The Partly Cloudy Patriot

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Overview

From public radio This American Life contributor and self-described “history nerd” Sarah Vowell comes a collection of humorous and personal essays investigating American history, pop culture and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

In this insightful and funny collection of personal stories Vowell travels through the American past and in doing so ponders a number of curious questions: Why is she happiest when visiting the sites of bloody struggles like Salem or Gettysburg? Why do people ...

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Overview

From public radio This American Life contributor and self-described “history nerd” Sarah Vowell comes a collection of humorous and personal essays investigating American history, pop culture and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

In this insightful and funny collection of personal stories Vowell travels through the American past and in doing so ponders a number of curious questions: Why is she happiest when visiting the sites of bloody struggles like Salem or Gettysburg? Why do people always inappropriately compare themselves to Rosa Parks? Why is a bad life in sunny California so much worse than a bad life anywhere else? What is it about the Zen of foul shots? And, in the title piece, why must doubt and internal arguments haunt the sleepless nights of the true patriot?

Her essays confront a wide range of subjects, themes, icons, and historical moments: Ike, Teddy Roosevelt, and Bill Clinton; Canadian Mounties and German filmmakers; Tom Cruise and Buffy the Vampire Slayer; twins and nerds; the Gettysburg Address, the State of the Union, and George W. Bush's inauguration.

The result is a teeming and engrossing book, capturing Vowell's memorable wit and her keen social commentary.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
"I've always had these fantasies about being a normal family in which the parents come to town and their adult daughter spends their entire visit daydreaming of suicide. I'm here to tell you that dreams really do come true." Regular listeners of her PRI show, This American Life, know that Sarah Vowell is a storyteller whose pieces range from read-out-loud hilarious to poignant and ruminative.
From the Publisher
Hartford Courant [Vowell's] collection of essays explores patriotism and other aspects of contemporary life from the refreshingly contrarian view of a thoughtfully disaffected, wryly outspoken and deeply passionate citizen.

San Francisco Chronicle Even though her pieces make us laugh about every fourth line, we feel as if there's something more significant at work....A writer of fierce observational powers who wears her intelligence and wit as comfortably as an old pair of pajamas.

Entertainment Weekly Droll, intelligent, and persuasive.

The New Yorker
Sarah Vowell, a contributing editor to "This American Life," on National Public Radio, knows that she's not a fair-weather patriot -- at least not the kind Thomas Paine disparaged in the first installment of the "American Crisis" papers, which was written in the fall of 1776, when Washington's troops were retreating. But she can't get behind the idea of citizenship as sing-along that has been prevalent since September 11th. The Partly Cloudy Patriot (Simon & Schuster), her latest book, is a collection of radio segments and magazine pieces. Vowell, a charismatic misanthrope, repeats the mantra "We the people, we the people" to keep from freaking out on the humid, overstuffed subway. She also thinks about the Civil War "all the time, every day," vacations in Salem, and takes walking tours of Thomas Jefferson's Paris years. Fashioning herself as Clinton's "crabby little cheerleader," she admits a guilty pleasure in voting. Of the booth: "I love it in there. I drag it out, leisurely punching the names I want as if sipping whiskey in front of a fire."

