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Sarah Vowell: 2016 National Book Festival

Sarah Vowell: 2016 National Book Festival


>>Speaker 1: From the Library
of Congress in Washington, DC.>>David S. Mao: Good
afternoon, everyone. My name is David Mao and I
have the honor of serving as the deputy librarian of
Congress and it is my great pleasure to welcome all of you to the 16th–
2016 16th National Book Festival and of course to the
History and Biography Stage, which is generously
sponsored by Wells Fargo. We, at the Library of
Congress, are extremely thrilled to be presenting the National
Book Festival for the 16th time. This terrific event would not
be possible without the friends that we have, supporting
us, generously supporting like Wells Fargo and we are
very appreciative of that. But more important, we would not
be here but for readers like all of you, who support the authors, are
interested in them and really come out in Droves and so
we’re extremely excited. Thank you very much
for being here today. OK, thank you. [ Applause ] This year’s festival is
inspired by journeys and the idea that a book is a voyage unto
itself, taking us to places that we might not be
able to see in person, but we can visit by
reading about it. And it gives us the opportunity
to better understand our world and in particular why
we are here today, celebrating histories
and biographies. So reading, to us, is
an ideal form of travel and it’s really the best
way for us to develop and encourage and grow our minds. In addition to the author
presentations that we have here on this stage for you today,
we have lots of other events. I hope you will take the
opportunity to visit the lower level of the convention center, where
we have lots of family activities. We have booths for our
sponsors, AARP, Wells Fargo. We also have the Library of Congress
Pavilion, where I encourage you to visit us and learn more
about your national library, learn all about the wonderful things
that we are doing at the Library of Congress to make our treasures
available to you, whether you come and visit us in person
or visit us online. So, we have a great lineup. I don’t want to take
up too much time. And so, I hope you will
welcome our first presenter, who will kick things off
for us, Mr. Carlos Lozada, who is the associate editor and nonfiction book critic
for The Washington Post. I invite him to come up and
introduce our first speaker. Thank you very much
and enjoy your day. [ Applause ]>>Carlos Lozada: Good afternoon. Welcome to the 2016
National Book Festival. As David mentioned, my
name is Carlos Lozada. I review nonfiction for
The Washington Post, which is a charter
sponsor of the festival. Thanks again to the
Library of Congress, which has hosted the
festival since– for 16 years, as well as festival
Cochairman David Rubenstein and the many sponsors that
make the event possible. I’ve never met Sarah Vowell
personally until right now, but maybe, like a lot of you, I
feel like I’ve known her forever. Whether through her work on “This
American Life”, her delightful books and to the side alleys of
American history and in the role that most excites my moody
six-year-old daughter as the voice and soul of Violet
from “The Incredibles”, Sarah can basically do anything and
make it seem effortless and funny and profound all at once. And if you’ve not read her
obituaries of John Ritter and Tom Landry, you
really– you’re missing out. But we’re here to talk
about her books. She’s written the history
of Hawaii, of the Puritans, of presidential assassination
sites, and most recently, a book on revolutionary BFF,
the Marquis de Lafayette in her 2015 book, “Lafayette
in the Somewhat United States”. There will be time for
questions after Sarah speaks, and Seaspan is covering the
history and biography sessions, so be on your best behavior. Sarah will be signing books
at 1:30, so please get one. It is my huge fanboy pleasure
to introduce Sarah Vowell. [ Applause ]>>Sarah Vowell: Hello, hello
book lovers, people of Seaspan. I realized recently that I
travel around the country so much and I only, I only meet
people who read books. And I don’t know if you’ve watched
the news, like the last year or so, but I would like to say
that I’m cool with that. [ Laughter ] But I– Thank you. [ Applause ] That I like my little
vision of America that I get from meeting all of you. So, I’m feeling very
contemplative today. If you’re watching
this on television, we are here in Washington,
DC, and for me, I arrived in this city precisely
half my life ago, 23 years ago. I’ll wait for a second
