Thursday, 26 April 2007

Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell

So you want a historical account of the key 19th century Presidents, supported by in-depth analysis of how the shifting political culture reflected the growth in international power? Wrong book. This is one of those humorous shaggy-dog stories about the morbid fascination of the author with, well not to be too delicate, three murdered Republican Presidents: Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley.

Each has their own chapter but it's the detail of whom and how they were killed, what happened to the killers and plotters, how they were captured that captures the imagination of the author. We track these events through the historical flotsam and jetsam: a plaque stuck unseen in a foyer, bullets and bone fragments, run down museums etc. As we read we also share in the ups and downs of her life and family as she seeks to touch the "relics" of the departed and so make them real. She raises an interesting theme with Lincoln who becomes a saint rather then a human politician. He didn't fight the Civil War to free slaves. His greatness was that he grew and did free them. But when assassinated his flaws were buried with him and a political myth grows.

A lot of political history is subtly interweaved from the changes in campaigning styles( it was considered bad form to campaign as President so you invited people to drop by when you were in town) to the gradual birth of corporate donations. Or the politics of the Federal state when Senators were elected by the State Congress and majority of Federal funds came from the New York custom house. A curiosity of the three deaths is that Todd Lincoln, the only surviving son of Lincoln was present at all three deaths. Look up the German meaning of his name, a irony that he was only too aware of. He lived to see the Lincoln Memorial built in 1922. Another interesting question she raises is why democratic, dynamic America chooses to build its capital and many of its national memorials in the style of imperial Classicalism so clearly at odds with its political values.

Do I recommend it? It is a fascinating read for what it reveals about liberal Americans-political equality rather social democracy is the buzz- and the lack of historical roots that are thin in time and fragmented in the name of progress. But that's not the purpose of the book. So I wouldn't recommend it to a English reader unless they have a passion for 19th Century American history and 21st century Reportage. Americans get your copy now and remember a time when Republicans had a more embracing vision of political values.

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