Kevin Greenberg
Neurotic and witty, this book collects fragments of Vowell's experience as an American. The author has a unique perspective on some of the nation's most celebrated events and the places where they occurred, all filtered through the prism of her occasionally weird upbringing in a family of "homebody claustrophobes" enveloped in an "Impenetrable Shield of Melancholy." The book presents a varied and engaging portrait of the author as a product of more than 200 years of American history. Though she portrays herself as a "crabby cheerleader," Vowell is a great lover of her homeland. Refreshingly devoid of pretense, these pieces will likely provide solace to those fellow citizens who are both proud and deeply embarrassed to be living in America.
Publishers Weekly
Few narrators could sound complimentary when calling Al Gore a "big honking nerd," but Vowell (Take the Cannoli), a self-proclaimed nerd, succeeds in doing just that while reading her collection of thoughtful, humorous essays on politics, patriotism and Tom Cruise (among other topics). Vowell's thin, reedy voice and halting delivery take some getting used to, but she settles into a comfortable groove by the end of the first tape, when she relates what she's learned from visiting places like Gettysburg and Witch City (otherwise known as Salem): no matter what your troubles are, "it could be worse." This is followed by an upbeat tune by They Might Be Giants, who composed the music for this audio. It's hard to resist a catchy, comical verse like, "You asked for baked potato/and they gave you fries/but that's not as sad now/is it/as the day the music died," but it's even more difficult to resist Vowell's obvious passion for history, for Al Gore and for Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The full plate of special guests-including Conan O'Brien, Stephen Colbert and Michael Chabon-make token contributions: Colbert does an admirable impersonation of Gore and the oddly chosen O'Brien attempts to fill Abraham Lincoln's shoes. In the end, however, it is Vowell's self-deprecating wit and earnest delivery that will win over listeners. Based on the S&S hardcover (Forecasts, June 24, 2002). (Oct.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Part social commentary and part standup comedy routine for the intellectually inclined, this collection of essays from Vowell, a contributing editor to NPR's This American Life, mines history and current events for insights into American life. Topics range from the quirky like an exploration of the value of pointless arcade games and Tom Cruise's "breakthrough" in Magnolia to a revealing example of how Al Gore's "Pinocchio problem" may have been manufactured during the 2000 election and the author's personal reflections on patriotism post- September 11. Interspersed are musings on presidential libraries, U.S./Canadian differences, and being a twin, as well as a history buff's view of why the field is significant. Most of these essays have appeared in print or been broadcast on NPR, but this compilation emphasizes a theme and provides an interesting contrast between pre- and post-attack life perspectives. The author's Gen-X frame of reference is clear, but the book should appeal to a wider audience of armchair historians and others who enjoy irreverent social commentary. The author wrote the similarly brash Take the Cannoli: Stories from the New World and Radio On: A Listener's Diary. Highly recommended for large public libraries. Antoinette Brinkman, MLS, Evansville, IN
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-These essays and commentaries from Vowell's NPR radio appearances and other sources are curmudgeonly, critical, liberal, and, often, laugh-out-loud funny. The commentator, a self-described history nerd, wanders across the spectrum of American life from the theme-park feeling of Salem, MA, where she purchased a Witch's Crossing shot glass, to the glories of Carlsbad Caverns and the Underground Luncheonette. She belongs to a political listserv that was aghast at the results of the 2000 election, yet, joining several of the members on a road trip to protest the Inauguration, she ended up weeping as she sang the "Star-Spangled Banner." Her commitment to America and her dismay about the current direction of the government, both before and after September 11, are strongly stated, but her wit and slightly quirky outlook make reading her book a pleasure. Teens, regardless of their political leanings, will enjoy the pop-culture connections and even learn some history while smiling at her delivery. This title will work well for assignments on essay writing and even provide material for monologues.-Susan H. Woodcock, Fairfax County Public Library, Chantilly, VA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Pop-culture commentator Vowell (Take the Cannoli, 2000) offers an engrossing take on suddenly sexy topic of love of country. Patriotism may be newly palatable to the hip masses who make up her audience on NPR’s This American Life, but the author herself is the type of person who happily celebrated her 30th birthday at Grant's Tomb. In this collection of essays, she shares her obsession in a work of humor, nuance, and restrained passion, managing both to discuss America’s flaws and restore readers’ pride in the nation. Kicking it off with a rousing yet remarkably uncloying paean to Abraham Lincoln and his Gettysburg Address, Vowell puts the reader on notice that, sure, she's funny, but supporting the quips is a rock-solid knowledge of history. Addressing topics that range from the optimal designs of presidential libraries past and future (she advises Clinton to take a page from Nixon, whose library squarely confronts Watergate) to our tendency to make light of serious history (at Salem, she purchases a shot glass emblazoned with "Witch XING"), the author wanders through historical sites and touchstones of American culture. Vowell is no rah-rah patriot; one of her lengthiest essays is devoted to her realization during George W. Bush's inauguration that she has developed a soft spot for Bob Dole, because "he symbolizes a simpler, more innocent time in America when you could lose the presidential election and, like, not actually become the president." Not all the pieces are political; Vowell also reports on the challenges of family Thanksgivings, the joys of an arcade game called Pop-a-Shot, the appeal of dining in the underground cafeteria at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, and her newfoundappreciation of Tom Cruise. Refreshing, inspiring, enchanting.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743243803
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 9/23/2003
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 137,526
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Sarah Vowell is a contributing editor for public radio's This American Life and has written for Time, Esquire, GQ, Spin, Salon, McSweeneys, The Village Voice, and the Los Angeles Times. She is the author of Radio On, Take the Cannoli, and The Partly Cloudy Patriot. She lives in New York City.