for you to do the math. I know that’s not your strong suit– [ Laughter ] — or mine. You have other nice qualities. So, 23 years ago, I arrived in
this city on a train from Montana. My parents drove me up to Shelby,
Montana, where I caught the Amtrak. I took it across North Dakota,
that took a while, changed trains in Chicago, saw the buildings of
Louis Sullivan, thought I want to live here someday,
I ended up doing that, went across Pennsylvania,
I remember the conductor, we were passing the
Susquehanna River and he said, “Get a load of this
scenic wonderland.” And I arrived here in DC for
my Smithsonian internship and I think it was the next day
Yasser Arafat shook Rabin’s hand on the White House lawn. It was a hopeful time in America. The Library of Congress is
sponsoring this event, you know. When I was on the internet in
the Smithsonian, the first works that I worked on that
had the ISBN number, the Library of Congress catalog
number were finding aids to things like art in Philadelphia on the
archives of American art or– yeah, that was the main one,
Italian-American art history. So, I was saying earlier
that for me, as an author, every time I get one of my books, when it comes in the mail the first
time, the first thing I do is look at that catalog number because,
as we all know, life is short and the Library of
Congress is forever. [ Applause ] So, take that, Great Britain. [ Laughter ] But anyway, being here, you know,
thinking about when I was, you know, a young pup leaving home to come
here, I realized that is the story that I’ve been writing
years through seven books. It’s always the story of
the misfit leaving home and that is the story
of our country. I think earlier this year in
this city, T Bone Burnett said, “This is the story of the United
States, a kid walks away from home with a song and nothing else
and conquers the world.” So, for me, that is always
the story I’m writing, whether it’s Theodore
Roosevelt leaving New York City to mourn his wife and mother
and head out to North Dakota to be cowman and, you know, as–
one of his biographers said, “He was the only president who
ever read ‘Anna Karenina’ while on a three-day search
for cattle thieves.” [ Laughter ] Or our friend, Abraham Lincoln,
who when he left Springfield to come here as president and
took the train of Philadelphia to Independence Hall and
he, you know, he said that, “The political sentiments
I entertain have been drawn from the sentiments which were
given to the world from this hall.” And he said that the goal
of his presidency was to save the country invented
there and he added ominously, “I would rather be assassinated
on this spot that surrender it.” Obviously, the person who did
assassinate him is another misfit who left home, from
Baltimore, you know. [ Laughter ] And then I’ve written about, you
know, New England missionaries who come to Hawaii like many churchy
folk of the early 19th century who saw the new maps from
expeditions like that of Captain Cook’s and resolved to
spread the gospel to all the places where Cook’s sailors
had spread the clap. [ Laughter ] Or to their forebears,
the New England Puritans, such as the Massachusetts Bay
colonists who, unlike those hippies from Plymouth, were trying to
convince the English government that they were not separating from
English and that they were going to America where they would
remain as English as beheadings and clouded cream, and even wrote a
letter to Charles I in 1630 called “A humble request” in which
they said they just wanted to remind the king that we shall be in our poor cottages
in the wilderness. Whereas, in private, John Winthrop,
their leader, would tell them, “We’re the opposite, we shall
be as a city upon a hill.” So, misfits leaving home, my latest
misfit leaving home is a French teenager, Marquis de Lafayette
and this book tells the story of him leaving home and his pregnant
teenage wife to come to America to throw in with George
Washington’s continental army. And so, I’ll read for a bit and then
I’ll take questions and I wanted to read this section of when he
comes of his voyage to America and his early time and then
I’ll read a little tangent about a heroic bookseller to pander
to the subject of the proceedings. [ Laughter ] So, it’s 1777, Lafayette
has absconded to America, he’s bought his own ship to come
here, the king of France is trying to keep him at home, his wife’s
family is trying to keep him at home, because as I
mentioned, she is pregnant. And once he makes it onto
the ship he has purchased across the Atlantic, he
starts sending his wife– he starts writing his wife,
Adrienne, these letters to try to explain why he has abandoned
her and their forthcoming child. I believe I say in that book
