Sarah Vowell brings America's past to its present

The bestselling author and humorist does more than make American history entertaining


Sarah Vowell has a bee in her bonnet about history’s influence on the present state of our country. The New York Times‘ bestselling author is known for her humorous take on America’s past, from presidential assassinations to New England Puritans. Her most recent book, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States examines the French General Marquis de Lafayette during the Revolutionary War. On Thursday, Oct. 5, she will spend an evening with the MIT Communications Forum discussing historical research, humor and present-day journalism. The event is free and open to the public.

We spoke with her ahead of the event on how the current state of America influences her writing, how to make history entertaining and why she loves a good Puritan headstone.

Taking a look at a Broadway hit like Hamilton to the national debate over confederate monuments, do you think Americans are becoming more interested in our history as an effect of what’s going on in the country today? I would say the Hamilton phenomenon probably inspires the kind of interest in history one would like. People living today become more interested in people who are dead. Hamilton comes from a place of joy. Not that it’s an entirely rosy view of our founding fathers … but what’s happening with all the confederate monuments, that’s different … I think that it woke a lot of people up to the fact that it wasn’t just this semi-harmless retro embarrassment. It was still a living legacy for a lot of our more repugnant citizens.

To me, the benchmark of our history and culture is the first amendment, is freedom of speech and freedom of religion. And just the fact that the person who has literally taken oath to protect and defend the constitution is up tweeting about how football players’ first-amendment rights should be violated, that wakes people up to not only thinking about our history but our shared values as Americans and wanting to revisit that.

Do current events influence your writing? I do from time to time write op-eds for the New York Times. I have a bee in my bonnet about how history is influencing the present or not … Sometimes something will happen and it will make me want to revisit a historical subject. Like I was always interested in writing a book about the New England Puritans, as every author dreams of. But I never really had a reason to or any kind of impetus. I remember watching Ronald Reagan’s funeral on TV and how in his service they had Justice O’Connor reading from the John Winthrop sermon “A Model of Christian Charity,” where the image of New England as a city on a hill was introduced. It just really bugged me because that sermon, which is my favorite sermon too, is all about charity and generosity. As a someone who lived through the 1980s it seemed to me that President Reagan’s policies were all about cutting the budgets of federal agencies having to do with charity and generosity. So that was when I thought we need to revisit these Puritans and what they stood for. While they were a flawed people, they had this communalism that I wanted to revisit. Sometimes it’s just something very simple like that.

It was funny to read your recent New York Times op-ed on how you cope with current events by reading Japanese garden books, which reminds you of our past too. Yeah, there’s no escape … I said in that piece I’m particularly fascinated by the gardens of Kyoto. The historical gardens of Kyoto survived because it wasn’t bombed. It had been on the original atomic target list. For me, because I studied art history and not history and because I grew up playing music, especially classical music and jazz, it’s kind of all the same to me. I can’t write about art without putting it in a historical context. And I can’t just write about politics or history on their own either. I just try to be my whole self when I’m writing.

Your writing has a tendency to attract younger readers and you do some work with them through the 826 National nonprofit. Is it your aim to reach that audience when you write? I don’t think about anyone when I’m writing except for myself. I’ve done certain other things that put me in the path of young people. One of them was helping run 826 NYC for 10 years, which is a nonprofit writing and tutoring center in New York. I edited a book with high school students at 826 Valencia that is coming out, The Best American Non Required Reading anthology … Children and young people are generally more aware of history because they’re still studying it in school. I find that adults maybe have some holes in their knowledge of American history that I can help spackle over.

I do in the bigger picture in that I don’t assume an American audience is overfamiliar with its history because I write for the general reader. And as my own readers have told me countless times, they don’t read any other history books except for mine. I’m this one off where they’ll put up with it. I do think about it in terms of I can’t just assume my readers know everything about history. For example, when I was writing about the Massachusetts Puritans I couldn’t really assume that the reader was really up on the intricacies of the Protestant reformation. So I went back and did a quick review … I try to explain it in a way that’s informative for the people who don’t know enough about it and maybe entertaining for the people who already do. 

So you help make history entertainingMy books end up being reader friendly not as my purpose. It’s because I believe in clarity and I think because I have a bit of a broadcasting background … The trap of researching history becomes the downfall of reading history, which is when one writes a history one has to do so much research. You learn a lot of things that aren’t necessarily interesting or relevant. But you put a lot of time and expense and effort into learning these irrelevant, boring facts. I think a lot of less entertaining historians just put it all in there because they had to suffer to get all the information and they want the reader to suffer too I guess. Like when I was writing about presidential assassinations my last chapter was on the Lincoln Memorial. It took over a half century to get that built. There were all these commissions deciding where it should be and what it should look like and I read up on all of these commissions. I had this whole section of people arguing over what that monument would be and how it would be built and where. Then I read through it and you can cover a lot of that in a couple of sentences and be good. But I had put so much effort into learning about those things [laughs]. I just had to let it go. It’s actually really hard, especially if you spent a lot of time and money and effort learning these things.

You probably have a lot of knowledge around Boston history. If we were to spend a day with you in the city what would we go see? Bostonians are generally historically minded, I mean how could they not be. I just remember the first time I went to Boston walking down the street and there was Sam Adams’ grave, like right there off to the side. It is chock a block. Let me think. I love that old King’s Chapel Burying Ground. I really love a Puritan headstone because they have that skull with the wings. They’re so beautiful … Boston Common in general is interesting to me. It’s fairly recent in human history that that’s where you were hanging your Quakers. I also like that one of those hanged Quakers, Mary Dyer, is in statue form at your state house. And I love of course the Shaw Memorial on Boston Common. That’s just beautiful as art and an interesting piece of history. But I always walk down to old John Winthrop’s grave [laughs]. Puritan graveyards are good for Halloween, I think. So autumnal and creepy.

Join the MIT Communications Forum for An Evening with Sarah Vowell on Oct. 5 at 6 p.m.

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