Biography

Sarah Vowell has turned her gimlet eye -- and razor-sharp tongue -- toward everything from her father's homemade (and life-size) cannon and her obsession with the Godfather films, to the New Hampshire primary and her Cherokee ancestors' forced march on the Trail of Tears. Vowell is best known for her monologues and documentaries for public radio's This American Life. A contributing editor for the program since 1996, she has been a staple of TAL's popular live shows around the country, for which The New York Times has commended her "funny querulous voice and shrewd comic delivery." Thanks to her first book, Radio On: A Listener's Diary, Newsweek named her its "Rookie of the Year" for nonfiction in 1997, calling her "a cranky stylist with talent to burn." Reviewing her second book, the essay collection Take the Cannoli: Stories from the New World, People magazine said, "Wise, witty and refreshingly warm-hearted, Vowell's essays on American history, pop culture and her own family reveal the bonds holding together a great, if occasionally weird, nation." Her third book, The Partly Cloudy Patriot, was a national bestseller and was recently released on audio CD, featuring the voices of Norman Lear, Paul Begala, and Conan O'Brien. Sarah Vowell's forthcoming book, titled Assassination Vacation and due to be published Spring 2005, is about tourism and presidential murder.

As a critic and reporter, Sarah Vowell has contributed to numerous newspapers and magazines, including Esquire, GQ, Artforum, The Los Angeles Times, The Village Voice, Spin, and McSweeney's. As a columnist, she has covered education for Time, American culture for the online magazine Salon.com, and pop music for San Francisco Weekly, for which she won a 1996 Music Journalism Award. She contributed the liner notes to the CD anthology Dial-A-Song: 20 Years of They Might Be Giants. Sarah Vowell is a fellow at the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU. Vowell was recently cast as the voice of the teenage daughter in The Incredibles director Brad Bird's forthcoming film about a family of superheroes from Pixar Animation Studios.

Sarah Vowell has performed her work at the Aspen Comedy Festival, Amsterdam's Crossing Borders Festival, and Seattle's Foolproof Festival. She has appeared on Late Show with David Letterman, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and Nightline, and is a regular on Late Night with Conan O'Brien.

Author biography courtesy of the Steven Barclay Agency.

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    1. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      December 27, 1969
    2. Place of Birth:
      Muskogee, Oklahoma
    1. Education:
      B.A., Montana State University, 1993; M.A., School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 1996

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: What He Said There

There are children playing soccer on a field at Gettysburg where the Union Army lost the first day's fight. Playing soc-cer, like a bunch of Belgians — and in the middle of football season no less. Outside of town, there's a billboard for a shopping mall said to be "The Gettysburg Address For Shopping." Standing on the train platform where Abraham Lincoln disembarked from Washington on November 18, 1863, there's a Confederate soldier, a reenactor. "Which direction is south?" I ask him, trying to re-create the presidential moment. When the fake Johnny Reb replies that he doesn't know, I scold him, "Dude, you're from there!" Around the corner, the citizens of Gettysburg stand in line at the Majestic Theater for the 2:10 showing of Meet the Parents. Bennett, the friend I'm with, makes a dumb joke about Lincoln meeting his in-laws, the Todds. "Things did not go well," he says.

It is November 19, 2000, the 137th anniversary of the cemetery dedication ceremony at which Lincoln delivered a certain speech. "Four score and seven years ago," Lincoln said, referring to the Declaration of Independence in 1776, "our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." Always start with the good news.