that while history might be full of great fathers, recorded
history is not where to find them. [ Laughter ] At sea, Lafayette unveiled the
grandeur of his mission to his wife, Adrienne, and attempted
to include her in it. He wrote, “I hope that
as a favor to me, you will become a good American.” She is a teenage French
aristocrat from one of the most illustrious families
in France, she lives in a mansion in Paris when she isn’t living
at their mansion in Versailles. So, asking her to become a good
American is sort of baffling. Also, he really wasn’t in a
position to ask her any favors. Nevertheless, he proclaimed
to his wife the welfare of America is intimately bound up
with the happiness of humanity. She is going to become a deserving
and sure refuge of virtue, of honesty, of tolerance, of
equality and of a tranquil liberty. Now to establish such a
forthright dreamland of decency, who wouldn’t sign up to shoot at a
few thousand Englishmen just as long as Mr. Bean wasn’t one of them? Alas, from my end of history,
from our end of history, there’s a big file
cabinet blocking the view of the sweet-natured
republic Lafayette foretold, and it is where the government keeps
the folders full of Indian treaties, the Chinese Exclusion Act and NSA-monitored electronic
messages pertinent to National Security, which
is apparently all of them, including the one in which I
asked my mom for advice on how to get a red Sharpie stain
out of couch upholstery. Lafayette confided in his
wife, “In coming as a friend to offer my services to
this intriguing republic, I bring to it only my
frankness and my good will, no ambition, no self-interest. In working for my glory, I
work for their happiness.” Disregarding the inherent
contradictions of proclaiming his lack of
ambition and self-interest in the same sentence, he revealed that attaining glory was
one of his two stated goals. He was an only child. [ Laughter ] The phrase “coming as a
friend” glows on the page because it turned out
to be the truth. It’s appropriate to ding
Lafayette for the casual cruelty with which he abandoned his
family, rolled the eyes a bit at his retro quest for fame or
envy his outlandish optimism. But none of that negates
the fact that he turned out to be the best
friend America ever had. And I’m not only referring to his
youthful daring due on battlefields up and down the eastern seaboard,
I’m also referring to any number of his dull, grownup
kindnesses later on, such as assisting Thomas Jefferson,
the United States Minister to France in the 1780s in opening up
French markets to American goods. Lafayette’s lobbying procured
Nantucket whalers the contract the whale oil that lit the
streetlights of Paris. Because of Lafayette,
the City of Lights glowed by New England’s boiled blubber
and to say thanks for getting– and to say thanks for
getting them the gig, all Nantucket rallied its milk cows to send him a giant
wheel of cheese– [ Laughter ] — as gratitude. [ Laughter ] That’s so American, “Let’s
send cheese to France, OK.” [ Laughter ] So finally after his two-month
voyage on his ship, the Victory, which he called, you know, floating
on this dreary plane, they– he– they came ashore in Charleston
around midnight on June 13th, 1777, waking up the household that
made your Benjamin Huger of the South Carolina militia. And that’s where they stayed
and Lafayette wrote later, “I retired to rest that
night, rejoicing that I had at last attained the
haven of my dreams.” He went on to gush, “The
next morning was beautiful. Everything around me was new to me. The room, the bed draped in
delicate mosquito curtains, the black servants who came to
me quietly to ask my commands, the strange new beauty of the
landscape outside my windows, the luxuriant vegetation, all combined to produce
a magical effect.” In other words, it was a buggy
swamp, chock-full of slaves, but Lafayette was in love. So, he and his men, they basically–
they started out in carriages and then in the back of horses,
and by the end, they’re basically like walking to Philadelphia,
where he’s going to what became Independence
Hall and, you know, to announce, “Here I am.” And, you know, he expected
a warm welcome. The moment, Lafayette recalled, was
peculiarly unfavorable to strangers. I don’t relate to that at all. The Americans were displeased
with the pretensions and disgusted with the conduct of many Frenchmen. Consequently, he wrote, “The
Congress finally adapted the plan of not listening to any stranger.” So when Lafayette and his
friends called at the state house, then the moniker of Independence
Hall Congressman James Level of Massachusetts shooed
