Arts & Culture News

An Uncomfortable Room: Historical Author Sarah Vowell Came To Texas, Spoke Politics.

Marvelous Krys Boyd didn't have much to do last night, sitting in a comfy chair across from Sarah Vowell, under the massive gold cross in the First Presbyterian Church of Dallas. Vowell, who appeared as part of Arts & Letters Live, gained popularity on public radio's This American Life, and has parlayed that into a successful career writing offbeat books about American history.

Vowell's latest book, Unfamiliar Fishes, traces the forces and influences that led to the annexation of Hawaii. Talking about it in her distinctive piping voice, she spun out historical names and facts and anecdotes and opinions, in run-on sentences punctuated with wry one-liners. Boyd barely managed to squeeze in four or five questions during the 55-minute interview, and I'm not sure those were answered in Vowell's meandering and intermittently interesting monologues.

I do admire the spirit with which Vowell plunges into American history, more as a writer than a historian. "I just want to do what I want to do, I want to write what I want to write" she said, hastening to add that her books do contain "facts a-plenty."

Vowell is neither jingoistic nor disparaging towards America, but rather feels "unconditional love," for the truth of her country, warts and all. The sanitized version of history she learned in school didn't make the truth disappear, she said. It just made history two-dimensional. "I wasn't taught about Jefferson and Sally Hemings in school," she said. "But it would have been ... interesting."

Vowell reports on her projects with an open mind, looking for the humanity in even the most heinous behaviors. "Idealists," she said. "Those are the people who do the most damage."

But for all that, she also was a fish out of water last night: a New Yorker (via Muskogee, Oklahoma, and Bozeman, Montana), a lefty and a "heathen," (although raised in a Pentacostal home), sitting in a church sanctuary, facing a room full of Texans (in Kennedy-killing Dallas, no less). She was clearly uncomfortable and I worried for her: Would her serpentine monologues wander into territory -- about religion, Republicans, the Civil War -- that might cause a portion of her audience to stand up and stomp out? The possibility seemed to hover in the air.

And then it was time for questions from the audience, which is usually where things go to hell at these events anyway. Things started getting awkward when a woman asked Vowell how she thought history would treat the current Republican primary.

"I don't see this crop of guys as ... uh ... yeah," Vowell said, starting strongly then trailing off, as if she suddenly realized where she was. Choosing her words carefully, she said that the current bunch of Republican candidates were likely to be relegated to the back pages of future textbooks, in a chart of also-rans.

"The problem with the people who run for president is that they're the kind of people who want to run for president," she said, to approving laughter. And she got applause when she said that although as a young lefty liberal, she thought Bob Dole was the devil, "Now I would give anything for a Bob Dole."

But after a bit, a guy asked what she thought about math and science education in America, and for her comments about the Texas textbook controversy. And that, finally, sent her off the rails. "I'm going to say the word," she said. "Taxes."

Had Vowell not seemed so exhausted, the near-rant, almost-diatribe about Texas, textbooks and education that followed might have been clever or funny or enlightening, but mostly it seemed like she'd started running downhill and couldn't quite stop herself. (Although my favorite line was, "Children have been infantilized.") When she reached the bottom of the hill, she said, "And you people can do something about it," and looked sternly out at us.

At that, Boyd announced that that was the last question they had time for and Vowell would be signing books. Vowell snapped out of it, clearly embarrassed, and stammered something along the lines of how she was always very thoughtful when she signed people's books and didn't run off at the mouth like she just had.

Probably not the way she wanted to end the evening.

So what do you think: Did Boyd end the Q&A because it was time, or did she step in to save Vowell from herself? She's such a pro, it's impossible to tell.

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Sophia Dembling