I could say that I've come to Gettysburg as a rubbernecking tourist, that I've shown up to force myself to mull over the consequences of a war I never think about. Because that would make a better story — a gum-chewing, youngish person who says "like" too much, comes face to face with the horrors of war and Learns Something. But, like, this story isn't like that. Fact is, I think about the Civil War all the time, every day. I can't even use a cotton ball to remove my eye makeup without spacing out about slavery's favorite cash crop and that line from Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address that "it may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces." Well, that, and why does black eyeliner smudge way more than brown?

I guess Gettysburg is a pilgrimage. And, like all pilgrims, I'm a mess. You don't cross state lines to attend the 137th anniversary of anything unless something's missing in your life.

The fighting at Gettysburg took place between July 1 and July 3, 1863. The Union, under the command of General George Meade, won. But not at first, and not with ease. In the biggest, bloodiest battle ever fought on U.S. soil, 51,000 men were killed, wounded, or missing. I am interested enough in that whopping statistic to spend most of the day being driven around the immense battlefield. Interested enough to walk down a spur on Little Round Top to see the monument to the 20th Maine, where a bookish but brave college professor named Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain ran out of ammo and ordered the bayonets that held the Union's ground. Interested enough to stop at the Copse of Trees — where the Confederate General George Pickett aimed his thousands of soldiers who were mowed down at the climax — and sit on a rock and wonder how many Southern skulls were cracked open on it.

I care enough about the 51,000 to visit the graves, semicircular rows of stones with the otherwise forgotten names of Jeremiah Davis and Jesse Wills and Wesley Raikes laid right next to Hiram Hughes. And the little marble cubes engraved with numbers assigned the unknown. Who was 811? Or 775? The markers for the unknowns are so minimal and so beautiful I catch myself thinking of these men as sculptures. Here, they are called "bodies." There are slabs chiseled MASSACHUSETTS 159 BODIES and CONNECTICUT 22 BODIES and WISCONSIN 73 BODIES.

So I pay my respects to the bodies, but I'll admit that I am more concerned with the 272 words President Lincoln said about them. The best the slaughtered can usually hope for is a cameo in some kind of art. Mostly, we living need a Guernica to remind us of Guernica. In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln said of the men who shed their blood, "The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here." Who did he think he was kidding? We only think of them because of him. Robert E. Lee hightailed it out of Gettysburg on the Fourth of July, the same day the Confederates surrendered Vicksburg to U. S. Grant — a big deal at the time because it gave the Feds control of the Mississippi. And yet who these days dwells on Vicksburg, except for the park rangers who work there and a handful of sore losers who whine when they're asked to take the stars and bars off their godforsaken state flags?

The Gettysburg Address is more than a eulogy. It's a soybean, a versatile little problem solver that can be processed into seemingly infinite, ingenious products. In this speech, besides cleaning up the founding fathers' slavery mess by calling for a "new birth of freedom," Lincoln comforted grieving mothers who would never bounce grandchildren on their knees and ran for reelection at the same time. Lest we forget, he came to Washington from Illinois. Even though we think of him as the American Jesus, he had a little Mayor Daley in him too. Lincoln the politician needed the win at Gettysburg and, on the cusp of an election year, he wanted to remind the people explicitly that they could win the war if they just held on, while implicitly reminding them to use their next presidential ballot to write their commander in chief a thank-you note.

Privately, Lincoln has mixed feelings about Gettysburg because he's certain the war could have ended right here if only General Meade had not let General Lee get away. According to a letter written right after the battle, Lincoln is "deeply mortified" that "Meade and his noble army had expended all the skill, and toil, and blood, up to the ripe harvest, and then let the crop go to waste." Because Lincoln is a good man, he does not say this in front of the families who came to the cemetery to hear that their loved ones "shall not have died in vain." Because he is a good politician, he looks on the bright side. Though I personally suspect that in Lincoln's first draft, the line about how "it is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced" was simply "Goddamn fucking Meade."

Abraham Lincoln is one of my favorite writers. "The mystic chords of memory." "Better angels of our nature." "The father of waters flows unvexed to the sea." All those brilliant phrases I'd admired for so long, and yet I never truly thought of him as a writer until I visited the David Wills house in Gettysburg's town square.