them away, snarling, “It seems that French
officers have a great fancy to enter our service
without being invited.” But most of them, including
Lafayette, had been invited by American agents in France, hence
the strongest of irks in Frenchmen who had been washing
ashore for months, expecting to be welcomed
with rank and riches. So, also, I should
mention at this moment, Europe is uncharacteristically
at peace, and so all of these European
officers, especially Frenchmen, come over in Droves, wanting a job. And Washington, who was always
in need of men, wasn’t excited about these particular men because he said they have no
attachment nor ties to the country and he bemoaned their ignorance
of our language and he pointed out that American officers
would be disgusted if foreigners were
put over their heads. And so that’s exactly what happened
right before Lafayette arrived, this other French guy, his
name was Philippe du Coudray and he was a French veteran of
the seven years war and he showed up in Philadelphia a month before
Lafayette did, saying, “Here I am. I’m, you know, a big wig
at,” I’m paraphrasing, “a big wig at the 16th court and I’m the greatest renowned
authority on artillery in France.” And what he was, was
a wine merchant’s son who had maybe seen a few cannons
and– but he shows up and he says, “I deserve to be your
artillery chief.” And so, it turns out that replacing
the continental army’s beloved chief artillery officer, Henry Knox,
was not as easy and arbitrary as bewitched casting a [inaudible] because Henry Knox
was the revolution. Born in Boston in 1759,
the Irish immigrants, Knox dropped out of school to
support his mother and siblings after his father’s death,
apprenticing at a bookbinder and he eventually opened his own
bookstore, the London Bookstore. And after the Coercive Acts
of 1774, this was really hard on pretty much all of the colonists
but especially its merchants and especially Knox as a bookseller. They had closed the port
and he couldn’t get any of the books he was selling
from England and, you know, the colonists were boycotting
stuff from England anyway. So those acts, the intolerable
acts, they were supposed to serve as a warning to all the
other colonies and meant to slap Massachusetts
into submission, but what happened was it further
radicalized an already radical Massachusetts and rallied
the other colonies to come to its material and political aid. So Henry Knox, meanwhile, he had
wooed the royal governor’s daughter, Lucy Flucker, great name, and
he had joined a local militia, the Boston grenadiers
and then shots were fired in Lexington and Concord in 1775. So Knox leaves his, you know,
failing bookstore in the hands of his brother, throws
in with the militias. And then when Washington is
appointed the new commander-in-chief of the continental army and
he shows up and he, you know, he’s telling the soldiers, “We should have no more sectional
rivalries, we’re all one country,” when privately, you know,
he’s writing to his crony back in Virginia, “These
people are stupid, especially the Massachusetts men. You know, it’s still
a work in progress.” But then– And at that time, you
know, Boston was under siege. The British had occupied
the peninsula of Boston and their navy controlled
the harbor, and they were just
resupplying the cities with provisions shipped
down from Canada. These are– This is me– These are
the maps I’m drawing in my mind. I just assume you can see them. So the patriots– but the patriots
had them surrounded but they– to break this stalemate,
they needed weapons. And then they got the good
news that Ethan Allen Clark and Benedict Arnold and their people
had captured Fort Ticonderoga, where there were all these
artillery, cannons and mortars and howitzers, you
know, 300 miles away. And Henry Knox, the
bookseller, you know, he’s like 26 I think at this point. He goes up to Washington and says, “How about I go get all them
weapons and– 300 miles away?” And Washington’s like, “Yeah, sure. Go ahead, bookstore owner.” And– [ Laughter ] And he did it. He and his brother, Henry Knox and
his brother set off for New York in November, I think it was. And then by January, they had
returned with 43 cannons, 14 mortars and two howitzers dragged
across frozen rivers and over the snowy Berkshire
Mountains by oxen on custom sleds. Now this is the derivation
of that old Yankee proverb that if you can sell a
book, you can move 60 tons of weaponry 300 miles in winter. And then, you know, Washington,
like has all these artillery moved up on the hill of Dorchester
Heights and then the British wake up and see all these cannons
pointing down at them and they promptly hightail
