tours. Whether that's because I really can't resist, or because my peers are out doing more fun things, I can't say for sure.
However, this passage made me recall a particular tour I took of Canterbury Cathedral in England, and I managed to find the journal entry I wrote about it, so here goes.
"I took a tour of Canterbury Cathedral," 24-year-old Eric says, "guided by a perfectly named man, Cyril Whitehead. Though the paragon of a provincial historical society guide, he needed a little brushup on his history not pertaining to Thomas a Beckett." Wow I was catty. I continue, however, after describing the cathedral itself, "I think it is also worth mentioning that I was literally one-third the average age of the other seven people on my tour, most of whom were self-proclaimed 'cathedral enthusiasts.' Basically, modern-day pilgirms exulting in the differences between the early, high, and late Gothic. And wattles. They all had wattles, which struck me as strange for people who presumably spend a good deal of their leisure time gazing upward at stained glass." Gosh, I was such a bitch back then! But then again, I was definitely the prettiest one on that tour!
The other passage from Assassination Vacation that really thrilled me was when Sarah Vowell drew a direct historical connection from the Oneida Community religious society in upstate New York to the TV show, "The OC." I'll let you enjoy it for yourself: "I do feel compelled, indeed almost conspiracy theoretically bound to mention that one of the reasons the Oneida Community broke up and turned itself into a corporate teapot factory is that a faction within the group, led by a lawyer named James William Towner, was miffed that the community’s most esteemed elders were bogarting the teenage virgins and left in a huff for none other than Orange County, California, where Towner helped organize the Orange County government, became a judge, and picked the spot where the Santa Ana courthouse would be built."
I've spared you her references to Peter Gallagher's eyebrows, but rest assured, they are numerous and slightly disturbing. I just wanted to include that passage in order to point out that she managed to find a historical thread with which to justify her own obsession with Josh Schwartz's teen-fluff primetime soap, and I fully applaud her. My motto lately has been, "What's old is new," and Sarah Vowell manages to take some very old, ostensibly boring stuff, and make it completely, wonderfully, entertainingly new.