In 1863, Wills was charged by Pennsylvania's governor to oversee the battlefield's cleanup and the construction of the cemetery. His house, now a museum, is where Lincoln stayed the night before delivering the address. I walk into the room where Lincoln slept, with its flowerdy carpet and flowerdy walls, with its canopy bed and its water pitcher and towels, and for several minutes the only possible thought is that he was here. There's the window he leaned out of the night of the 18th, teasing the crowd outside that he had nothing to say. And, this being a sweet old-fashioned tourist trap, there's a gangly Lincoln mannequin in white shirtsleeves, hunched over a small table, his long legs poking out the side. He's polishing the speech. The myth is that he wrote it on the back of an envelope on the train, but probably he's been slaving over it for days and days. Still, he doesn't finish it until he's in this room, the morning of the 19th, the morning he's to deliver it.

To say that Abraham Lincoln was a writer is to say that he was a procrastinator. How many deadlines have I nearly blown over the years, slumped like Lincoln, fretting over words that didn't come out until almost too late? Of course, the stakes are lower when one is under pressure to think up insightful things to say about the new Brad Pitt movie instead of, say, saving the Union. On the other hand, I've whipped out Aerosmith record reviews that are longer than the Gettysburg Address, so where's my mannequin?

Looking at Lincoln rushing to stave off failure, I felt so close to him. Or let's say I felt closer. My grandest hope for my own hastily written sentences is that they would keep a stranger company on an airplane. Abraham Lincoln could turn a pretty phrase such as "I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind" and put it in the proclamation that freed the slaves. Even Mailer wouldn't claim to top that.

At the Gettysburg National Cemetery, there's a ceremony every November 19 to celebrate the anniversary of Lincoln's speech. I sit down on a folding chair among the shivering townspeople. A brass band from Gettysburg High School plays the national anthem. The eminent Yale historian James McPherson delivers a speech he may have written a long time ago to make college students feel bad. Because when he accuses the audience of taking our democracy for granted, there's a rustling in the crowd. While people who commemorate the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address surely have a lot of problems, taking democracy for granted isn't one of them. New Jersey's governor, Christine Todd Whitman, then takes the podium, proclaiming, "Our government doesn't have all the answers, and it never will." That is code for "Sorry about that icky photo that shows me laughing as I frisk an innocent black man on a State Police ride-along."

I sit through all of this, impatient. I didn't come here for the opening acts. Like a Van Halen concertgoer who doesn't high-five his friend until he hears the first bar of "Jump," all I've been waiting for is for the Lincoln impersonator James Getty to stand up and read the Gettysburg Address already. This is what Garry Wills says happened after Lincoln stopped talking in 1863: "The crowd departed with a new thing in its ideological luggage, that new constitution Lincoln had substituted for the one they brought there with them. They walked off, from those curving graves on the hillside, under a changed sky, into a different America." This is what happened after the Lincoln impersonator stopped talking in the year 2000: The eight-year-old boy sitting next to me pointed at Getty and asked his mom, "Isn't that guy too short?"

I glance at the kid with envy. He's at that first, great, artsy-craftsy age when Americans learn about Abraham Lincoln. How many of us drew his beard in crayon? We built models of his boyhood cabin with Elmer's glue and toothpicks. We memorized the Gettysburg Address, reciting its ten sentences in stovepipe hats stapled out of black construction paper. The teachers taught us to like Washington and to respect Jefferson. But Lincoln — him they taught us to love.

Copyright © 2002 by Sarah Vowell

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Table of Contents

Contents

What He Said There

The First Thanksgiving

Ike Was a Handsome Man

God Will Give You Blood to Drink in a Souvenir Shot Glass

The New German Cinema

Democracy and Things Like That

Pop-A-Shot

California as an Island

Dear Dead Congressman

The Nerd Voice

Rosa Parks, C'est Moi

Tom Cruise Makes Me Nervous

Underground Lunchroom

Wonder Twins

Cowboys v. Mounties

The Partly Cloudy Patriot

State of the Union

Tom Landry, Existentialist, Dead at 75

The Strenuous Life

Acknowledgments

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First Chapter

Chapter 1: What He Said There

There are children playing soccer on a field at Gettysburg where the Union Army lost the first day's fight. Playing soc-cer, like a bunch of Belgians -- and in the middle of football season no less. Outside of town, there's a billboard for a shopping mall said to be "The Gettysburg Address For Shopping." Standing on the train platform where Abraham Lincoln disembarked from Washington on November 18, 1863, there's a Confederate soldier, a reenactor. "Which direction is south?" I ask him, trying to re-create the presidential moment. When the fake Johnny Reb replies that he doesn't know, I scold him, "Dude, you're from there!" Around the corner, the citizens of Gettysburg stand in line at the Majestic Theater for the 2:10 showing of Meet the Parents. Bennett, the friend I'm with, makes a dumb joke about Lincoln meeting his in-laws, the Todds. "Things did not go well," he says.