it to Canada. And that’s how Henry Knox became
the chief artillery officer of the continental army. He got the actual cannons. He actually got the artillery
and then he had trained and recruited all the
other artillery officers. So, everybody liked him and thought
he was doing a pretty good job. And so when this French
guy shows up and says, “I’m your new artillery
chief,” there is a big flip out amongst the men in–
officers of the continental army and so that’s sort of the, you
know, that’s the environment that Lafayette walked into. Luckily, the French guy
had the decency to– he and his horse were
crossing the Delaware River and he drowned, the horse lived. So, everything was fine and
then it’s a win-win, you know. So that’s what Lafayette
walked into. The thing is, the reason
that the colonists, especially their leadership,
the Congress and Washington and his highest ranking officers
are in this weird position with the French and all of these
French noblemen, Lafayette included, is all they want to do, you
know, because they’re basically– they just want what any
self-respecting terrorist wants, they want to become a
state-sponsored terrorist and they’re just waiting for the
king of France to give them money and guns and support in
his army and his navy and that’s how they won
the war, eventually. So they take Lafayette on because
Ben Franklin sends this letter, you know, like this–
again, I’m paraphrasing, “This kid is a really
big deal, be nice to him, I haven’t finished shaking
down the French government.” And so they make Lafayette a major
general, that’s what he was called. He’s basically a glorified
intern until he proves himself. And then, you know, so he gets–
finally, he gets his commission and then a few days later,
he meets George Washington and [noise] you know, Washington
was, you know, 6 foot 4 inches tall, and he historically makes a
big impression on Lafayette, Lafayette was so star-struck
when he meets Washington. He wrote, “It was impossible
to mistake for a moment his majestic
figure and deportment, nor was he less distinguished by
the noble affability of his manner, which is a sweet memory but it does
get on my nerves how easy it is for tall people to make
a good first impression.” [ Laughter and Applause ] Unfortunately, because
of a scheduling mishap, we can’t be at Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s
presentation next door. I’m just going to go
out on a limb and say, “Everybody loves Kareem
Abdul-Jabbar.” [ Laughter ] I do love Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. So anyway, he joins that. And Washington, he slowly,
you know, grows on Washington because he’s just so gung-ho. Washington, all– the whole war,
all his men are deserting in Droves and here’s this kid, this French kid
who’s just the whole war is like, “Put me in, coach.” And– [ Laughter ] And when Washington,
you know, says, “OK, you can join my military family,”
which was lingo of the day to basically Washington is
saying, “OK, you can become one of my minions,” you know, like the
way Alexander Hamilton was described as a member of Washington’s
military family. But remember, Lafayette is an– he was an orphan and when Washington
said family, he meant minion but what Lafayette heard was son. Then, you know, high jinks ensue. [ Laughter ] So I guess I will take some
questions if you have them. There are these microphones
set up here. Yeah, let’s get cracking. [ Laughter ]>>Speaker 2: Hi. I was wondering when I read the
book, if you’d seen the show “Hamilton” and what you thought
about the portrayal of Lafayette.>>Sarah Vowell: If
you didn’t hear that, the question was about Hamilton. [ Laughter and Applause ] Have I seen Hamilton and what do I
think of the portrayal of Lafayette. I’ve seen Hamilton, I obviously
love Hamilton, even though there’s so much Hamilton and Hamilton. Obviously, the– you know
who would love the Lafayette in Hamilton is Lafayette, who
was just a publicity whore and, you know, the fact that
he is, you know, so– comes often so charming and
chivalrous and is such a good dancer with such wonderful hair. Lafayette was already
going bald at 19. You know, there– the last time
I saw it, there was an empty seat in front of me and for some reason,
I just kept picturing Lafayette in it and he– you know, he was just
have been swooning the whole time. It is interesting though like
one thing about that show, especially because of
the casting and the– this wasn’t in one of your
question but I have been thinking about it later– lately
because people have some qualms about the founding fathers, especially the ones
who owned other people. And there are some people
