Sarah Vowell: Learning From Dead People

by Christian Carvajal for OLY ARTS

To read Sarah Vowell’s bestselling nonfiction works or hear her frequent appearances on public radio is to experience our history through the eyes of, in her own words, a “partly cloudy patriot.” Her most recent book, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, is a quirky biography of a French marquis who arrived in the colonies at age 19 to turn the Revolutionary War around, then went home to cowrite the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen with Thomas Jefferson. At age 67, when he returned to visit all 24 then-existing American states, three-quarters of the population of New York City turned out to meet him at the dock. Then a four-day party ensued.

OLY ARTS spoke to Vowell less than a week after the new presidential administration took office. “There are things to be learned from dead people,” Vowell notes about tumultuous times. “What was supposed to just be a book about Lafayette ended up being about Americans bickering…When old Lafayette comes back on his victory tour in the 1820s, it’s during what’s probably the most rancorous presidential election in our history. Whether any of us like the rancor in our country right now, it’s always been who we are. We are a country founded by argumentative tax protesters from a bunch of different regions with a bunch of different religions. That’s still what we are. Sometimes we beat ourselves up because of all these differences.”

“That book ends in my favorite place named after Lafayette, which is Lafayette Square,” she continues. “Whether one is excited about the new occupant of the White House or not—especially if you’re not—you should know that he lives across the street from Lafayette Square, which is basically the capital of protest in this country…Garden-variety protests in D.C. happen across the street from the White House; and our president, no matter who that person is, for the last hundred years has basically had to live across the street from an Internet comments section. It’s just where the people go to yell at the president. And not just our people: People from other countries where they’re not allowed to protest go there to protest their own leaders. I’m just trying to look on the bright side of all of this, but this has always been who we are. It’s kind of our inheritance as Americans.”

When Vowell visits The Washington Center, she’ll read from Lafayette and her other works, then field questions from the audience. “They sort of propel that conversation,” she says. “No dancing. No magic tricks.” If you’ve never read one of her books, do yourself a favor and pick up Lafayette, Assassination Vacation or a revealing look at the Puritans, The Wordy Shipmates. But even non-history-buffs may be familiar with one of Vowell’s side jobs: She intimated that her vocal performance as Violet in The Incredibles 2 is underway for a mid-June 2018 release date. “I got very territorial about that character,” she says. “I just didn’t like the idea of somebody else doing it.”

What: Sarah Vowell

Where: The Washington Center for the Performing Arts,
512 Washington St. SE, Olympia

When:  7:30 p.m., Friday, Feb. 17

How much: $16-$45

Learn more: 360-753-8586 | The Washington Center

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