It is November 19, 2000, the 137th anniversary of the cemetery dedication ceremony at which Lincoln delivered a certain speech. "Four score and seven years ago," Lincoln said, referring to the Declaration of Independence in 1776, "our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." Always start with the good news.

I could say that I've come to Gettysburg as a rubbernecking tourist, that I've shown up to force myself to mull over the consequences of a war I never think about. Because that would make a better story -- a gum-chewing, youngish person who says "like" too much, comes face to face with the horrors of war and Learns Something. But, like, this story isn't like that. Fact is, I think about the Civil War all the time, every day. I can't even use a cotton ball to remove my eye makeup without spacing out about slavery's favorite cash crop and that line from Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address that "it may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces." Well, that, and why does black eyeliner smudge way more than brown?

I guess Gettysburg is a pilgrimage. And, like all pilgrims, I'm a mess. You don't cross state lines to attend the 137th anniversary of anything unless something's missing in your life.

The fighting at Gettysburg took place between July 1 and July 3, 1863. The Union, under the command of General George Meade, won. But not at first, and not with ease. In the biggest, bloodiest battle ever fought on U.S. soil, 51,000 men were killed, wounded, or missing. I am interested enough in that whopping statistic to spend most of the day being driven around the immense battlefield. Interested enough to walk down a spur on Little Round Top to see the monument to the 20th Maine, where a bookish but brave college professor named Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain ran out of ammo and ordered the bayonets that held the Union's ground. Interested enough to stop at the Copse of Trees -- where the Confederate General George Pickett aimed his thousands of soldiers who were mowed down at the climax -- and sit on a rock and wonder how many Southern skulls were cracked open on it.

I care enough about the 51,000 to visit the graves, semicircular rows of stones with the otherwise forgotten names of Jeremiah Davis and Jesse Wills and Wesley Raikes laid right next to Hiram Hughes. And the little marble cubes engraved with numbers assigned the unknown. Who was 811? Or 775? The markers for the unknowns are so minimal and so beautiful I catch myself thinking of these men as sculptures. Here, they are called "bodies." There are slabs chiseled MASSACHUSETTS 159 BODIES and CONNECTICUT 22 BODIES and WISCONSIN 73 BODIES.

So I pay my respects to the bodies, but I'll admit that I am more concerned with the 272 words President Lincoln said about them. The best the slaughtered can usually hope for is a cameo in some kind of art. Mostly, we living need a Guernica to remind us of Guernica. In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln said of the men who shed their blood, "The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here." Who did he think he was kidding? We only think of them because of him. Robert E. Lee hightailed it out of Gettysburg on the Fourth of July, the same day the Confederates surrendered Vicksburg to U. S. Grant -- a big deal at the time because it gave the Feds control of the Mississippi. And yet who these days dwells on Vicksburg, except for the park rangers who work there and a handful of sore losers who whine when they're asked to take the stars and bars off their godforsaken state flags?

The Gettysburg Address is more than a eulogy. It's a soybean, a versatile little problem solver that can be processed into seemingly infinite, ingenious products. In this speech, besides cleaning up the founding fathers' slavery mess by calling for a "new birth of freedom," Lincoln comforted grieving mothers who would never bounce grandchildren on their knees and ran for reelection at the same time. Lest we forget, he came to Washington from Illinois. Even though we think of him as the American Jesus, he had a little Mayor Daley in him too. Lincoln the politician needed the win at Gettysburg and, on the cusp of an election year, he wanted to remind the people explicitly that they could win the war if they just held on, while implicitly reminding them to use their next presidential ballot to write their commander in chief a thank-you note.