lately who want to disregard all of their accomplishments
and I can understand that. Well, one way you get past
that is make Washington black, which I’m definitely
doing next time. [ Laughter ] It’s such a good idea. We should have done that. That should have been
our original casting, Washington should have been black. Yes.>>Speaker 3: Yeah. In today’s, I guess the
mass recording that goes on, everybody’s lives is so
archived, how do you think that will affect our look at
today’s events as a historian, how do you think that will change?>>Sarah Vowell: Everybody’s
lives today are so archived?>>Speaker 3: Right, just with
like television, social media, everything is out there and like
very intimate thoughts are posted for everyone to see, how do you
think that would affect your job as a historian looking
back, or would it change?>>Sarah Vowell: I mean, I
guess the NSA is archiving a lot of stuff, right? I mean, my bread and butter in a lot
of these books is letters, you know, letters on paper that you have to
put on white gloves to look at. I think if things are being
saved, then that’s good. And I mean, one thing about– that will I think be of use to
future historians is that for better or worse, people nowadays
are pretty forthcoming about everything, you know? Like sometimes it’s
really hard to figure out like what Washington
was thinking. I mean, his wife burned up almost
all of their letters upon his death and they’re a little cagy
and tactful and they leave out private things
because those are private. I guess one advantage of
this world we live in, how people are documenting every
omelet and aspect of their day, I’m guessing I’m not on social
media but I hear the jokes about it. I guess that would be helpful,
especially if you’re some kind of a social historian,
where your job was to figure out what people ate, all
you’d have to go is like look at all these food blogs and Twitter
and everything and you could see, you know, like, “Oh, people eat a
lot of goat cheese,” I don’t know.>>Speaker 3: Right, right.>>Sarah Vowell: But
I mean, there is– But I think because communication
is so constant, there’s maybe less of that grandeur, you
know, like if I’m– like George Washington
was painfully aware that everything he was
doing was basically– especially as president that he
was inventing the presidency. And so he wrote these letters
with such care to, you know, he was writing to the person but he’s also writing
to us, to posterity. And you know, I don’t really do that when I’m just emailing my
friend Sherm [assumed spelling], so. I think like with the letters,
because they were more formal, but also he got the best
of these people, you know? And maybe we’re not
always at our best in our electronic communication,
I’m not. Yes?>>Speaker 4: Hi, Sarah. I’m with the American Friends
of Lafayette, where 400 strong–>>Sarah Vowell: Oh,
you people, yeah. [ Laughter ]>>Speaker 4: Thank you for
bringing our hero to the forefront. I appreciate you very much.>>Sarah Vowell: Oh, that’s
all, that’s why I did it.>>Speaker 4: I know, I know.>>Sarah Vowell: I would
have done it for free.>>Speaker 4: We bought your book. So, he’s sometimes– Lafayette
is criticized for being– doing things for the
glory of it, not for the– why the reason, the purest reasons.>>Sarah Vowell: Mm-hmm.>>Speaker 4: But back in the 18th
century, was that such a bad thing, doing it just for the glory?>>Sarah Vowell: Just for the glory? No, I don’t think so. I mean, if we’re going to condemn
all historical figures who, you know, may– who
accomplished their accomplishments because what they wanted
was glory, that wipes out– everyone, maybe Mother Teresa but she got a lot oppressed
too, you know? I mean, if you’re doing good things, I don’t really care what
your motives are that much. I mean, there is something
about Lafayette, he’s such a boy, you
know what I mean? He’s 19. And I mean,
it is kind of bad form to abandon your pregnant
teenage wife.>>Speaker 4: There’s that.>>Sarah Vowell: So I can’t
overlook those things. But I mean, his glory,
that was part– this like his quest
for glory was part of what fueled his accomplishments
and one of the reasons he was so valuable to Washington and the
American cause was that he was so gung-ho, he was so
brave, he, you know, didn’t care about his
own personal safety. When he was wounded at the Battle
of Brandywine, he was supposed to be recuperating but he, you
know, gets up, wraps his bum leg in a blanket and rides
back to the front. And I mean, he’s kind of reminds
you of like what Lincoln said about Grant, and like for Washington like he needed him,
