Good Mourning America: Presidential Assassination Folklore


Despite the morbid topic of her new book Assassination Vacation (Simon & Schuster, April), Sarah Vowell is having a really good time. For Vowell, the assassinations of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley offer an irresistible bounty, with “so many good stories hiding inside their lore.” A self-proclaimed “nice girl,” Vowell is “fascinated by egomaniacs, not just the self-absorbed weirdos who kill presidents, but also the self-absorbed weirdos who run for president.” “Totem poles, mummies, religious cults, [and] Herman Melville” are just some of the bizarre artifacts that crop up in her travels from one assassination site to the next.

This American Life personality Vowell is engaging her showbiz side by recording the audio version of Assassination. Celebrity guests include Conan O’Brien, Jon Stewart, Stephen King, and Tony Kushner, who talks about “things like ejaculatory crisis.”

In the opening chapter, a stream of murderers and their presidential victims sing and dance in a production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Assassins, which Vowell attends as part of her research. The antithesis of a serious historian, Vowell “can’t stand staying in frilly rooms with a jillion throw pillows but no TV.” Her book is as much a travelogue replete with breaks for grits as it is legitimate historiography. Vowell’s wit never abandons us to the potentially oppressive subject matter; she considers it her duty “not to be a total drag” while helping us understand these presidents’ lives and untimely deaths.