Review: Sarah Vowell’s Acerbic “Past and Present” Closes Chicago Humanities Festival

Sarah Vowell. Image Source-Getty/Michael Tran

Narrative nonfiction titan Sarah Vowell closed the diverse and well-curated Chicago Humanities Festival’s 30th anniversary “Power” juggernaut Sunday at Francis W. Parker School in Lincoln Park, showcasing her acerbic wit and keen historical eye. Vowell has written seven books on history and culture, and voices Violet in the Oscar-winning The Incredibles movies.

“I started acting 18 years ago and have played only one character,” she observed.

She attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and stayed in the city to contribute to the series This American Life, where her radio essays first launched her notoriety.

“Chicago is my architectural home,” she said during her “Past and Present” program. “I like those Prairie School guys.” Here, she studied art history, which IS history, she said, but with fewer wars. “Why do Americans see our history as a history of wars?” she asked.

Vowell lived in “a country music song town” in eastern Oklahoma until she was 11. Her first taste of performance was at an outdoor drama about the Trail of Tears, a pivotal event for her part-Cherokee family, when a quarter of the tribe died while being forced to march halfway across the continent.

She gravitates toward history because she doesn’t like to talk to people who are alive. “I don’t like to pry,” she said. Plus, history is a good way to talk about the country because of its twin aspects of “annihilation and fun.”

In her teens, her family moved to a Montana college town, a mix of “wholesome and pretentious.” Post-Chicago, she lived in New York City, where she hung around comedians like Todd Barry, David Cross, Reggie Watts and Eugene Mirman. She admits it was hard to get writing done there though.

Her last book was Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, and she choose to write about him because everybody universally loved the French aristocrat and “world’s richest orphan” who fought in the American Revolution. He was a “nice respite” between all the bickering and warring factions at that time.

Besides, he was 19 when he came over from France to fight, and Vowell had previously written about pop music, which also focuses on 19-year-olds (who are the worst people to interview, she added).

Lafayette was also an only child, so Vowell, as a twin, was drawn to his self-possessed admission that he “did not hesitate to be disagreeable to maintain his independence.”

Lafayette love continued, and when he returned to the States in 1824, many places were named after him, including Lafayette Square right across from the White House. Vowell noted that the speaking-out site continues to showcase the important American right to disagree.

The square even draws protesters from elsewhere. “It’s where people go when their leaders meet our president,” she said. “Because they can’t protest in their own countries.”

The book before Lafayette was 2011’s Unfamiliar Fishes, a history of Hawaii. Vowell remembered the weeks in the islands’ archives reading missionary letters and going home less tanned than when she arrived. She liked the sense of place there, how the black lava rock contrasted with lush green, how the air was different

She talked about how being a musician and composer in her youth made her want to write for the ear, and her first radio job at age 18. When she shares her audio stories with young people, she says they don’t even know what radio means.

“They keep calling it a podcast,” she said.

She lamented, “Sometimes I miss things about the 20th century.”

She’s from the Will Rogers and Mark Twain part of the country, those “twangy, jokey folks with spitefulness at their base.” She shared that snark on TV with talk shows hosts and big fans like book-loving David Letterman and history-loving Conan O’Brien. She sold books and got a little famous. “The narrative nonfiction level of celebrity is pretty manageable,” she said.

Vowell credits O’Brien with giving her courage to write about history. “He gave me faith in myself that I would find an audience and a community.”

She continues to be a columnist for the New York Times, where she published a piece over the summer about her governor, Steve Bullock of Montana, who “may not be the most charismatic candidate, but can teach his party how to get conservatives to do liberal things.”

Impressed by his competence, she’s got pride in her “gov’mint” that she can “go weeks and never think about him.”

She likes the self-help aspect of the study of history, the grimness. There’s nothing like comparing your own worries, to, say, Pol Pot. Instead of being contrite, ask yourself: “Are there piles of skulls?”

Vowell wrapped up recalling the first Continental Congress of 1774. Even though the members were all wealthy white men, they, too, were almost too diverse to compromise. After all, there were so many different types of Protestants, from Quakers to Congregationalists to Episcopalians. “It almost fell apart in the first moment,” she said.

“Our DNA, our culture, is bickering,” she added. “It’s inefficient, but when our diversity comes through, that’s the beauty of this place.” An apt observation to keep in mind as America embarks on public impeachment hearings this week.

If you’d like to buy a Vowell, visit her publisher’s website.

Read about other Chicago Humanities Festival speakers too:

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Rachel Maddow

George R.R. Martin

Madeleine Miller 

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Karin McKie

Karin McKie is a Chicago freelance writer, cultural factotum and activism concierge. She jams econo.