Privately, Lincoln has mixed feelings about Gettysburg because he's certain the war could have ended right here if only General Meade had not let General Lee get away. According to a letter written right after the battle, Lincoln is "deeply mortified" that "Meade and his noble army had expended all the skill, and toil, and blood, up to the ripe harvest, and then let the crop go to waste." Because Lincoln is a good man, he does not say this in front of the families who came to the cemetery to hear that their loved ones "shall not have died in vain." Because he is a good politician, he looks on the bright side. Though I personally suspect that in Lincoln's first draft, the line about how "it is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced" was simply "Goddamn fucking Meade."

Abraham Lincoln is one of my favorite writers. "The mystic chords of memory." "Better angels of our nature." "The father of waters flows unvexed to the sea." All those brilliant phrases I'd admired for so long, and yet I never truly thought of him as a writer until I visited the David Wills house in Gettysburg's town square.

In 1863, Wills was charged by Pennsylvania's governor to oversee the battlefield's cleanup and the construction of the cemetery. His house, now a museum, is where Lincoln stayed the night before delivering the address. I walk into the room where Lincoln slept, with its flowerdy carpet and flowerdy walls, with its canopy bed and its water pitcher and towels, and for several minutes the only possible thought is that he was here. There's the window he leaned out of the night of the 18th, teasing the crowd outside that he had nothing to say. And, this being a sweet old-fashioned tourist trap, there's a gangly Lincoln mannequin in white shirtsleeves, hunched over a small table, his long legs poking out the side. He's polishing the speech. The myth is that he wrote it on the back of an envelope on the train, but probably he's been slaving over it for days and days. Still, he doesn't finish it until he's in this room, the morning of the 19th, the morning he's to deliver it.

To say that Abraham Lincoln was a writer is to say that he was a procrastinator. How many deadlines have I nearly blown over the years, slumped like Lincoln, fretting over words that didn't come out until almost too late? Of course, the stakes are lower when one is under pressure to think up insightful things to say about the new Brad Pitt movie instead of, say, saving the Union. On the other hand, I've whipped out Aerosmith record reviews that are longer than the Gettysburg Address, so where's my mannequin?

Looking at Lincoln rushing to stave off failure, I felt so close to him. Or let's say I felt closer. My grandest hope for my own hastily written sentences is that they would keep a stranger company on an airplane. Abraham Lincoln could turn a pretty phrase such as "I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind" and put it in the proclamation that freed the slaves. Even Mailer wouldn't claim to top that.

At the Gettysburg National Cemetery, there's a ceremony every November 19 to celebrate the anniversary of Lincoln's speech. I sit down on a folding chair among the shivering townspeople. A brass band from Gettysburg High School plays the national anthem. The eminent Yale historian James McPherson delivers a speech he may have written a long time ago to make college students feel bad. Because when he accuses the audience of taking our democracy for granted, there's a rustling in the crowd. While people who commemorate the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address surely have a lot of problems, taking democracy for granted isn't one of them. New Jersey's governor, Christine Todd Whitman, then takes the podium, proclaiming, "Our government doesn't have all the answers, and it never will." That is code for "Sorry about that icky photo that shows me laughing as I frisk an innocent black man on a State Police ride-along."

I sit through all of this, impatient. I didn't come here for the opening acts. Like a Van Halen concertgoer who doesn't high-five his friend until he hears the first bar of "Jump," all I've been waiting for is for the Lincoln impersonator James Getty to stand up and read the Gettysburg Address already. This is what Garry Wills says happened after Lincoln stopped talking in 1863: "The crowd departed with a new thing in its ideological luggage, that new constitution Lincoln had substituted for the one they brought there with them. They walked off, from those curving graves on the hillside, under a changed sky, into a different America." This is what happened after the Lincoln impersonator stopped talking in the year 2000: The eight-year-old boy sitting next to me pointed at Getty and asked his mom, "Isn't that guy too short?"

I glance at the kid with envy. He's at that first, great, artsy-craftsy age when Americans learn about Abraham Lincoln. How many of us drew his beard in crayon? We built models of his boyhood cabin with Elmer's glue and toothpicks. We memorized the Gettysburg Address, reciting its ten sentences in stovepipe hats stapled out of black construction paper. The teachers taught us to like Washington and to respect Jefferson. But Lincoln -- him they taught us to love.

