Sarah Vowell at UCSB’s Campbell Hall, Sunday, March 1

NPR Personality Laces History with Sarcasm

Sarah Vowel at the Arlington Theatre 2007
Paul Wellman (file)

The study of history has filled Sarah Vowell’s life with stories, imbued her acts with meaning and poetry, and – this is the trade off for inspiration – given her the feeling that Theodore Roosevelt is always looking over her shoulder asking with disappointment bordering on disgust: “Is this all you are?” It figures that being the steward of American history’s eccentricities would have a downside.

Vowell began a night of reading on Sunday at UCSB’s Campbell Hall by describing her connection to the beloved president, confessing her childhood desire to be stricken by the asthma Teddy suffered through. When her father told her all Roosevelt could do as a child was stay in bed and read, Vowell knew she had found a kindred spirit.

Her snotty and loveable humor delighted the history buffs and NPR addicts in attendance as she read stories and invited all present into her world of half-lampooned historical events.

It should be dull to follow a group of religious fanatics through their years of squabbling and banishing each other into the wilderness of 17th-century New England, to learn the difference between different kinds of Puritans, and to trace the impact in our culture of a preacher 300 years dead. This is something Vowell is well aware of, claiming sarcastically on Sunday to having written her latest book The Wordy Shipmates to satisfy “America’s thirst for all things Massachusetts Bay.” She shrugged and said it was hard work selling stories about the religious zealots and madmen she finds so interesting, admitting: “My books sound horrible.” Yet young and old came to hear her talk, many holding copies of their favorite Vowell book to be signed.

Over the course of the evening Vowell brought us along in her travels through our country’s history. She described searching for the gravestones of famous Americans with her nephew, who exclaimed while standing on a headstone, “This is a nice Halloween park!” She remembered watching the Theodore Roosevelt musical in a small North Dakota town, and celebrating her 30th birthday at U.S. Grant’s tomb.

When she had finished speaking, Vowell allowed time for a Q&A session, where fans asked questions about specific passages in her books, and one man asked where she had been during President Obama’s inauguration. To this, she raised her eyebrow and shot back, “In my apartment. Where were you?”


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