Saturday, November 1, 2008

Wise Ass Historian

This last Wednesday Merry and I attended a reading and book signing by Sarah Vowell at the Mad Art Gallery in St. Louis. To be honest I was only vaguely aware of Sarah Vowell and had never read anything she wrote, but Mer had seen her on John Stewart, and assured me I would enjoy the occasion.

What an evening of discovery. The Mad Art Gallery is located in the Soulard neighborhood, one of the oldest intact areas of the city next to the big Anheuser-Busch brewery, near the Mississippi. The Gallery was created out of a very classy 1930's art deco police station. As you walk in you see that the giant Sergent's desk, surrounded by tons of polished brass grillwork, has been transformed into a bar. The original terrazzo floors are in good shape as is the original lock-up, open for inspection. The main room held about 200 folding chairs and a “paint-by-numbers” exhibit of familiar masterpieces (Mona Lisa, Warhol's Marilyn, etc.). It filled up fast. Looking around we felt we must have a good deal in common with many of the people in the room.

The event started pretty much on time, apparently a mid-western trait. The nervous, fast talking owner of the gallery welcomed everybody. Then the “events coordinator” of Left Bank Books, a local independent book store and organizer of the Great River Writers events, took the stage to vent some of her incredible, bubbly energy. Finally, the director of the Honor's College of the University of Missouri, St. Louis, took the podium to introduce the writer. After patting himself on the back for five minutes, droning on and on about his program [Why doesn't someone tell too-full-of-themselves college professors that normal people are just not that interested in them? UMSTL, I mused, how do they pronounce that? I later learned the correct pronunciation is “ums-stil”] he finally yielded the stage to the honored guest.

Sarah Vowell is a short, pale woman with dark hair cut short and blunt. There is something of a goth look to her. She has a slight vocal tic and speaks in bursts. She read from her latest book, Wordy Shipmates. She is terrific from the first sentence. Now mind you, Wordy Shipmates is a retelling of the earliest history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Ms. Vowell not only likes and deeply understands these quintessential religious fanatics, she makes their story interesting, and at times funny.

During the question and answer section, I realized why I like her so much. She has taken the time to truly understand who these people were, how they lived, why they thought the way they did, then she successfully tells us why we should care about any of that. The message of this book, it seems (I have not read it, yet), is simple – we have inherited our deepest assumptions about democracy from those crazy Pilgrims. We owe it to ourselves to know something about how and why they managed to survive.

What sets Sarah Vowell apart from other historians and other writers in general is her desire to understand exactly how other people live, then to explain why she cares about what she has discovered. She does this in an easy going, irreverent way. To get a sense of what I'm trying to say here I recommend you take a look at this clip of John Stewart interviewing here recently about this book:

Near the end of the program a high school social studies teacher asked Ms. Vowell how to make teaching about early America interesting to 11th graders. In reply, she allowed that this may be a nearly impossible task, but suggested keeping the focus on the people, their oddities, their foibles, and their unique perspective. This perfect answer reminded me fondly of our friend, Kathy Sabino, who labors mightily in this field at Hamilton High. It is, in the end, the task of us all to understand why and how others have come to different conclusions about important human issues. To the extent each of us personally succeeds in such understanding, we make a civilization out of the ant heap. This wise ass historian is doing what she can to help.

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