Copyright © 2002 by Sarah Vowell

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 39 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 26, 2014

    Sarah vowel is delightful as always

    Sarah vowel is delightful as always

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 23, 2013

    Better on the radio

    Better as radio segments

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 1, 2013

    Next time I'll read a sample first

    I realized I was reading a High School term paper that was apparently cut and pasted

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  • Posted January 6, 2012

    Partly Cloudy, Absolutely Entertaining!!!

    This was the first time that I had ever read or even heard of Sarah Vowell, but I must say that it won’t be my last. Through her witty stories about American history and personal experiences, Vowell manages to explore a wide variety of topics without coming off argumentative. Although she is without doubt a left-sided liberal and George W. Bush is at the bottom of most of her jokes, she holds no anger towards those on the other side of the political spectrum. She is a history buff and unquestionably a nerd. Her stories range from the Salem Witch trials, coming to terms with the end of the Clinton era, arcade basketball (pop-a-shot), the 2000 presidential election, the after math of 911, Tom Cruise, and her twin sister. With all of these different topics one is bound to relate to at least one of these stories.

    My personal favorite of all of the stories was “The Nerd Voice”. It describes the 2000 presidential election and breaks it down into nerds vs. jocks. Al Gore is considered the nerd, whereas George W. Bush is the jock. Sarah Vowell is a part of an email group that tracks this election and comes to realize that the internet is the “Nerd Israel”. It ironically compares the two candidates to these two stereotypes and analyzes why Gore ultimately lost, because he did not stay true to his inner nerd self.

    Although Vowell seems to have a “partly cloudy” outlook on life, she does so with optimism. As she notes in one of her essays, “it could be worse”. This is one of the mottos she lives by and is a good outlook on life. A common theme throughout this book is her love for America and her desire to learn as much as possible about it. One can see that her love and passion for America, its strengths and flaws, is incorporated into all of her stories. This book is a collection of funny and educational essays from a proud American citizen and I would recommend it to everyone.

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  • Posted February 14, 2011

    Great book, horrible editing

    I love sarah vowell and this was a great collection of her work, however I was really disappointed at the editing. There were quite a few spelling and punctuation errors and one chapter was in there twice. Other than that I highly recommend this one.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 20, 2007

    A reviewer

    Couldn't believe how smart and funny these essays were. I ended up buying copies for several friends and it prompted some wonderful discussions that challenged the way we looked at what it means to be an American and how we look at the media. Does exactly what a book should do - makes you think.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 21, 2004

    She's smart AND funny!

    After seeing Ms. Vowell on the Daily Show and hearing her describe the re-enactment of the Burr-Hamilton duel, I raced out to buy her book. I was not disappointed. Every essay is insightful and hysterical. I still can't figure out why she's not on the NYT bestseller list...

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 5, 2003

    Funniest book I have ever read!

    Sarah Vowell is amazing. Her ability to look at typical life situations and over analyze them to hilarity is impressive. A quick read, this book is a must for anybody who enjoys wild yet intelligent humor.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 30, 2003

    Awesome

    This collection of stories revolves greatly around Ms. Vowell and her encounters with and thoughts of USA's policies, politics, and history. Now, I realize that doesn't automatically sound like a "fun" book to read.. but trust me, it is! Sarah Vowell's stories are always so honest, very funny, beautifully sarcastic, and suprisingly educational. It just doesn't get much better than that!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 25, 2003

    What a Great Book!...

    I love the outlook that Sarah has matured into. As one of the reviews said, this is "Laugh Out Loud" social commentary on areas that we're all exposed to, but rarely think of with deep thoughts. Her humor and sly wit make us realize she is a terrific observer of the world around her. The pieces on her family visiting, and on voting behavior, are just priceless! I was reading parts of them out loud to my friends!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 5, 2003

    Excellent writing and amusing

    I had first heard of Sarah Vowell from reading her articles on "Salon.com" a few years ago and then quickly forgot about her. Then I was surfing online a week ago and her name popped up as well as this book title. Interested, I bought it, started reading it, and finished it in a day. Her prose is very amusing and light-hearted, but well written. Vowell's a great author!

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