he fought, you know? So, all of that glory whoring, it
had a very, very practical outcome, you know, it wasn’t just
that he wanted the glory and he certainly loved it. And when he came back as an old man
in 1824, I mean, he just loved– it was just a love fest for
over a year of people talking about how much they loved
him and so happy he was back. So yeah, he wanted glory
but he– you know, he– as they say in Hamilton,
immigrants, they get things done. Like he got things done, you know? His glory was based on achievement. It was based on spilled
blood and sweat and, you know, the old college try. It wasn’t like getting
glory for, I don’t know, what do people get glory for now? It has to do with Twitter, I think, not that that isn’t
an accomplishment. But, you know what I mean.>>Speaker 4: Yes, I do. Thank you very much.>>Sarah Vowell: Yeah. Hi.>>Speaker 5: Hey there. OK, so you’ve written a lot about
historical folk heroes and also about our American rogues
and it seems like you tend to enjoy the lives
of the rogues more.>>Sarah Vowell: The
life of the what?>>Speaker 5: The rogue.>>Sarah Vowell: The rogue?>>Speaker 5: Yes, you know?>>Sarah Vowell: Oh, the rogue.>>Speaker 5: The ones
going out on their own–>>Sarah Vowell: Mm-hmm.>>Speaker 5: — history’s
bad boys–>>Sarah Vowell: Mm-hmm.>>Speaker 5: — or girls.>>Sarah Vowell: Right.>>Speaker 5: I was just
wondering if you had a favorite.>>Sarah Vowell: Oh,
if I have a favorite of anyone I’ve written about? I mean, rogues, yeah, I mean, that’s
what I was saying at the beginning. I do write about the misfits.>>Speaker 5: Mm-hmm.>>Sarah Vowell: I have a
soft spot for a lot of them, even the unlikable ones, maybe especially the
unlikable ones, you know? I was– I subscribed to the digital
Washington Post and I’m sure if all of you do, you woke up to an email
from them as you do every morning and it said, the headline
was “Is she likable?” I’m not sure who they
were talking about. [ Laughter ] But I mean, in my opinion,
likable can be kind of overrated. I mean, one of my favorite people
to write about was Roger Williams, who was a Puritan theologian,
likable already, right? And he comes to Boston, to
the Massachusetts Bay colony and they offer him the job of
being the minister in Boston, which as Puritan jobs go,
that’s the one you want. And he turned them down because he– basically, he found them
not Puritanical enough. And he– they kicked him out
of Massachusetts basically because they just wanted him
to calm down about religion. The Puritans wanted him to
calm down about religion. And he’s just this annoying person
who was constantly haranguing them and so they boot him out and
he– another misfit leaving home, he goes to Rhode Island and
founds Rhode Island and for a lot of non-hippie-dippie reasons,
basically establishes freedom of religion in Rhode Island. Not because he thinks
everyone’s beliefs are valid but because he feels like
pretty much everyone except for his wife is going to hell
for what they believe and maybe that should be punishment enough. And so, everyone– so Rhode Island
becomes this bastion of misfits, Jews, Baptists, Quakers, you
know, so like Roger Williams, he thought the Quakers had
the right to live there. He spent– One time, he spent three
days debating them to the extent that I think they wanted
to kill themselves. But meanwhile, you know, back
in– back home in Massachusetts, Quakers are actually being
hanged on Boston Common. So, he’s a very weird,
unlikable, annoying person but I found him sometimes
hard to like but very easy to love, you know? So, people can do great things and maybe you don’t want
to have lunch with them. [ Laughter ]>>Speaker 5: Thank you.>>SarahVowell: Yes. Yeah?>>Speaker 6: I love reading
the books for the history and then I love also the
side johns you take to places like Bruce Springsteen’s
boyhood home and what you learn and then the correspondence
and all that you delve into. And I was wondering if when you were
like writing people like Lafayette and Winthrop, do you think of a– do you know what their
theme song would be? Like are you– do you get
that in your mind when you–>>Sarah Vowell: The– What
their theme song would be?>>Speaker 6: Yeah, or if you
could give them a theme song? Or not together–>>Sarah Vowell: I mean, I don’t
know about that but generally, the books have theme songs for me. Like this one, for some
reason, I always wanted to put on Pete Seeger’s version of
“Oh Shenandoah”, you know? For some reason, it’s like I
just– it like adheres to the– like that passage I read, what Lafayette thinks
America is going to be like. There’s something in the
way he sings that song like that’s the country that
they were trying to build and that’s the one I
would like to live in. When I was writing about the
Puritans, I had three songs that I would always put on because
they were, you know, leaving home and they had these ideals. And one of them was
the– what was it? Oh, the Mormon Tabernacle
Choir’s version of “Bound for the Promised Land” the other
was Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land” and Springsteen’s “Promised
Land” because it was all about– it was not what they were doing, it
was al about promise and the future, and it had this kind
of biblical overtones. Yeah. Yes?>>Speaker 7: Oh, hello. I love the dirt of history,
especially George Washington.>>Sarah Vowell: The dirt? Is that what you said?>>Speaker 7: Yeah,
the dirt of history.>>Sarah Vowell: Mm-hmm.>>Speaker 7: And George Washington, the hero of Fort Necessity,
woohoo, go George. But he was overall
a marginal general. His men hated him, except
for his officer corps. So what influence did
Lafayette have on him?>>Sarah Vowell: What influence
did Lafayette have on Washington?>>Speaker 7: Without Lafayette, the Battle of York Town
is a whole other story.>>Sarah Vowell: I mean, I think
one– I mean, for one thing, Lafayette just bucked up Washington. For most of the war, Washington was
about to get fired and sometimes for cause, you know, but
Lafayette was always on his side. And whenever, you know, these
conspiracies arose to get rid of Washington, Lafayette
was the one saying like, “These people are idiots, you’re
one for the ages,” so there’s that. I think it was just like
keeping Washington going. And like Washington keeping going
was kind of the key to that war, like just his endurance, just
putting up with it, sticking it out. And so I think there
is that influence. Also, Lafayette was a
pretty fervent abolitionist. And well– And so, he could have
influenced Washington’s decision to have some of his
own slaves, Washington, to have some his own
slaves freed upon his death. There’s thought about that. But I would say, mostly,
it was moral support. So, I don’t know if you have
a friend like that who– whatever, when you’re down,
they’re the one who bucks you up. I think that’s who
Lafayette was for Washington. I only have time for one question because someone else
is coming in here next. You two, which one do you
think has the better question? [ Laughter ] He says you have the
better question, that makes me want
to hear his question. But you can ask me
your question after. I just have to later physically
remove myself from this podium, OK.>>Speaker 8: You talked about Lafayette’s coming
back to America in 1824. Can you tell a little bit about
the reason why almost every city in America at that time named
something after Lafayette? What impact did he have on
America that caused that?>>Sarah Vowell: Yes and yeah, in
fact, great question to end on. I made the right choice. Thank you. Yes, when Lafayette came
back in 1824 and ’25, that 13-month victory lap around
the country where he went to all of the states, that is the origin
for how all these states and– not states but cities and counties
and warships and horses and babies and streets and parks got
named after Lafayette. And I think speaking in Washington,
DC, it’s worth remembering that the most meaningful
of any of these, no offense to Lafayette Ronald
Hubbard, is Lafayette Park across from the White House
because this is kind of our capital of protests and this is where we, the people go to yell
at our presidents. And I mean, I was kidding about
Lafayette being an only child but one of the most
only-child things he says was– we’ll forget the context because we
don’t have time but Lafayette said, “I did not hesitate
to be disagreeable to preserve my independence.” And so, I think Lafayette
Park or Lafayette Square, as it’s also called,
embodies that spirit. And even though beat
ourselves up in this country for how much bickering there is, how
we can’t get along, I think it’s– that is annoying and time-consuming but it is also the
source of our greatness. And the fact that we have this place
across the street from our head of government’s house, where people
as George H.W. Bush said would like beat those damn drums while
I was trying to have dinner, I think this is something
that we, as a people, and you and your city should
be enormously proud of. And I think the fact that
it’s named after Lafayette, I think that would probably be,
to him, is the greatest honor. That– And I think it is too. Good night. [ Applause ]>>Speaker 1: This has
been a presentation of the Library of Congress. Visit us at loc.gov.

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